Let me set the record straight: Gaspar Noé is the real deal. Is he excessive? Yes. Manipulative? Sure. Pretentious? Absolutely. But, he’s also one of the most exciting filmmakers on the planet. I could not have said that strictly on the basis of his first feature, “I Stand Alone”. While I liked that film enough, though far less than many, I was left merely repulsed by the main character, one of the most fiendishly vile and revolting movie creations ever conceived. Of course, I’m sure this was exactly Noé’s intent: to turn the viewer off, waaaay off. In that respect, Noé triumphed, but to what end? Well, his latest cinematic assault on the senses, “Irreversible”, still wants to shock you and then, most shocking of all, aims to move you.
By now, everyone’s heard about the Most Disturbing Murder Scene in movie history. And if they haven’t, then they’ve surely heard about the Most Disturbing Rape Scene in movie history, which shortly follows it. Are these scenes really that intense? In the case of the former, I’d say no. In the case of the latter, I’d say probably yes. But the fact that these two scenes are the subjects of so much controversy among the many walkouts, only attests to the film’s effectiveness. It’s akin to the response stirred by “Pulp Fiction”, which contained far less on-screen violence than what most people actually remember. Because that film was so suggestive of its absurdist brutality and so brilliantly sustained this mood throughout its length, it left a vivid memory of a much bloodier ride. Okay, so maybe “Irreversible” isn’t quite as “suggestive”. Yet Noé shows us what he does, the way he does, because these events are so integral to the entire film, everything revolves around them (or builds up to them as it may be). And while the first half of “Irreversible” is far more graphic than anything in “Pulp”, it is really the insanely delirious atmosphere Noé conjures that gives the film its rabies infected bite. The camera work is all thrashing savagery, the music apocalyptic dread, the lighting bloody red, the setting the bowels of hell (literally), and the sanity long excreted. Noé’s build-up to the violence that follows is thrilling, visceral cinema, no matter what your personal tastes. Early on it’s apparent, this film is alive, dangerously so.
The minimalist, reverse-order plot begins in a gay nightclub called the Rectum (get it?), where two men frantically search for a pimp named Le Tenia. When the two men, Marcus and Pierre (Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel respectively), find the guy, they beat him so badly his face literally caves in. The film then backtracks to show the reason for this heinous act: Marcus was seeking revenge for the brutal rape of Alex (Monica Belluci), his girlfriend. Once these two little pills are swallowed, the film gets progressively lighter, both in tone and look. We see the couple earlier that night at a party, then on a subway to that party, and then frolicking about naked at home. By the film’s end, actually the beginning (chronologically), the world has completely flipped and hope is in the air.
One of the few things everyone agrees on about this film is the heroic performance of Ms. Belluci. As sleight as it may be, given the film’s shortness and Noe’s frequent overindulgences, Belluci’s performance is simply astonishing from start to finish. Her devotion to this role and absolute fearlessness are to be commended. Not only that, but Noé knows just how to use her. His film becomes that much more tragic when the cinema’s most luminous creature is dragged through the dark underpasses of hell and befouled by Satan himself.
I won’t lie; this movie is NOT for everyone. It is only for those with strong stomachs and an appetite for seriously subversive fare. This is not pornography. This is not crass exploitation. In fact, it is the furthest thing from it. I believe Noé’s intentions are pure, though not especially profound. The entire film can be summed up by the statement, “Time destroys all things”, which bookends the film. So maybe Noé doesn’t have much to say, so what? “Irreversible” is so exhilarating, and at the same time so terrifying, that it shakes the stigma of ‘style over substance’. If this is pretentious, please give me more. Ban all things French if you must, but when it comes to the current bounty of groundbreaking Gallic cinema, from Noé to Denis to Breillat, keep it coming! (All this, and I haven’t even mentioned the opening credits, which are an experience unto themselves.)