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Against and For Irreversible




By Robin Wood.

To call Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible(Irréversible, 2002) controversial would be an understatement. It has had its defenders, but their voices have been largely drowned out by the rage the film has aroused, with horror stories of mass walkouts at the Cannes Festival screening, and subsequent denunciations by critics and public. In Toronto, my home town, in the weeks before it opened, there were daily letters in our local newspaper’s correspondence column demanding that it be banned, mainly from readers who hadn’t seen it, and the same critics who had been attacking our censorship system (with appreciable success) for several years seemed on the point of demanding its reinstatement.

The centre of all this hysteria was the rape scene, though the initial murder scene was also under intermittent attack. Reading many of the reviews, one might reasonably have concluded that these were the only two scenes in the film, despite the fact that they occupy only about one-sixth of the screen time. No one would have guessed that the film also contains an extended party scene, one of the most beautiful, complex, truthful and sensitive scenes of lovemaking in the history of the cinema, a long and crucial sequence-shot of a discussion about sex during a subway journey, etc… No one bothered to ask what the film was actually about.

One could argue (some do) that rape should not be depicted on screen at all, because of its potential for inciting what it pretends to be denouncing. But it seems to me dangerous to place limits on what subject-matter art can or cannot be permitted to represent: that way lies censorship, and can lead to a situation in which governments can ban anything they regard as detrimental to their policies. Personally, I see Noé’s presentation (rather than representation) of rape as exemplary in its rigour, its refusal (for the spectator) of any exit short of physically leaving the theatre.

Certain critics described the rape scene as ‘pornographic’, and I can’t think of a more wildly inappropriate term. Surely the raison d’être of pornography is sexual arousal. I submit that anyone who is ‘turned on’ by the rape scene in Irreversible could only be an advanced psychopath. However, I have my own reasons for considering the film extremely dangerous, reprehensible and socially regressive. Despite them, let me make clear at once that I nonetheless regard it very highly.

Irresponsible

It’s a long time since I’ve seen a film made with such passion and commitment. But one must of course ask, ‘Passion about what? Commitment to what?’. It is possible to be passionate, stupid and bigoted, committed yet blind as to what one has actually committed oneself.

There are many questions to be asked about Irreversible. Why, exactly, are we compelled to be so caught up in the hysteria of the murder sequence (which is not only the characters’ hysteria but Noé’s – it is in the soundtrack and the cinematography), but invited to watch the rape scene coldly, almost clinically (the suddenly static camera, the absence of sounds beyond those of cruelty and agony)? One can argue that the two styles (the most strongly contrasted within the entire film) express, respectively, Marcus’s uncontrolled and uncontrollable hysteria and Alex’s helpless suffering. Yet the former invites the spectator to share the hysteria (futile in every way as it proves to be), while the latter strands him/her as a cold and helpless voyeur.

Attacks on the film have invariably centred on the rape scene. Very few, to my knowledge, have raised the question of homophobia, and then only casually, as if it didn’t really matter much. During the past two decades we have witnessed great strides in the rights of, and attitudes to, gays and lesbians, within certain clearly circumscribed environments (i.e., middle- and upper-class urban areas in large cities in some Western countries). Yet the situation of gay people remains precarious. If a new backlash against gays emerged (as it easily could, right now, in the United States under the Bush administration, once the President gets his alleged mind off world domination for a moment), Noé’s film could become something of a landmark in anti-gay propaganda, and I (who actually greatly admire it and am writing this article to celebrate its extraordinary qualities) could, ironically, end up in a ‘rehabilitation centre’, aka concentration camp.

The third of the film’s thirteen sequences (most of them more accurately sequence-shots), is for me the film’s real crux. It is preceded by a brief prelude linking the film to its predecessor (Seul contre tous) via the brief appearance of that film’s horrifying (and horrifyingly sympathetic) central character who delivers what is also Irreversible’s final (written) statement (‘Time destroys everything’), and a mysterious (at this point) scene of police cars, Marcus on a stretcher, Pierre seated in a police car, at a gay sex club called The Rectum. The necessity for its being set in a gay club is not clear: the object of revenge, known as the Tenia (‘Tapeworm’, referring perhaps to the length of his penis?) is, as the rape scene makes clear, into anal sex, but he is not necessarily gay. And could he be so sexually insatiable that he would go (apparently, given the film’s strict time scheme, almost directly) from the rape to the wildest, craziest, most excessive and grotesque gay sex club in the universe? (I speak as something of a connoisseur, but I have never encountered anything remotely like this).

