”Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.” —Jean Luc Godard
“For what is faked is, of course, not reality but photographic reality, reality as seen by the camera lens. In other words, what computer graphics have (almost) achieved is not realism, but rather only photorealism—the ability to fake not our perceptual and bodily experience of reality but only its photographic image. This image exists outside our consciousness, on a screen—a window of limited size that presents a still imprint of a small part of outer reality, filtered through a lens with limited depth of field, and then filtered through the film’s grain and limited tonal range. It is only this film-based image that computer graphics technology has learned to simulate. And the reason we may think that computer graphics has succeeded in faking reality is that, over the course of the last hundred and fifty years, we have come to accept the image of photography and film as reality.” —Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media
are not worth seeing, but definitely worth talking about. Irréversible is one of these. Though there may not be much of a difference between an Anselm Kiefer canvas and a dirty wall materially, addressing the distinction formally can be an enlightening cultural experience.
Contemporary society is scarcely more than a network of signs and symbols that both beget and structure our experiences. For example, we readily associate meaning with certain places and certain situations. The lid of a toilet means one thing in your house, but an entirely different thing on the wall of a museum. That type of space gives it meaning that our house does not. These days certain social spaces act like signs or guidelines concerning what sort of meaning is going to occur there. This is the reason the random squeezing of the trigger of a drill is music on certain stages but just a fact of life to a trade carpenter.
The movie theater is likewise full of “meaningful” experiences. Even though we know they are fictional experiences, we let the movie theater as a meaningful space play an important role in our lives and we expect a certain sort of meaningful exchange to occur there. “Reality” television works so well because we are willing to admit how central the television and movie screen are to the semiotic act of living in contemporary society. In a sense, the movie screen is opaque. It stands suggestively between reality and us. There is a reason why the Oscars set a benchmark for television ratings every year. They are a celebration of “meaning” in a contemporary sense.
All this is to say that this cultural fact is easily taken for granted, and often times simply lurks unnoticed at the heart of the movie-going experience. But every now and then a film will come along that makes us unsettlingly aware of what really happens in the theater, one that puts a spotlight on the opacity of the screen. It is so easy these days to adopt the movie screen as an arbiter of meaning and reality, because that is the function it serves in society. Nothing has convinced me more of this reality than the last few moments of Gaspar Noé’s most recent film, Irréversible. They were a few of the most “filmic” moments I have ever had. Perhaps in many ways they were the opposite of André Bazin’s description of the “Holy Moment,” in which the viewer finds a film actually participating in reality. It is almost with a smirk that Noé makes sure to remind us that we are only watching a film, and he plays with glee in this gap between contemporary viewer expectations concerning film and what film itself really is.
Irréversible’s final few seconds thunder with a flickering reminder that we have just been thrust into the limbo between reality and culture that is film. Noé is not concerned to immerse us in a world that we could be fooled into believing is “real” or “true.” He is concerned with immersing us in “film.”
And Noé buries us in film up to our eyeballs. Irréversible itself is an unwatchable film. I have never walked out of the movie theater in protest during a film, nor have I ever been tempted to. I choose films that I know I want to watch and disregard the rest. But with Irréversible, I had no idea what I was getting into, and probably only really watched half of it. It really is just a simple story told in reverse, the story of a woman who is brutally assaulted and raped followed by a drunkenly spastic hunt through the seedy underbelly of Paris for immediate revenge. If the story were told in order, the film would open on Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Alex (Monica Bellucci) in several scenes of playful flirtation, the kind of interaction that only people very comfortable with each other engage in.
Next, in keeping with the French dialogical convention, we listen in on a few shallow discussions that highlight (the soon-to-be-victim) Alex’s thoughtless views on sex and relationships. We quickly move on to an intense party, joined by Alex’s ex-lover Pierre, that seems to embody these values.
Then we encounter one of the most controversial scenes in the last several years of film. This is Blue Velvet and Kids scandalous. Noé chooses to film the story in a way somewhere between Aronofsky’s third-person expressiveness, the unapologetic jerkiness of Stan Brakhage’s early shorts, and someone who has just had entirely too much red wine. This camerawork moves from abstractedness to a more poetic realism over the course of the story being told in reverse, somehow reflecting the emotional tenor of the storyline. Thus the emotionally scarring opening scene takes us through the sordid visual cacophony of a night club in which the camera rolls in successive 360 degree loops that force us to digest the scene in wave after wave of sensory input. This leaves us gaping unsteadily at every frame as the camera makes its frenetic way across faces, walls, lights, and sounds. If you were to tie a camera to a string and swing it in a perpendicular to the ground, you would achieve something of the same effect Noé captures.
We are caught in this nauseating tedium in varying degrees through the whole film—except for nine hyper-realist minutes. At this one specific point Noé decides just to let the camera sit. At ground level. Everything comes into sharp focus. Focused directly on the face and outstretched hands of Alex lying face down in a pedestrian tunnel as she is brutally attacked by a man known as Le Tenia.
