Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Darkness Has No Need: Irreversible (2002)

Writer Stephen King once stated that he believed director Stanley Kubrick wanted to hurt viewers with his film adaptation of The Shining (1980). King was wrong. Kubrick simply wanted to make an effective piece of horror cinema. Director Gaspar Noe, on the other hand, does want to hurt you. Bad. He also wants to incite a riot within your head, and make you think about the representations of violence perpetrated across the screen. In his first feature film, I Stand Alone (1998), Noe examined the life of a jingoistic, racist French butcher (played by Philippe Nahon) who stalked the streets of Paris looking for his soul and that of his country’s. Being that the butcher was a certifiable lunatic, the search didn’t come easy and the fate awaiting him was a dark one indeed. The film’s seemingly nihilistic flourishes and thematic concerns revolted some viewers; others felt that Noe was merely a talented poseur more inclined toward empty shock tactics than real in-depth character analysis. I found the film unforgettable and a bold, ugly character study that examined, perhaps too well, that of the racist paranoid psychopath. For those of you who hated I Stand Alone, I would suggest staying clear of Noe’s next feature, Irreversible.

Ostensibly, the film is a simple (albeit a horrendously savage) revenge tale. But underneath the fa├žade of stylistic shock and awe is a darkly poignant character study of a relationship spiraling off into the black abyss. Told in reverse fashion, the film propels the viewer into a sickly claustrophobic noir universe where two men, Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel), are being led out of a sleazy gay sex club where a horrendous killing has taken place -- the victim, the alleged rapist of Marcus’ girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci). Noe then takes us into the bowels of the club (named the Rectum) where we experience the atrocious killing, and then the events leading up to the death, including the catalyst for the revenge: the rape of Alex by a gay pimp called Le Tenia (Jo Prestia). The first half of the film is honestly some of the most excruciating, uncomfortable cinema I’ve ever witnessed, and this is coming from someone who has sat through Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust numerous times and Jorg Buttgereit’s blackly-comedic transgressive horror films. Like I already said, Gaspar Noe wants to hurt you bad. The pain of the rape is even more powerful when we consider what occurs before it –- the hours of mundane bliss that Marcus and Alex spend with one another. Their conversations, laughter, and intimacies carry an added weight to them that would’ve gone unnoticed or ignored if the film had been presented in a traditional linear manner. As it is, these moments of domestic banality carry with them an emotional context that removes the film from simple exploitation. In fact, although the film’s characters are all arguably doomed to fates of oblivion (hence the title), Noe does not expunge morality from his nihilistic representations. If anything, Irreversible is one of the most savagely moralistic films in recent memory.

Although I highly recommend the film, the recommendation comes with strong reservations. The almost unwatchable power of the film’s two most infamous scenes (the death of the man within the nightclub by having his head and face smashed in with a fire-extinguisher, and the rape of Alex by Le Tenia in a deserted Metro pedestrian tunnel, a scene that lasts an excruciating nine minutes) cannot be overstated enough. But the performances (most of them improvised) by the three leads are exceptional, and Noe’s bravura, disorienting camera movements, which are integral to the first part of the film as the camera tries to replicate the drunken-drug-fueled rage of Marcus and Pierre (undercut with a disturbing electronic throb courtesy of Thomas Bangalter), is nothing short of magnificent. For technique alone, Noe is undoubtedly one of the finest stylists working in film today. But thankfully, the film is not style without substance. You may not like what Noe is trying to say, but there is a method to his madness. It may not be the most original or uplifting outcome, but it is unforgettable. Sadly, some denizens of Nightmare Town are sentenced to wandering its streets forever.

It should also be noted that the film plays like a volume-eleven tribute/rebuttal to Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999). But where Kubrick’s film allowed his married couple a chance out of their tribulations with an invitation for redemption through fucking, Noe offers his couple something far more fucked-up and psychologically impenetrable. Also, tying-in with the Kubrick homage, Noe has placed a poster of the “Starchild” from 2001: A Space Odyssey above Marcus and Alex’s bed. The film also ends/begins with a strobe-light effect that subliminally flashes an image of the Milky Way –- a cosmic umbilical cord connecting Noe to his “Starchild” cinematic predecessor. Perhaps an optimistic coda after all.

Irreversible is on DVD from Lion’s Gate Home Video.

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