A Disturbing Movie

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

The other night, I watched "Irreversible", written and directed by Gaspar Noe, whuch takes its place alongside "The Vanishing" as one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen. It is brutally violent, posibly sadistic in intention. Unlike most extremely violent movies, which are either so cartoon-like or so flawed in intent and execution that the bad taste vanishes in twenty-four hours, I can't stop thinking about this one.

"Irreversible" is told backwards. The movie begins with two apparently unrelated narrative threads. In one of them, two men who have apparently just had sex, are having a relaxed philosophical conversation. One, an older man, confesses he served a prison term for molesting his daughter. The other, who has taken off an absurd green plaid jacket and green pants, talks relaxedly about carrying on despite one's own most appalling deeds. The older man replies, "Time destroys all things". The movie also ends with this phrase displayed on screen as an epigraph.

They are in an apartment over a gay S&M club called the Rectum. In the other narrative thread, two other men are removed from the Rectum (!), one in handcuffs, the other injured on a stretcher. The movie begins a series of backward jumps as we see the smaller of the two men brutally kill one of the bigger denizens of the Rectum, smashing his head repeatedly with a metal cylinder. Graphically we see the victim's head become a pulp, unrecognizable, no longer human.

As the movie backs up in time, we understand a couple of things. The bigger of the two friends, the one who left the Rectum injured on a stretcher, is a wild man, enraged about something, while his smaller friend, who ultimately commits murder, tries to calm him down. Step by step, we watch them invade the club and go down its various levels, asking for a locally-known character called "The Tapeworm". (At least one of the people they question is amused by the metaphor of searching the rectum for a tapeworm.) We get the impression we are in Dante's inferno; men are beating and tormenting one another at the various levels; the camera jitters not just in the way we are now familiar with from American television, but actually swoops upside down like a stunt pilot. The wilder of the two friends keeps hitting people in his frenetic efforts to find the Tapeworm, but the problem and irony is that he is beating people who want to be beaten, who want him to do more. He can't get a straight answer from anyone as to where to find the Tapeworm. At last, he goes too far and is attacked by a group of men who are about to anally rape him (or perhaps do so), when his smaller, calmer friend surges up with the cylinder and kills the biggest assailant, who may be the Tapeworm.

As we follow the two friends back in time, it becomes clear they are revenging an assault on someone called Alex, who we assume at first is a man. The smaller man keeps trying to restrain his rageful friend, telling him they should go to the hospital to be with Alex and discontinue their quest. We don't know anything about who these two men are except that at the beginning-end, as the small man is led out of the club in handcuffs, someone taunts him as a "philosopher", a "professor".

Continuing to step backwards, the movie shows us the two men emerging from a party and discovering that their woman friend, Alex, who left before them, has been brutally raped and is in a coma. We see Alex, her face bloody, being loaded into an ambulance while someone offers to guide the two men to a witness. (This will ultimately result in their being directed to search the club for the Tapeworm.)

In an extended sequence which forms the brutal core and empty heart of the movie, we see the woman, Alex, leaving the party and waiting to cross a wide avenue. Someone tells her it will be safer to use a walkway under the street. There follows a remarkable, horrifying, extended scene in which she walks through a nightmarish red tunnel, meets her assailant, is menaced with a knife, knocked to the ground, anally raped and then beaten unconscious. The camera, which has swooped and turned continually up until now, loses its attention deficit disorder and settles down on the ground a few feet in front of the prone Alex, watching her face and the assailant behind and on top of her. When he ends the scene by slamming her face into the concrete, the ground is just out of sight but her face comes up into the bottom of the frame on every slam.

The scene seems to go on forever and I think many reasonable people who got this far in the movie would just leave or turn it off at this point. There are several interesting features of this very upsetting sequence. It is not eroticized in the usual way of a Hollywood rape scene; it is too violent and frightening. One of the features of an eroticized rape scene is that, despite the use of force, the woman's reaction tends to be indistinguishable from that of an actress playing a consensual love scene. No chance of that here. Alex screams in a low voice during much of the scene. Also, there is no communication during the entire scene. The assailant talks to her continually, but Alex is too frightened to understand or answer; when he tries to give her orders she is too paralyzed to follow them. He is creepy and monstrous, and the surroundings (the red tunnel) very frightening. The scene goes on for long minutes after your nerves are screaming: the director has made a deliberate choice (as he does with the earlier/later killing by metal cylinder) to rub our faces in extremely graphic violence.