The homophobia of the ‘Rectum’ scene can only be described as hysterical, and it speaks for a very deep and dangerous disturbance in Noé’s psyche. What he presents us with is, in effect, a vision of Hell as grotesque and horrifying as anything Hieronymus Bosch could have dreamed up in his worst nightmares. The vision is conjured up by sound, camera and lighting effects as much as from any actions we are allowed to witness: The soundtrack noise (one cannot call it music), ominous, ugly, threatening; the whirling, swirling camera, seeming detached from human control, sometimes turning upside down, never still; the intermittent lighting (mostly the red of hellfire) that cuts through the murk, allowing us occasionally to make out naked male figures; the sounds of pain and/or desperation (no one appears to be enjoying himself) – everything in the mise-en-scéne contributes to the notion of gay men as irredeemably lost souls with no thought in their minds but the ‘gratifications’ of extreme sado-masochism. Noé shows us a man I take to be the owner of the Rectum screaming homophobic insults at his customers (including Marcus, battered, barely conscious) from whom he makes his money, but that barely qualifies as critical commentary, serving rather to intensify the ‘hellish’ atmosphere: devils do not pity the damned.

Noé allows no obvious qualification (within the film or elsewhere) for this image of gay life and gay desire (or if there is it is at most ambiguous, probably on Noé’s part unintended). As everyone by now (I suppose) knows, the twelve sequences of Irreversible are in fact (and in direct contradiction of the title) reversed: the beginning of the film is the end of the story, and vice versa. If we ‘flash forward’ to the beginning, we can see clearly what Noé is after, and its implications are somewhat mindboggling. The last sequence-shot but one (the second, therefore, in the narrative) shows Alex discovering, joyfully, that she is pregnant; the final one shows her lying in a grassy park area, with sunshine, spraying water-sprinklers, children running around: the Heaven that answers the opening Hell.

Clear message of film (I said it was mindboggling): sex is for procreation! Those who disagree will go to Hell, the ultimate Hell being preserved for men who carry their disagreement to its logical conclusion. Essentially, it’s the Victorian view of sexuality, at least a hundred years out of date, which (Roman Catholics aside) disappeared with the public acceptance of birth control.

And I’m actually afraid that, in this world where birth control is the only means of controlling the disastrous overpopulation of our planet, and where most have accepted that sex is not merely for the continuance of an increasingly dubious species (I am coming, nowadays, to prefer cats, who don’t make wars or threaten the future of the planet, and Noé would have no better luck with them), but is also a means of human communication and mutual pleasure, a film so powerful, made with such conviction and intensity, could have some influence…

Irresistible

What I have so far presented is, of course, an extremely simplified and selective view of a complicated, intricately constructed film. A closer reading modifies it, adding complexities and uncertainties, but does not I’m afraid disqualify it.

I must first return to the third sequence, and the terrible irony revealed in retrospect when one knows how the film will end or its story begin. If the film demonizes gay men, it is clear that Noé is not endorsing violence against them, the futility of revenge receiving stronger treatment here than perhaps anywhere else in cinema. We may not realize this on first viewing (I was so traumatized by the entire opening segment that I missed a number of crucial points), but in retrospect or on reviewing it becomes absolutely clear: this ‘revenge’ is executed by the wrong avenger, on the wrong victim, for the wrong reason. Marcus’s singleminded purpose is to find and punish the Tenia for Alex’s rape, about which project he is fanatical and uncontrollable (we discover subsequently that his motivation is not exactly pure, as he bears a heavy burden of responsibility for what happened).

The gentle, rational Pierre, throughout, is trying to reason with Marcus, restrain him and persuade him to abandon the project (‘Even animals don’t take revenge’). Marcus, in his frantic search, is directed ‘downstairs’ (to a lower circle of Hell?), where he finds a naked man who admits to knowing the Tenia but is much more interested in being ‘fisted’, begging for that pleasure repeatedly. Marcus forces him to lead the way, but is then overpowered, knocked down and forced on to his face (‘I’m gonna fuck your ass’), the anonymous assailant then pulling down his trousers and lying on top of him while another jerks off in the background.

