Thursday, December 10, 2020

Irréversible (2002, Gaspar Noé)

Quest Status: 723 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #705

Every review of this movie should start with a warning, so I'll get that out of the way before we go any further. This movie is not for the faint of heart. It contains a 10-minute rape scene and a scene of graphically violent bludgeoning, but these two infamous scenes are really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the raw emotional impact that Irréversible has on the viewer. This impact comes primarily from the fact that the story (a fairly standard rape and revenge story on the surface) is told in reverse: starting from a place of gut-wrenching ugliness and working its way gradually up a breakneck downward spiral... until we find ourselves in a place of beauty, tenderness, and possibilities that seem so close, but are actually impossibly out of reach.

Irréversible was my introduction to Gaspar Noé, the French director behind some of the most provocative and incendiary films of recent decades. I had known of him for a long time, but could never work up the nerve to watch this film - his most acclaimed film by far. Not being a big fan of Christopher Nolan's gimmicky Memento (another reverse chronological order film whose success reportedly secured Noé the funding for this film), I doubted that the same trick would work in service of material which I had heard to be nearly unwatchable in its extended cruelty, no matter how cleverly applied. And indeed, for the first 40 minutes of Irréversible, I found the reverse storytelling clunky and predictable. The exaggerated fury of Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) in their search for the lowlife pimp who raped Marcus' girlfriend Alex (Monica Belluci) seems calculated to make the story clearer to to the viewer - who may find it difficult to follow in reverse.

But just as the rape scene is as unbelievably horrifying and crushing to watch as advertised, Noé's storytelling and moral concerns turn out to be much more intricate and multilayered than expected. Watching her glide through a party after her unimaginable ordeal, Alex's ravishing beauty seems so fleeting and precious, although it's lost on her childish boyfriend. Belluci's performance is incredibly courageous and dynamic. We feel her humanity and warmth just as strongly as we feel her pain and defiance in the rape scene. As we continue to the turn the pages backwards one at a time, a picture comes into view - one of people as flawed as they are full of life. That we realize how easily their fragile existence can be irreversibly ruined is Noé's jet black stroke of genius.

My first viewing of Irréversible left me reeling with a deep sadness that I couldn't shake. I had to put some distance between myself and this movie before coming back to write this review, at which point the rawness and psychological brutality had partially faded from my memory. Because of this, I ended up rewatching a film that I initially wasn't sure I could make it through even once. With the benefit of hindsight, what stood out to me most was the film's structural ingenuity. I'm a sucker for a films that can be broken down into clear and strategic structures, and Irréversible definitely fits that bill. It consists of 14 scenes with the extended rape scene situated dead center, splitting the rest of the film into what came after and what came before. The scenes in the first half of the film are marked by dizzying handheld camerawork that lurches up and down and twirls around like a Tilt-a-Whirl (those with motion sickness or epilepsy, beware). The intent is to aggressively disorient the viewer, shoving the characters' blind rage and the senselessness of their revenge in our face. The rape scene, however, is filmed in an interminable long take while the camera remains static, frozen in the face of this brutality. The cinematography gradually stabilizes as we work our way back to the beginning, although the sensation of the rape and its aftermath remain ever-present and foreshadowed (so to speak) by countless throwaway remarks and casual acknowledgements of danger. Because of this, Irréversible has a crushing emotional impact but also a brilliance of structure and technical innovation that help to make it unusually disconcerting and hard to shake.

--- 277 films remaining---

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