Film Note: The Tragedy of Irreversible

September 6, 2003

Reviewed by Caitlin Mahar

There are some movies that can make revenge seem appealing . . . my movie’s not appealing” – Gaspar Noé

irreversible_xlgVariously declared a masterpiece and slammed as a ‘shallow shocker’, French film-maker Gaspar Noé’s ultra-violent Irreversible has polarised audience members and critics since it first screened in 2003. The film features a notoriously brutal murder and horrifying rape scene and it is not difficult to see why some have dismissed Noé as simply a shock-jock (and no surprise to learn of a belated attempt by Fred Nile and cronies to ban the film in Australia). There is no doubt this film is (intentionally) shocking, but it is definitely worth steeling yourself for a look at Noé’s world.

After a brief prologue delivered by two dissipated old men in a shabby hotel room, Irreversible plunges the viewer into a world of violent mayhem. The camera whirls sickeningly, picking up flesh amid strobing black and red and it takes a while to work out what is happening: two men, one spewing racist, homophobic invective, race through a gay S&M club searching for another called ‘The Tapeworm’. This excruciating sequence ends when one of the men bashes another to death with a fire extinguisher.

Then we are confronted with preceding events. We witness two bourgeois types, Marcus and Pierre, set off to take revenge and the brutal, protracted, rape of Marcus’s girlfriend, Alex, by a stranger in a subway. From here Noé gradually winds us back to uneasy normality. We see the three main protagonists at a party and the minor quarrel between Alex and Marcus that leads to her leaving alone. Then we see the trio jaunty on the train prior to the party – Pierre, Alex’s old boyfriend, jokingly needling Marcus. This is followed by a tender love scene and the film ends with Alex lying in a park full of children playing.

Irreversible has been called a rape-revenge drama, but this is a misnomer. By reversing events, Noé turns his story into a tragedy. In the prologue we are told that, ‘Time destroys all things’ and, ‘There are no good or bad deeds . . . just deeds’. From the beginning of the film we are presented with a world where human beings are caught up in, and tossed about by, forces beyond their control and finally defined by their actions rather than their characters. These sentiments infuse the opening, apparently senseless, brutality. As the film unfolds, the tragic sensibility is compounded as we come to understand that the ‘wrong’ man has been punished and that the perpetrator of this horrific act is not some red-neck (or even the instinctive, hot-headed Marcus), but the film’s designated philosopher, the rational, reasonable Pierre.

By tragically reversing events, Noé also throws the film’s engaging latter scenes into ironic perspective – we are not able to get too involved. The boyish competition between Marcus and Pierre and Pierre’s teasing allusions to Marcus’ ‘primate’ nature are infused with a slightly sinister air. Similarly, a shadow is cast over the tender play-fighting of the couple and the film’s life-affirming final image appears seeded with doom.

The distance between audience and characters and narrative created by the extreme violence and the reversing of events is heightened by other techniques designed to create discomfort and unease (and it is these – rather than the violence – that seem the most likely cause of the infamous faintings that took place at early screenings of the film.). The hyperactive camera work and strobe are, at times, so dizzying they demand their own warning as you enter the cinema. Further, Noé has suggested that the thumping beat that underscores the first part of the film is a constant tone intended to induce nausea[1].

This isn’t a film for those who think cinema’s meant to be easy. It is clearly Noé’s intention to trouble his audience – to keep it at a thinking distance. We are meant to feel uncomfortable, even repelled. Indeed, initially you feel the appropriate response is to hate the director for putting you through the sickening opening scenes. Is the violence too much? Yes – many will find it unbearable (I closed my eyes in parts) and one does not imagine Aristotle would approve. Yet, in an age where tragic myths no longer haunt the collective psyche, arguably such a graphic depiction of the pivotal violent acts is here necessary to establish the image of unbearable horror on which the tragic view turns.

Detractors have accused Noé of being a demented sicko. While teaching Oedipus I suspect numerous students have had similar thoughts about Sophocles. I can’t offer character references for either. But, certainly, despite moments of compassion, virtue and terrible beauty, tragedy assumes this universe is a sick, demented place – one, ultimately, that we puny humans cannot understand. At the same time tragedy insists we strive to grasp unbearable, unknowable truths about this place and ourselves. I’m not prepared to anoint Noé a modern master of tragedy, but there seems little doubt to me that these are truths with which this enfant terrible is grappling.

[1] Matt Bailey, Senses of Cinema, No. 30, Jan-March 2004. Bailey mentions Noe’s use of  a constant 27-hertz tone designed to cause nausea in an essay that looks at his work in the context of a ‘cinema of attraction’ where cinematic techniques designed to shock and unsettle the viewer are used.

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