It is this that compels Pierre to leap into action. He grabs a fire extinguisher, strikes the man who is assaulting Marcus, then finds he can’t stop, and ends up reducing the man’s head to a pulp in full view of the camera. When we get to know the film, we recognize the Tenia, watching this performance with some interest among the other spectators (one of whom finds the murder sexually titillating). Alex is completely forgotten, the ‘revenge’is no longer about her. (May I add here, for those who don’t know about such things, that in my experience rape in a gay bathhouse is absolutely unthinkable?).

The murder is so grotesque, so excessive, Pierre (the voice of reason!) so completely out of control, that one is driven to question his motivation. He could, after all, merely have pulled the man off Marcus, or at most knocked him unconscious. Is it enough to say that he is appalled at the imminent sexual violation of his best friend? – that he (like, presumably, his auteur) sees this as the ultimate humiliation that overrides the rape of his (ex-)lover? Or, as the corollary of this, dare we postulate that he is secretly – perhaps unconsciously – in love with his best friend, and absolutely cannot tolerate the sight of another man doing what he would like to do himself – or doing it brutally, as he (Pierre) would do it tenderly? As Pierre is presented throughout as a sympathetic character, this would qualify (without annihilating) one’s sense of the film’s homophobia. I leave this as an open question, being myself quite unsure of the answer.

Backwards to Heaven

The film’s overall trajectory might be summed up as ‘From Hell to Heaven backwards’, but the journey takes in an extremely wide range of incident, debate and emotion, each of its episodes bringing new revelations and insights that drastically alter our reading of what we have witnessed. The hysteria of the opening might be described as the least Brechtian form of cinema imaginable, allowing the spectator no critical distance whatever, yet the reverse structure transforms the film into a model of distanciation (unless, like many of the critics, we take the ‘easy way out’ of blanket rejection). We cannot understand Irreversible, or appreciate its qualities and complexities, unless we are willing patiently to reconstruct its twelve sequences in chronological order. Even the relationship between the film and its title demands thought: ‘Time’, which ‘destroys everything’ is irreversible, yet the structure (defiantly? ironically?) reverses Time.

The three leading characters will never recover emotionally from their actions and experiences (Alex, essentially blameless, acted upon rather than acting, may not even survive physically, Pierre has committed murder, Marcus is battered and hospitalized), yet the spectator, compelled to reconstruct the trajectory that produced the multiple disaster, may learn to be more aware, more responsible, more capable of reflection before action. Had the sequences been shown chronologically we would never have been forced to stand back from our experience, we would be too involved in following the action. I don’t know if this was Noé’s intention, but it seems to me clearly the achieved effect. All great art is, by definition, ‘educational’, and we should not be afraid to use the term.

As the film proceeds, and the narrative recedes, we learn more in each episode about the characters and their motivation – predominantly the two men. Alex is, in a sense, the film’s central figure, everything hinging upon the rape, but she is essentially a passive centre, the pretext (as Laura Mulvey so famously explained in her groundbreaking Visual Pleasure and Narrative Film, though in a somewhat different context) for the men’s actions rather than an actor in her own right. Her only fault (if one can even call it that) is that, within a supposedly civilized society, she walks down a public passageway at night, having been publicly abandoned and humiliated by her lover at a particularly sensitive moment in their lives. True, she is wearing a ‘sexy’ dress, but she was expecting an evening of celebration with her lover and their best friend, and she has been deeply hurt. All she wants is to get away from the party and go home, and the subway is clearly not far…

Rape

The rape is clearly the film’s pivotal scene: everything leads up to it (although no one could possibly have anticipated it), and it motivates everything that follows. And it is the film’s ‘still centre’ – literally, as from the moment the actual rape begins the camera doesn’t move for almost ten minutes. I attribute the abuse that has been heaped upon this scene to the very deep disturbance it arouses (for women, even more than for normally sensitive males like myself, it must be virtually unwatchable), and to Noé’s integrity and unflinching audacity in the artistic choice he has made. With Alex, throughout, screen forward, her face is continuously visible (this being the Tenia, she is of course being sodomized), and we are compelled to share every moment of her terror and agony, the only possibility of release suggested by the fact (pointed out to me by Thom Loree) that the tunnel entrance is always visible in the extreme background and anyone might come in and either intervene or at least rush for the nearest telephone. (One man does appear, sees what is happening, turns and walks contemptibly away – the all-too-common ‘It’s none of my business, why I should get involved?’ syndrome that perhaps suggests a direct challenge to the other, communal, spectator, us).