The audience is just as helpless to act in her behalf as she is to stop the attack itself. This helplessness palpably reigns throughout those nine minutes, and in the rest of the film this impotency, impossible to shake off, is accompanied by a senseless rage. Any compensation Noé could have offered us for being forced to adapt to such a terrible helplessness is denied by the fact that the story is told in reverse. There is no resolution, just the power of the attack gaining more and more power as we see Alex’s oblivious life hours before it happened. Police officers often use sounds of a certain frequency to disperse crowds. This level of sound somehow elicits a physical discomfort somewhere vague and inaccessible; the only possible reaction is to flee.
This same thundering ethos pervades Noé’s improvised filming. Not only is the scene itself morally exasperating (to say the least), the realities of the actors involved are shocking. Not only were Bellucci and Cassel married at the time of filming, but the scene itself took several takes to film. If it was so impossible for me and most others to watch such a thing, how on earth could it be possible for someone to participate in the realistic depiction of such a thing? How about watching your wife participate in it?
I have no idea. The rest of the film is taken up by an erratic search for brutal revenge, a violent revenge that truly parallels the absurdist tragedy of Marcus’s girlfriend. It turns out to be insultingly horrific, ironically misdirected, and for Marcus and Alex’s ex-boyfriend, totally irreversible. Everything that happens in this film is irreversible. Each event is a moral act that forever negatively restructures the lives of the actors in each situation. The concrete nature of this moral reality is enhanced by having to watch the entire story in reverse. The giggles and gentle hugs that close the film are meaningless and sad because we have already seen them shattered by Le Tenia. But even though this important point may be Noé’s only point in the whole venture, the means by which he gets across this point cancel out the realization itself.
Many critics have dismissed Irréversible on two levels. It is shallow and mercenary in both substance and style. I agree on the former and disagree on the latter. It is an unwatchable film. Just as in his previous formal masterpiece I Stand Alone, Noé depends on forcing the viewer into new vistas of meaning by making them watch things that really shouldn’t be on film. Lynch formally pioneered this concept in the bombastic Blue Velvet—though to a lesser, more appropriate, degree. But on the other hand, Irréversible really is a prophetic glimpse, an innovation of form, and the embodiment of a post-structuralist social critique that has been working on the fringes of the international film scene for years.
Religious circles regularly discuss what art really is, and whether we need to accept society’s bestowal of meaning on things like Oldenberg’s Clothespin, Richter’s nudes, or even the films of Andy Warhol. Does new and innovative always mean “meaningful” and “insightful”? Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the “new” is just something dirty and absurd (think: Mapplethorpe). However, as in a few unique cultural circumstances, at the heart of films like Irréversible lie undercurrents worth fleshing out.
Irréversible offers us a critique of the movie-going experience. It forces us out of our cherished viewing conventions into an unsettling arena of dark moral experience. While it is not necessary to participate in this disturbing experience, it is certainly necessary to appreciate it. It is necessary to recognize the plastic nature of contemporary cinema versus its ability to be a medium of sheer aesthetic power. It is necessary to recognize that the meaningful agility of film is often hijacked by subtle social agendas, turning this experience into propaganda. Noé simply has a capacity to submerge us in the visceral power of film more than any contemporary director.
There is a sense in which Irréversible is more about how we watch films than it is about the unnecessarily disturbing storyline that comprises it.
I hate to come to his defense on this point, but from the standpoint of substance, how less provocative are the disturbing sexual tensions behind something like Michael Haneke’s La Pianiste, or Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También? At least in Noé’s take on some of these same issues the experience is not so subtle and purposely understated. Noé’s tensions are not so excusable or acceptable simply because they hide behind a few personality disorders or a drama of taught cultural tension (as they do respectively in the aforementioned films). And at least in Noé’s effort the film carries with it an implicit criticism of the act of actually watching it. I would not advocate watching the film, but I do advocate its embodied critique of the movie-going experience.
True to Noé’s form I have saved talking about the opening credits for last. Deconstructionist criticism focuses on the point at which language breaks down, at which the meaning of words and sentences slip apart for the individual reader. It is hard to imagine movie credits that would embody such a notion, but Noé rises to the challenge.
Movie credits are themselves an important convention. They are clues as to what sort of film we are going to see, what levels of opacity or transparency we can expect to find in the narrative. Credits let us adjust our interpretive filters before the film starts. But Noé’s credits are unreadable and slip noisily across the screen in stark, discomforting crimson planes. It is as if they are unimportant, as if he really is conscious that the credits are some sort of cultural code that bookmark the way we watch films and is thus unwilling for his film to play this language game.
What can we say in conclusion? Irréversible is terrible. But its sheer unacceptability is somehow linked to its important place on the landscape of film and culture. Polanski once said: “Cinema should make you forget you are sitting in a theater.” It seems that Noé is determined to show us that this is not necessarily so, and that Polanski’s representative approach may more reflect the way we understand film than what film itself really is or can be.
M. Leary writes from Chicago. He is a staff writer for the Matthew’s House Project, where an earlier version of this piece first appeared.