When reviewing director Gaspar Noé's blistering, brilliant I Stand Alone in 1999, I quoted an anecdote by director Paul Schrader. Though relevant to the movie then, it's even more relevant to Noé now, and makes one wonder if Schrader was discussing the seeds of Noé's picture Irreversible.
"I had an interesting lunch recently with a French director named Gaspar Noé who wanted to do a film with me, something with violence and pornography and all that. And I said to him, 'I don't think anyone's shockable anymore.'"
Schrader, who penned Taxi Driver (an obvious influence for I Stand Alone) and directed the underrated, though un-even sex and violence Bob Crane bio-pic Auto Focus, was off the mark. For Noé's Irreversible not only shocked people, but also made some faint. Noé, heavily influenced by the '70s cinema Schrader emerged from, has notched another level to that generation's savage filmmakers, becoming something of a ferocious son to Scorsese, Peckinpah, and others—a new spawn ready to out-do them all.
But that's not all Noé is seeking. And not that Noé has bettered them. But like his influences, he does have something to say. With Irreversible, he starts out screaming.
Like Memento, the film is told chronologically backwards, but without the Chinese puzzle mystery. The story, explained forward here, is this: Alex (Monica Bellucci) leaves her inebriated boyfriend, Marcus (Vincent Cassel) at a Paris party when his obnoxious behavior is too much for her. She walks into an underpass, where she is raped, and pummeled into a coma. When Marcus finds out later that night, he searches frantically for Alex's rapist with Alex's ex-boyfriend, Pierre (Albert Dupontel) in tow. They enter a gay nightclub called (this is so very Noé) "The Rectum" and maniacally yell at scores of tied-up S&M fetishists, demanding to know where the rapist is. Marcus, shown as the more primitive man (he's even called an "ape" by Pierre at one point) seems to fuel the more intellectual and gentle Pierre, who then kills a man he thinks the rapist. But after bashing him repeatedly in the head with a fire extinguisher, he's murdered the wrong guy. Again, Noé shows all this backwards, and by the time the viewer gets past the sex club and the rape and into the early, more innocent times, its barely enjoyable. Though in love, nothing can undo the doom of Alex and Marcus—it is, as the title not so subtly states Irreversible.
Much was made of Alex's rape scene, which, running nine minutes in a static shot, is unbearably painful. Some viewers and critics found it exploitive, offensive and or unnecessary brutal. It is brutal, but then, rape is brutal. Critics also attacked the use of Bellucci, a beautiful actress (as if beautiful women aren't raped) and how certain men will gaze at her sexually while she undergoes this horror. Perhaps some men will (how can that be controlled?), but the violence she meets after the rape, where her beauty is destroyed, addresses these potential desires. If turned on, how do the titillated feel now?
What makes the rape so intriguing (if one should call it that) and necessary in its stylistic placement is what happens before it. In the club, where Marcus seeks, with no catharsis, vengeance for his girlfriend, the camera swirls, the lighting murky, the soundtrack oppressively unpleasant (Noé said he spiked the soundtrack with a low frequency crowd control police siren that causes nausea and vomiting) making the audience strain to see what's happening. But when the rape occurs, it's created to make one look away, hence depicting two differently filmed versions of wide-awake nightmares. Which is worse, feeling a visceral scene so intensely that you might become sick? Or staring at a scene so horrific that you feel guilty? Challenging notions of watching sex and violence in cinema with a unique compare and contrast of unpleasantly, one has a hard time knowing exactly what to feel-but Noé is a good enough filmmaker to create something other than simple shock. There's much more beyond this-Noé is being aggressively philosophical. As the film proclaims: "Time destroys all things."
But that created further lobs pitted against the filmmaker. Noé was accused of ponderous "adolescence," particularly with his long-standing fascination with Nietzsche (as if reading the German existentialist should only be a youthful phase, something David O. Russell has also been, stupidly, taken to task for with I Heart Huckabees). This seems particularly unfair since many films dealing with existential themes (like film noir) or the primal urges of man have been met with reverence. Think of John Boorman's Deliverance where similar points were dissected—an almost unwatchable rape scene, an immersion to the primal, and a non-cathartic act of vengeance (if you remember, John Voight is confused about whether he killed the wrong man involved in the rape scenario). Either people could handle such things in the '70s, or Irreversible is dressed so stylish and so fiercely (indeed, some may think the entire film feels like the Deliverance rape scene), that it offends many with its William Castle-ish jolts of sensation and morbid sense of humor.
But Irreversible isn't merely depraved ballyhoo. It also contains touching moments of tenderness, as it winds backward showing the lovers before their tragedies. It's tough that its nearly impossible to relish their moments without knowing the portent of destruction, but it also highlights how delicate and fleeting these instances can be. Like Thomas Hardy and his darkest novels, Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, these characters are locked in their fate and their actions, even innocent, will propel them into a horror movie. However, to look at Noé positively, he could be saying, "Appreciate life at the moment. Time may destroy all things, but the time is now."
Though many people will not necessarily like Irreversible, it's a film that causes introspection, whether one thinks about the actual themes of the movie or one's own reaction to it (I think Noé wants viewer's to consider both options). Like Japanese shock maestro Takashi Miike, Noé is technically brilliant (and even that is used against him) and deserving of more consideration, past his ability to disturb. But Noé pisses people off, offending those simply by his film's subject matter or offending those by his in your face can-you-take-it approach. It's as if some critic's feel bullied by Noé, that if they reveal their distaste, they'll be unveiled as cinematic pussies. But I think there's much more to Noé than the creepiest guy on the playground. He's applying philosophy to film, in beautifully crafting pictures he wants to make. Feral yet eloquent, Irreversible is a work of painful, vicious poetry.