I would like to challenge the film’s outraged attackers to tell us how (if one accepts that rape can and even should be depicted in a film) it could be presented with greater intelligence and integrity. The clearest way to make my point is to adduce another distinguished representation of rape in the cinema, the climactic scene of Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused (1988). (On one level the comparison is fundamentally unfair: Kaplan was working within the Hollywood ‘system’, which is to say in an environment in which films are only produced if their producers are expecting to make a lot of money from them, whereas Noé works – perhaps with difficulty – within the European notion of cinema, within which, although its products are still expected to be profitable, there are still producers who have an interest in the development of distinguished artists. I have no information about how much freedom Jonathan Kaplan had, or to what extent he had internalized, as Hollywood filmmakers who still have ambitions must, the ‘It’s got to draw the crowds’ syndrome, which is in fact quite complicated and not entirely negative – shouldn’t serious filmmakers, ‘popular’ artists, want to reach a wide audience? Shakespeare and Dickens both did).

And no, this is not a preface to an attack on Kaplan’s generally excellent and honourable film. Yet, if we are talking about the potential titillation of the male spectator (whether the scene encourages or inhibits the possibility that he will want to go out and rape someone when he leaves the theatre), I think Noé definitely wins. What is especially daring in the sequence from The Accused is that it presents (in her dress and in her behaviour) the character played (very audaciously) by Jodie Foster as a sexually promiscuous young woman who is not too fussy about whom she has sex with – she simply likes to have some say in the matter. Her jukebox dance is openly provocative, even inviting.

The point of this is, of course, that there is a very great difference between the enjoyment of sexual pleasure and the experience of being brutally gang-raped, and the film makes that point admirably, the gang-rape, when it transpires, being as horrifying as one could (in terms of cinematic presentation) wish. Nevertheless, I can see male spectators being aroused by Kaplan’s film as I can not see them being aroused by Noé’s. I can (just about) imagine a number of male spectators thinking to themselves (despite the agony and sense of degradation so brilliantly expressed by Foster), ‘Well, after all, she asked for it, didn’t she?’. I cannot even begin to imagine such a response being generated by the rape in Irreversible.

The crux lies in the distinction I threw out earlier between ‘presentation’ and ‘representation’, hence (as a necessary consequence) in the editing (or, in Noé’s case, non-editing). Whatever side we are on, the scene in The Accused is ‘exciting’: given its subject matter, the excitement can be read (according to point of view) in terms of ‘Will they or won’t they?’ – the reviews having made it clear that this is a film about rape, a point which enlists its potential customers on either side of desire: Do we go to it to see how terrible rape is, or to enjoy the promise of a woman being raped?

The film goes out of its way to show the horrific experience, effects, and aftermath of rape, but (given the basic premises of our culture) is this ‘educational experience’ enough to override the excitement conjured up by the editing, which places us repeatedly within the point-of-view of the potential rapists as they watch Jodie Foster perform for them? If we are invited to share their point-of-view, what exactly does this entail, POV having traditionally been associated with ‘identification with the person looking’? In Irreversible there is no POV: no one is watching the rape but the spectator, who cannot project his hideous desires (if he is so debased as to have them) on to a fictional character, he is forced to confront them as his, and to associate himself (if with anyone) with the Tenia. As I remarked earlier, only an advanced psychopath, who requires no help in such matters…

Progressive Regression: The Characters Revealed.