The assailant is the man in the green plaid jacket whom we saw relaxing, possibly with slight remorse but with confidence and self-justification, at the end of his exhausting day. This is a surprising and interesting turn. At this point in the film, we know that the two friends, intent on avenging the assault on Alex, ultimately killed the wrong man, while the actual perpetrator ended his day in peace. (We can only hope that he will still be arrested for the crime but the movie gives us no particular reason to think so except that his nickname is known to the friends.)

The rest of the movie now is no longer a suspense film, nor is it violent. We watch Alex at the party with her current lover, the wild man, and her ex, the calmer, more cerebral one. She gets mad at her lover and leaves; the smaller man offers to accompany her; she says the neighborhood is safe, and exits. We then step backward through the evening, as she makes love to the lover, talks to the ex on the phone and arranges to meet him. On the subway together, the ex obsessively questions her and her new lover about the sexual satisfaction they achieve together and asks Alex whether he himself ever succeeded in giving her an orgasm. She answers cheerfully that he always tried too hard; he might have turned her on more if he was more selfish. Earlier in the evening, alone with her lover after making love, there are several low key moments that rhyme, in a poignant or disturbing way, with the violence that happens later. He tells Alex that he wants to have anal sex with her and her diffident reaction tells us she is uncomfortable with the idea. They wrestle a little and he overpowers her, but she is never upset. (They do not consummate a sex act onscreen.) She tells him she thinks she is pregnant and he is pleased. She relates a dream in which she is walking down a red tunnel and it breaks in half, as her life will do a little later in the evening. She tells the lover that she chose him, that women always choose even when they don't appear to. The lover leaves to buy liquor, and Alex takes a home test, confirming she is pregnant. The movie steps back one last time, and we watch Alex in a pastoral, dreamy surrounding which is almost over the top in its surrealism: lying on a lawn, by a sprinkler, as children run around. She is relaxed, pretty, meditative. The movie ends/begins by reminding us that "Time destroys all things."

Why is this grotesque film worth this much thought? For a number of reasons.

Its backward narrative is interesting and fairly unusual. Sometimes there are good reasons to tell a story backwards; other examples worth seeking out are Kaufman and Hart's play "Merrily We Roll Along" (which like "Irreversible", "ends" with violence and "begins" with sylvan happiness), and Martin Amis' novel, "Time's Arrow", in which the protagonist lives his life backwards, from American suburban recluse to Nazi.

In Christopher Nolan's break-through film, "Memento", a similar structure was used to tell a noir-ish story of a neurologically-damaged man who can't "make new memories". Since he had to write himself notes and rely on the assertions of the unreliable people around him (each with their own agenda) the movie gradually revealed that everything he thought he knew (and the audience believed) at the beginning-end was wrong. "Memento" is a much lighter, more enjoyable movie, despite moments of extreme violence, because the auteur, Nolan, set out to make a formal mindgame and succeeded. By contrast, "Irreversible", though also a mindgame, does not seek the same playful pyrotechnics as "Memento". Its point is not to entertain us but to appall us.

The philosophy of "Irreversible" is that the world we live in is irredeemably violent, that all men are killers, that as a result of this even consensual sex is on a continuum with rape. (Note how Noe, who seems to feel contempt for Alex as he does for the men and for everybody, agrees here with the brand of feminism exemplified by Andrea Dworkin, who held that all heterosexual sex is rape.) Alex herself lives in a bubble of unreality, in which she believes that the world is basically safe, that women get to choose the men who have access to their bodies. Instead, she exists in a world in which any man brutal and opportunistic enough can choose her, as the man in green plaid does in the red tunnel. When we first-last see Alex, she is in a coma. We hope she will survive--Noe could just have chosen to kill her in the rape scene, she's his character--but the prospects are pretty good that her coma is "irreversible" like the movie, or that if she ever wakes she will have a traumatic brain injury. In any event, Alex will never recover from the moment her life broke in half.

