Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002)

Irréversible is pretty wretched for about half its running time, but it's amazing how much it can turn itself around in the second half with some good ol' non-sensationalism.

It wasn't the surely motion sickness-inspired, whirly-gig camera - used to survey the lurid and seedy environment of the film's beginning (then returning later for a chaotic set piece taking place inside a gay S&M club; Salon's Andrew O'Hehir probably described this novel camerawork best with the thoroughly underused term "vomitous") - that pushes this film into the territory of excessiveness. Nor is it the film's gliding omniscient camera that flies over rooftops, uniting action and transitions, and in the end spins wildly above a representation of the irretrievably lost. It is not the visual ostentation itself that makes me accuse the film of sensationalism, although it is a contribution.

I actually appreciated the visual innovation and experimentalism of its gyrating eye and surely very technically-sophisticated, roboticized camerawork. It's bold, daring, and it works. It very nicely serves the film's suggestion that, perhaps, so mechanical are the forces that, without our heeding, gravitate us to the locations and events we find ourselves gravitated towards, this gravitation in turn dictated by the actions we find ourselves performing, which points straight back to that most fundamental force, or "mechanism," of all: our very biology, and the basic human urges that control us. This film's objective is to conflate and synchronize these forces that so fatefully find us going to a sexy coking dance party, walking home alone in a disreputable part of town, chasing down prostitutes, in a gay leather club, and, so often, just in the wrong place at the wrong time. These are the forces of time and biology.

Introducing the film's inverted order, the film opens with the entire end credits floating in and out of the frame, as if afloat in a slow current, its use of white and red text and the curve of its trajectory suggesting flowing blood cells, or chemical flotsam suspended in plasmatic fluid, riding the curve of the vein. The lull of the soundtrack's as-of-yet quietness, meanwhile, enhances our sense of the slow passage of time - the film already enmeshing its two motifs of inexorable time and exorable biology. Following this, the leading credits are then also presented: the pulsating, adrenaline rush score finally pounds in as the actors, producers, primary crew, and director Gaspar Noé's last names are flashed across the screen in all capitals, like "NUDE" on a neon sign. With this sensationalistic opening credits sequence, Noé is signaling the fact that he knows full well - and means to expose with this film - that all it takes to get a rise out of someone can be as simple and terribly effective as capitalized SEX flashing across your eyes and firing your synapses.

The film begins with atmospheric use of the vomit camera to visually abstract the film's opening environment of neon and lamp lit alleyways. We then go to a short prologue scene between two anonymous men exchanging words in an apartment room above the already-mentioned gay leather club, very generously called The Rectum. Noé shoots this scene in voyeuristic close-up, which, along with the natural lighting and the zoomed-in motion camera, introduce the film's desire to achieve a sense of verité aesthetics and gritty realism. This scene transitions with an aerial shot moving away from this room to the direct exterior, where we see the film's two main characters being escorted out of the club below.

After such a striking opening sequence, though, it is disappointing that the film proceeds to spend a brinkless first act playing out like an over-the-top episode of Cops, taking on entirely lax verité stylings as we follow Vincent Cassel roaming the seedier side of Paris like a mad dog. There is very little to truly note in this whole first third of the film, except that it only enhances the film's one-note sensationalism. The film's bid for naturalism clashes oddly with the Jerry Springer antics and shouting matches that make up much of the opening quarter's inappropriately high-octane and over-the-top vendetta-driven prowl through Red Light districts.

Life as it is, caught on film, is one of the film's foremost goals. But naturalism and novelty do not mix very well, and I cannot help but get an unmistakable whiff of novelty and literal "show-stopping" from this film's two oft-talked about instances of graphic violence. The film's two infamous scenes consist of the sudden placing of the camera in a completely static position, in order to film with unflinching steadiness graphic murder and rape. But when I was sitting watching these scenes, trying to decide whether to turn away or not, I did not feel as if they were showing to me an unflinching look at reality, but almost the opposite: I felt as if I was being fed a scene of contrived, exploitative theatricality.

Forcing the viewer to psychically inhabit such abuse and horror is certainly audacious. I do understand this point in enunciation he is trying to make, and I give him all the credit of compassion and empathy in the rape scene, not to mention critique. [This (and Breillat's Fat Girl for a second example) is the type of film that should be shown to the unsuspecting sex ed class (for the simple moral kick).] Further, the scene offers the utmost clinical presentation of the indignity of rape, considering it is daring us to note every violent thrust and dry flap of this unwanted act of anal violation.

