Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Future is Now: The Good, The Bad, and The Irreversible

If ever there was a movie for which the phrase "Your reputation precedes you" has applied, Irreversible is it. Written and directed by Gaspar Noé and released back in the halcyon days of 2002 in complete defiance of all that was ever considered good and holy, Irreversible quickly established itself in the cinematic cannon among cinephiles of all varieties, amateur and professional alike, as a rite of passage. Especially in the circles in which I travelled, it was considered required viewing, on par with other emerging and cult classics like Memento and Donnie Darko, part of a dark ritual of initiation. For whatever reason, it was a rite that I had never performed until fifteen years after the fact, even delaying nearly a year after picking up a used copy of the DVD (in pristine condition) at a local shop that deals in such wares.

Well, it wasn't for whatever reason. Irreversible is known for two things even by people who have never seen it: the reverse chronological structure of the narrative and that scene. You know, the scene where Monica Bellucci is brutally raped. Yeah, that scene.

I'm usually not squeamish when it comes to all varieties of fucked up shit portrayed in cinema. But something about Irreversible curled itself around my brain and wouldn't let go. As is usually the case with these things, my mind took those small kernels, planted them in the fertile earth of my imagination, watered them with ambiguity, and watched the Legend grow.

Then the rationalizations started. What would the purpose of watching such a horrific act of violence in vivid detail be? How would I be able to reconcile one of the most beautiful women to have ever graced this fine planet of ours with one of the most vile acts of human depravity ever conceived, or in other words, what would it mean if my erection persisted while watching Monica Bellucci's character get raped on-screen? Most likely nothing, but I was looking for excuses to avoid pitting myself against Irreversible, a contest I was sure to lose.

Like most monsters, this was one of my own creation, and once confronted, paled in comparison to the idea of the thing. I wouldn't necessarily argue that any work of art is necessary, but Irreversible is undeniably significant.

Ha, ha... Yeah, it's super funny how you're fucking my
ex-girlfriend and that you can sexually satisfy her in ways
I never could... We really should do this more often, guys.
Irreversible is a revenge flick told in reverse, with Marcus (Vincent Cassel) exacting brutal (though, as it turns out, misplaced) revenge for his girlfriend Alex's (Monica Bellucci) rape with the help of Pierre (Albert Dupontel), Alex's permanently friend-zoned ex-boyfriend who she and Marcus still hang out with and openly discuss who was better able to bring her to orgasm. (French relationships are complicated.) The movie works backward from the beginning/end with gruesome revenge that involves caving in a man's head with a fire extinguisher to the brutal rape that inspired the revenge to to the end/beginning of hanging out naked and getting ready for a party. The narrative really hinges around Alex's rape, which acts as both motivation for the revenge and juxtaposition to the near-pastoral, or at least youthfully naive, lives of Alex and Marcus.

The rape scene is not only significant narratively, but serves a much more important purpose. What Irreversible did by showing the uncut, roughly ten-minute rape in all of its dehumanizing horror was to take all of the mystique out of the act. It's a weird thing to say, but portrayals of rape are often trivialized, often by well-intentioned people. Too often in narratives it is glossed over and is often the mark of the lazy or unimaginative writing when trying to flesh out the narrative arc of a female character. Not every woman in every story has a background involving rape, but the trope is overused to a ridiculous degree, usually without delving too deeply into the actual implications.

Typically, depictions of rape in TV and film are very sanitized. That isn't to say that any time the subject is tackled that we need to show every agonizing second of the act. The sanitization has less to do with the onscreen depiction and more to do with how the consequences are addressed. Irreversible's unflinching depiction of a violent rape and assault forces us to confront the complete and total ugliness of the thing. There's nowhere else to look. There is no way to ignore it. The audience is forced to confront it in a way that media typically doesn't ask us to.

This depiction shines a light (metaphorically speaking) on an incredibly heinous crime and forces us to consider the implications not just for the characters but also in a larger social context. To really drive home the point about violence against women in particular, the entire thing takes place in an underground tunnel, an obvious yonic image, to really drive home the level of violation. It would be the equivalent of showing a man getting castrated in the city's tallest tower while the top two floors get demolished (most likely by Bruce Willis fighting terrorists).

Alex's rape is an affront on the viewer. We're meant to feel the full impact of it, feel that weight dragging us down. The violence against Alex is pivotal not only thematically but also narratively. The name of the game in the case of Irreversible is tragedy. There is, of course, tragedy inherent in the violent sexual assault of Alex by Le Tenia (Jo Prestia), as it is a random, unprovoked act of violence against an innocent bystander. But the rape also serves as a nexus of an entire network of tragedy and pain working on many levels (not unlike Michael Bay's Transformers franchise).

As the story regresses, we discover that early in the same day that Alex was raped, she also confirmed that she was pregnant with Marcus' child. So, her assault occurred right when she was on the cusp of beginning a family, though that future is left in jeopardy as Alex is left in a coma and it isn't revealed in the course of the movie whether she wakes up again or what the fate of her unborn child is.

The other major tragedy of Irreversible is the campaign of revenge that Marcus embarks on with Pierre in tow. In one of the earliest/latest scenes of the film, Marcus and Pierre have tracked Le Tenia to a gay bar, not unsubtlely called The Rectum, and proceed through a carnival of grown men with exactly zero inhibitions when it comes to having sex with an audience of strangers.

They eventually find Le Tenia, though they have no idea what he actually looks, so they end up picking a fight with the wrong guy. Long story short, Marcus gets his arm thoroughly broken, and the man who is not Le Tenia gets his fucking head caved in with a fire extinguisher courtesy of Pierre, who despite seeming like the nicest nice guy in the world apparently has a lot of pent-up rage. (Also, it must be noticed how realistic the skull bashing was. I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out that years from now it's revealed they actually killed a man for that scene and sent the widow a traditional condolence ham.)

-I know you said safe sex, but this is ridiculous!
-Yeah, your Groucho impression is never going to get you laid.
Marcus and Pierre are arrested, of course, and Pierre will likely spend the rest of his days in a federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison for murdering a guy in a room full of witnesses. The tragedy is two-fold: a) Marcus and Pierre have completely fucked up their lives so that if/when Alex pulls through, they will be in no position to support her in any way and b) they didn't even murder the right fucking guy.

All of the tragedy in Irreversible is, in turn, reinforced by the reverse narrative structure of the film. In fact, the name of the gay sex club, The Rectum, hints at this. (Think about it for a second... There ya go.) The audience already knows what happens chronologically after every scene they watch (except the first one, smartass) reinforcing the inevitability of the whole affair. No matter what these characters do, their fates are already decided. Alex will get raped. Marcus will get his arm broken. Pierre will bash that guy's skull in and be perpetually friend-zoned by Alex.

At its core, the true tragedy of Irreversible is the powerlessness of the protagonists in the face of the inevitable. Being hit by a speeding train is bad enough; knowing it's coming and not being able to do anything about it is something else entirely.


Irreversible is not for the faint of heart nor is it for everybody (which goes without saying for everything, I suppose). It provided me with a lot of food for thought, and I can definitely see how it earned its place in the cinematic cannon. I give Irreversible a 7/10 = One Head Crushed in Vengeance


Post a Comment