Marcus. We first (Scene 2) encounter Marcus on a stretcher, in shock, barely conscious, carried out to a waiting police ambulance as a cop screams homophobic abuse at him (‘Got your arm broken? Hope you got your ass reamed too. Like Alex. Hope it bled, hope it hurt’). As we can have no idea at this stage who Alex is, we assume perhaps that both are gay men who have ‘gone too far’ – Noé’s unexplained use of an androgynous name in these early segments is interesting, adding to the spectator’s sense of confusion, forcing him/her into possibly misleading interpretations, in other words making you work, the film’s leading principle.

As we pass backwards through the narrative – from the murder, and the rape of Marcus – our impression of him becomes increasingly unfavourable, though modified by the fact that he is clearly in a state of uncontrollable hysteria. In (4) he has stolen the taxi from the ‘dirty chink fuck’, in (5) he is screaming racist insults at the driver, then brutally turning him out of his own cab. Pierre, always (until he witnesses the rape of his friend) rational, tries to calm him but succeeds only in exacerbating his guilt (of which, of course, we know nothing at this point): ‘Half that energy would have saved Alex. Think about that, idiot. Put that in your primal brain…’ Then, after more racist invective from Marcus, ‘Alex would be so ashamed’ – Noé’s avoidance of a personal pronoun leaving us still in the dark about ‘Alex’s’ gender.

I am afraid to make too much of this point. Although I live in a country that is often supposed to be bilingual, I can find no one who has (a) seen the film, and (b) whose French is good enough to confirm what seems absolutely clear in the English subtitles: Alex’s gender is not revealed until we see her on a stretcher 40 minutes into the film (Scene 8). It seems, indeed, to be deliberately suppressed. Throughout, the rape victim has been referred to as ‘Someone’, ‘The victim’, ‘Your friend’ (and even there the French would be ambiguous – ‘Ton ami(e) or ‘Votre ami(e)’. Everyone who saw the film when it came out would have been forewarned by the critics that it was centred on the rape of a woman, so this nuance (if indeed it exists) would have been lost on all of us. It is also unclear to me how exactly the possibility that Marcus’s lover was male would affect our reading of the film, or qualify its apparent homophobia. It is true that our doubts might be removed by Marcus’s virulent homophobia in the early scenes, but even this could be read as reaction against the rape (and possible death) of his lover.

It is not until the party scene (No. 10) that we are allowed a more complex view of Marcus, albeit a somewhat puzzling one. It is there that we see him with Alex for the first time. He has accompanied her, yet he largely abandons her. High on cocaine, he appears ready for adventures. It is, indeed, as if he is celebrating something which we don’t know about – a free, untrammelled male expressing himself spontaneously, with all the presumption of his charisma (guaranteed by the casting of Cassel), ready to take on any available woman who is interested in him, to enjoy his life, his freedom, his male privilege (a woman who behaved like that would immediately be classified as a whore), to the maximum: an attractive, enviable figure, a possible identification-figure for men in the audience, and perhaps, as a love object, a brief fling, for women.

We cannot help responding: so sure of himself, so happy, so full of the joy of life, so spontaneously alive in the flesh, peeing in the kitchen sink in front of everyone when the washroom is occupied, why not?, drawing everyone to him. (I have behaved similarly, at parties, in my own way, following my own idiosyncrasies – which did not include peeing in public, but I probably would have if I’d felt like it). Can we resist him? Alex can; she is clearly deeply hurt, leaves, and is raped in a tunnel on her way to the subway, and Marcus’s guilt will be with him (we are sure) to the end. It is not until the subway scene (11) that we are allowed to see them as ‘permanent’ lovers, and not until the ‘preceding’ scene (12) that she (and we) learn that she is definitely pregnant and that Marcus knows (and rejoices in the fact) that she probably is.

It is then that we realize (with incomparable masculinist irony) that he was celebrating at the party: celebrating his fatherhood, his fertility, his male splendour, yet quite forgetting the woman who was the source of all this. If we (the male audience) identify with his charisma, we are forced also to identify with his guilt. At the core of the film there seems to be some sense of the necessity for men of being able to empathize with women. Noé suggests that they still have a very long way to go.