But even then, the scene is really more suited for the philistine than the artist: it is a brute way to express the cruelty and ugliness of rape. It's a point
expressed that would be more useful shown as courtroom evidence, or in a corrective facility, than in an arthouse. I do not want to say the scene is meaningless. I would personally feel out of line telling Noé, whose film is made with such vision, that the artistic decision he made here disqualifies a work of such vision. I take less discretion labeling it misguidedly ostentatious and flat-footed, mired in disregard as much as it is in moral discourse.

And so, thank god the 2nd half has Noé stumbling upon how I feel verisimilitude in cinema is really meant to work: as the displaced eye of the viewer - a viewer presumably not an unflinching robot, nor, hopefully anyway, an unflinching sadist who wants to take in graphic violence and rape the same way a surveillance camera takes in a convenience store robbery.

The displaced eye - that is, the verité camera - is much more naturally predisposed to take in and fascinate itself with human interaction and the movement of humans in space, not sitting put for whatever reason, which most definitely includes watching Noé take body horror to a blockheaded, barbarous extreme. Thus, the verité camera as applied to the casual events of the 2nd half is much more thematically justified and of much more proper affectation. The 2nd half - consisting of an integral, discursively pointed subway scene, a carefully choreographed party scene that portrays wanton sexual gratification very strikingly without resorting to exhibitionist crudity (albeit taking place before the rape scene in the chronology of the movie), and the poignant and truly naturalistic nude bedroom scene between Cassel and Bellucci (then real-life husband and wife) - infuses into the film the meaningfulness it was previously sorely lacking, and retroactively comments and enriches what we are forced to sit through in the first half.

This newly wrought meaningfulness thankfully doesn't fortress homophobia allegations lobbied at the film (largely in reaction to the sensationalistic first half and its depiction of a gay subculture), and it offers much more than merely emphasizing its narrative lynch pin of purity-turned-perversity at the turn of a screw, or even the film's most prominent and focused-on subtext involving the movie's mindbending, anti-chronological meditation on temporal vortex and tragically lost catharsis.

The film clicks during the train scene, where we finally figure out the dynamic between the three friends: Cassel is the simple primitive man, not at all a bad guy, but dictated by basic masculine drives instead of any higher thought; Albert Dupontel is the evolved and vaguely inadequate modern intellectual man; and Bellucci, as the woman.

The film is about sex - or at least sex as a primitive urge that is naturally inseparable from violence. "There are no bad deeds," the anonymous man says in the beginning (to the beguiling presence of notorious French actor Philippe Nahon), because everyone is guilty of pursuing those urges towards biological self-gratification, without exception, and in so, so many different ways.

Through its allusions to or depictions of sodomy, incest, racial dominance, intellectual superiority, and the thin lines between sex and rape, its spectrum of sexual gratification and the violence borne from it presents gratification as something that crosses boundaries from sexual to physical to purely psychological, as when Cassel's character takes his anger out on a Chinese taxi driver he intimidates and slings racial epithets at. The designated "person gratified," and the respective "gratifier," is made to criss-cross as often as the designated "victims" and "victimizers," the most prominent example being the intellectual Dupontel's succumbing to the urges of brutal physical domination in the story's wrap.

To address the charges of anti-homosexuality,
the film really cannot be said to be making any generalizations about homosexuality, for it only purports to show us a narrow and enclosed presentation of a particular spectrum of hedonistic and primal lifestyles (both homosexual and heterosexual). The film's portrayal of homosexual sodomy as the debase epicenter of victimization fetishization is what has mainly garnered the film its accusations of homophobia, but it exists only as another of many segments of sexual society, a proliferation that Noe is generally surmising he has little place to persecute due to the philosophy his anonymous character in the opening scene espouses. Also, the film's peripheral utilization of a transgender person as narrative device, whom we see Cassel bully and demean, comfortingly exists only as a representation of a victim.

In conclusion, as a film about the unpredictability of hormonal compulsions (whether manifested in sexual acts or violent acts), one can say that, in retrospect, the film's most resonant and haunting moment is not the cinematically bludgeoning (pun most certainly not intended) horror of its rape scene or murder scene. It is when Monica Bellucci says something to this effect in response to Dupontel's insistence on excavating particular truths about her sexual behavior: You can't learn about sex from asking around, gathering data, and analyzing it. A person just has got to get out there - presumably "feel" something, in their blood, their biology, their loins - and experience it.

Little does she foretell her fate and grasp that this includes the most appalling and horrible of "feelings" and "somethings," ones that encourage the cruelty of dominance, rape, and non-mutual gratification.

Irréversible - 6/10

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