The other important thing Noe wants to tell us is that all men are capable of violence. It is not accidental that the man who commits cold-blooded murder in the club, slamming a metal cylinder into someone's head ten or fifteen times in an agonizingly long scene, is the cerebral one, the professor, the one who was so intent on Alex's pleasure that she criticized him for being too caring. The movie tells us that this cycle of violence will never stop. There is no pay-off; if the professor killed the Tapeworm, we might feel some sort of a click; but he has killed the wrong man, and the perpetrator has not only gone free, but is having a lovely evening.

In this light, the aphorism, "Time destroys all things", is a cop-out or intended to be ironic. It isn't time but men who destroy all beautiful, gentle things.

If the movie had been structured to tell its story forwards, it would have made all the same points but been an odd duck in a different way. For the first half, it would be a gentle drama about love and sexual relationships, with a typical civilized French love-triangle (Alex, lover, professor). Then, after an appallingly violent attack, the movie would take an abrupt turn into revenge thriller.

By telling his story backwards, Noe ensures that we are shaken and jittery during the quieter part of the movie, and that moments we might otherwise miss (the lover asking Alex for anal sex, her disquisition on choice, her dream about the red tunnel) stand out in stark relief. Since the first time we see Alex she is comatose and bloody, and the next time we see her she is a complacent, silent stranger walking into a tunnel and undergoing a terrible assault, she only becomes a character, only becomes real to us after she has been smashed. As we watch her through-out the rest of the film, knowing she is doomed, we see her in a certain regretful light, knowing that her beliefs, her confidence, her sense of security in the world are tiny and founded on nothing. This is certainly what Noe intended.

The heartless scene of the attack at the movie's core is not eroticized, meaning that its sexual elements have not been artistically burnished. Nonetheless, it is impossible to film a scene in which a beautiful woman (or any woman) is attacked and penetrated, without any sexual element. The same way that men obsessively want to know all the details when they hear that an acquaintance has been raped, this violent scene is certain to appeal to, and excite, a certain sadistic element in the film's audience. The possibility must be considered, that a scene like this one could incite someone watching it to commit a similar assault.

This brings us to overlapping questions of censorship and artistic responsibility. "Irreversible" is not obscene under the loose rules of US Supreme Court jurisprudence, as it has social value--philosophic, thought-provoking elements, as disturbing as they are. It was not banned in the US, but after one or more reviews declaring it unwatchable (a fair perspective) it didn't do that much business here. It probably also didn't have a wide release. But the only censorship it experienced was that of the wallet; people aren't going to pay $12 to see a movie which tells them that life is violent, short, worthless and hopeless.

On the other hand, I really wonder whether Noe should have made this movie, at least in this form. Anyone filming an extended act of violence against an unarmed, defenseless victim, should ask himself how he would feel if it inspired a copycat to commit a real violent act. This is especially true of scenes of violence against women, which always have a sexual element even if not eroticized. I think the doctrine, "we just make art, what happens next has nothing to do with us," is a cop-out. A reporter once told Alfred Hitchcock that a killer had committed his second murder after watching "Psycho". Hitchcock answered something like, did he commit the first one after drinking a glass of milk?

As a (performed) playwright and (unpublished) novelist, I would think twice about creating a character or a scene I feared would encourage violence. This does not mean that we have a responsibility to be moralists and to tell only happy, encouraging, salutory stories. Proust was correct that artists are mirror-makers. I am therefore conflicted by what Noe has done. On the one hand, he holds up a mirror to the world, in the way he sees it. On the other hand, he has potentially reached out, established a line of communication, with a psychotic violent element, with the potential message that the world belongs to the brutal and daring, that they can take whatever they want and still end the day in peace and relaxation, while everybody else bleeds or suffers.

I wish Noe had chosen not told this story, at least in its current form. He could have communicated the same message without making us watch Alex being smashed to bits.

In "Irreversible", the "rectum" is our world and the "tapeworm" is man.