If our view of Marcus at this point (irresistible but irresponsible) is still mixed, the lovemaking scene (12) greatly strengthens the positive side. We see his tenderness, the genuineness of his love for Alex, his delight (after momentary hesitation) when she tells him she may be pregnant. If there is a moment’s uneasiness it surely comes when he exclaims ‘You know what? I want to fuck your ass’ – and that purely because of its context within the film (many women, as well as many men, are known to enjoy it). The moment resonates both backwards and forwards through the film: backwards, of course, to the Rectum, where anal sex appears to be very much the norm and appears to evoke Noé’s horror; forwards, to the ending, which follows very closely, with its emphasis on the function of sex as procreative. We will have difficulty, in such a context, in seeing Marcus’s remark in terms of ‘normal’ sexual desire.

Pierre. Against Marcus (and, very interestingly, as his best friend) the film sets the opposite, Pierre, the rational man, who lacks his friend’s uninhibited spontaneity, but retains the capacity for reflection: the rational man, who is capable of beating another human’s head to a pulp when he sees him fucking his best friend, the only point in the film where he loses control of himself. The three-way relationship is fascinating: Pierre as Alex’s former lover, his best friend Marcus her present one, the three still bonding. If the party scene most clearly reveals Marcus, the subway scene (11) most reveals Pierre. He represents the other side of ‘masculinity’, the man of intellect and reason, of which the corollary is his lack of what Marcus has in abundance, spontaneity and passion.

The subway dialogue is centred on one the most basic realities of physicality: the fact that Marcus can give Alex orgasms but Pierre could not, try as he might (and he is very ‘head-conscious’ about his efforts). Pierre, in fact comes across as the epitome of D. H. Lawrence’s famous diagnosis of modern man, ‘Sex in the head’, the opposite of what he called ‘spontaneous-creative fulness of being’. Does Pierre (rejected as a lover) continue to hang on because he is still in love with Alex, or still in love with Marcus? In the love-making scene (12), Alex tells Marcus, of Pierre, ‘He adores you. He loves you’. We have Pierre’s inability to ‘let himself go’, then, contrasted with Marcus’s inability to not let himself go.

Alex. Just as the rape scene is the film’s ‘still centre’, so, in a somewhat different sense, is Alex herself, poised between the two men, responsive to both, in a sense betrayed by both: Marcus is too far gone at the party to offer even to see her home, Pierre offers, rather feebly, but allows himself to be easily dissuaded. Both bear some responsibility for the rape, therefore, but Marcus much more than Pierre – she leaves the party because of his behaviour. We know, from the lovemaking scene (12), that he is celebrating. We have seen Marcus there at his irresistible best, witnessed his delight not only in the relationship but also in potential fatherhood. It is unfortunate that ‘celebrating’ means, to Marcus, neglecting and ignoring the woman he clearly loves, and mother of his expected child, in the ‘masculinist’ excitements of ‘fun’ and freedom. Alex, attracted to both men, represents the perfect balance of intellect/emotion, freedom/control, with the capacity to think and feel simultaneously, without conflict. She is even allowed a certain intuitive quality, the old cliche, perhaps, about ‘female intuition’, grudgingly granted to women as compensation for their notorious lack of rationality, claimed by the male sex as its prerogative, yet having a certain positive value in a film in which ‘Time destroys everything’. Going down in the elevator on their way to the party (11), Alex tells the two men she is reading a book which claims that ‘the future is already written’ (cf. ‘Time destroys everything’), and that this is proven by ‘premonitory dreams’; in the lovemaking scene she recounts (seeming disturbed) a dream she has just had about ‘walking down a tunnel’, when ‘everything broke in half’. She does not, however, trust her own premonitory warning. In a very real sense, and despite its reputation, Irreversible is a woman-centred film, with Alex as its centre of gravity, its centre of sanity, its centre of balance.

This allows us a somewhat different reading of the climactic (opening) ‘Rectum’ scenes – one that qualifies but does not contradict the reading with which I began: the Rectum’s ‘Hell’ is a vivid representation of masculinity gone insane, the ultimate expression of masculinism’s worst extremes. But there is still no reason why its exponents have to be gay. One might accuse Noé of promulgating a whole new myth of gayness, as offensive as its long-discredited opposite that all gay men are ‘sissies’: gay men as violent and insatiable predators.

The End

How does one end such a film (or begin such a narrative)? With pregnancy, Kubrick and Beethoven, in a juxtaposition I continue to find very strange. The poster of Kubrick’s ‘Starchild’ from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), above Alex’s bed, receives considerable emphasis, recurring in the brief penultimate scene (Alex alone, in the dress she wears in the final scene in the park). The majority of scenes in the film are either directly or almost continuous. Suddenly we have two brief scenes that are not clearly chronological, are not clearly placed in the time sequence, linked simply by the fact that she is wearing the same dress, a simple ‘outdoor’ or everyday dress (which she doesn’t wear in the main body of the film). As no continuity is established, this need not necessarily be the same day as the remainder of the narrative.

The image of the ‘starchild’, produced in Kubrick’s film as if out of a conjuror’s hat, a mystical image of rebirth, perhaps of human perfectibility, somehow miraculously freed from the constraints and impossible contradictions and struggles of human life with which we are all familiar and which are so vividly depicted in Noé’s film, is immediately undermined by the upsurging of the tragic, fate-laden slow movement of the Beethoven 7th, which continues through the otherwise idyllic final scene of children at play, green grass, water sprinkling, Alex sunbathing nearby, until the soundtrack explodes and (mercifully) expires. I take it that the ‘starchild’ is the unknown potential of the embryo in Alex’s womb – which we know, because we’ve already witnessed it, will be hideously destroyed by masculine brutality within the next few hours: ‘Time destroys everything’.

Which returns us to Seul contre tous (and, perhaps, Noé’s earlier, 50-minute, unavailable, Carne, the film that introduces the butcher who is the centre of the next film and of the first scene of Irreversible). Obviously this character fascinates Noé, becomes some kind of symbol or summing up of a ‘view of existence’. But, perhaps, Irreversible has exorcized him. I hope so. Impressive as the butcher is, I would hate to think of anyone having to live with him through the reminder of his life (or film career). Seul contre tous. is a totally butcher-dominated (hence masculine-dominated) film, although it also operates as a critique of this (for a close reading, see Dion Tubrett’s article in CineAction # 62). As a horribly intimate study of a man ignored and humiliated by the world he inhabits (our world, unless you’re lucky) searching for a meaning he will never reach, it is an extremely important film. I hope I have made it clear that, despite major reservations, I believe Irreversible to be a great one.

I would like here to challenge Gaspar Noé to respond to this (partial, provisional) reading of his film. I think dialogues between artists and critics could, on some occasions at least, be profitable to both sides.

Robin Wood was a groundbreaking critic and historian of cinema.

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Irreversible(Irréversible, France 2002)

Director Gaspar Noé Screenplay Gaspar Noé Directors of Photography Benoît Debie, Gaspar Noé Editor Gaspar Noé Production Design Alain Juteau Music Thomas Bangalter ● With Vincent Cassel Marcus Monica Belucci Alex Jo Prestia Le Tenia ● Produced by Christophe Rossignon Production Companies 120 Film, Eskwad, Grandpierre, Les Cinémas de la Zone, Nord-Ouest Productions, Rossignon, Studio Canal Runtime 95 minutes.

Robin Wood’s essays in Film International 2003-07:

1. Irreversible: Against and For’, 2003:5 (vol. 1, no. 5)

2. ‘Revenge is Sweet: The Bitterness of Audition, 2004:1 (vol. 2, no. 7)

3. ‘Claire Denis: Cinema of Transgression, Part 1′, 2004:3 (vol. 2, no. 9)

4. ‘Only (Dis)Connect and Never Relaxez-Vouz, Or I Can’t Sleep. Claire Denis: Cinema of Transgression, Part 2′, 2004:5 (vol. 2, no. 11)

5. ‘The Heroism of Disobediance and Deceit: Where is the Friend’s Home?, 2005:2 (vol. 3, no. 14)

6. Exodus Collides with the Kedma, 2005:6 (vol. 3, no. 18)

7. ‘The Skull Beneath the Skin: Patrice Chéreau and Son Frère‘, 2006:3 (vol. 4, no. 21)

8. ‘Wild Reeds: A Film of the Past for Our Future’, 2006:5 (vol. 4, no. 23)

9. ‘From Ruggles to Rally; or, America! America! The Strange Career of Leo McCarey’, 2007:3 (vol. 5, no. 27)

8 Comments for “Against and For Irreversible

  1. Wow. This is a really great reading of a film that has long fascinated me. I absolutely adore the cinematography and mise-en-scene of Gaspar Noe’s films, but I have always been more than bothered, not by the explicit sex and violence, but the reactionary implications in them, particularly the apparent homophobia in Irreversible, and the possible misogyny (and Orientalism) in Enter the Void. This reading really keys in on a number of things I find great about this film while contextualizing the very things I find troubling with them. I really wish Wood had lived to see Enter the Void, because I would have loved to read his interpretation of it.

    By the way, does anyone know if Noe ever responded to this article or if he has ever addressed the concerns of homophobia?

  2. As far as we’re aware Wood never received any form of direct reply from Noe.
    On homophobia, Noe had this to say in an interview with the Guardian at the time: “People are mad about the movie, but accusing it of misogyny is a stupidity, as is accusing it of homophobia. It’s not because you have characters that depict aspects of the humankind that you agree with them. I think that Paul Schrader said that about Taxi Driver – just because you give a portrait of a criminal that doesn’t mean you are a criminal yourself.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2002/aug/02/artsfeatures.festivals)

  3. I guess I should have clarified that I don’t think Noe himself is a homophobe or misogynist, and now that you mention it, I have read a few of his justifications for the depiction of gays in Irreversible (apparently the “Rectum” was filmed in a real sex club with real patrons as extras, and Noe is the guy fisting himself because he didn’t want to be seen as looking down on them – although in some ways this character he played just plays on stereotypes).

    I also did not realize when I typed that message that Enter the Void premiered at Cannes several months before Wood died. Does anyone know if he had the chance to see it or wrote anything on it? I imagine he was quite ill at the time, so it doesn’t surprise me that I’ve turned up nothing.

  4. Unrelated to the above, but one thing from the article’s interpretation of events I thought worth commenting on:

    I’m pretty sure the people screaming insults at Marcus and Pierre are mostly the two thugs they used to find the transsexual prostitute. You can see one of the brothers standing outside the Rectum as the stretcher comes out and he is commenting on how they didn’t pay, and the voice shouting from somewhere farther away also makes references to not being payed.

  5. I always thought Pierre brutally murders the man because of his deep love for Alex, sure he was the rational one in every other scene in the film and only jumps into action after Marcus is about to be raped, but if you notice his facial expressions in that scene are very conflicted…I think what happens is after the first blow his adrenaline starts rushing, everyone is cheering him on, and he just loses it…but i think it has nothing to do with Marcus and everything to do with Alex…and I once raid that Noe filmed that scene in the gay club with just men because he wanted it to represent Testosterone in its most pure form..

  6. @ Alex

    I always figured the same thing too.

  7. Someone should tell this critic that writing in a nebulous vocabulary with a peppering of French doesn’t mean people will find the review more interesting.Being a good writer is about pointing our curious observations- not trying to baffle people with an impressive but ultimately dull range of words.
    In relation to the movie I liked the idea that it was a heaven to he’ll journey,but the whole homophobia argument I call bullshit on. Pierre killed that guy because he was secretly jealous,come ooooon.
    He battered him to death because he wanted to protect his friend,was distressed by what had happened to Alex and lastly because he probably felt that the world would be better off without such inhuman sicko’s as The Tenia in it.
    The reason this movie is important for me is that it bravely explores the darker side of the human soul and it truly examines in quite a realistic manner the stark reality of ‘evil’- malicious and intentional.not killer clowns and giants in hockey masks.
    This is in fact the purest type of psychological horror movie,and it’s beautifully crafted and passionate about where it takes you. It’s definitely not ‘torture porn’ as some have labelled it (Serbian Film anybody?).

    Personally I believe that the movie deserves to be given a chance.if you watch the two scenes out of context they seem excessiveyet when it’s all pulled together they’re relevant and the grotesqueness of them seems justified in order to attune the audience to the psychological wavelength this movie wants to broadcast at. The whole film may be hellish to watch, but boy does in get you thinking and in that sense it makes this a masterpiece of cinema history in my opinion.

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