M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   G U R E V I C H

The French keep rebelling against their own culture on a regular basis. The New Wave rebelled against the mannerly, artificial dramas and comedies of the '40s and '50s, and now there seems to be another new wave gathering momentum, from Catherine Breillat's Romance, to Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy, to Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day, to Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi's Baise-Moi. (The latter was all in the title, "Fuck Me," which US distributors chose to render as "Rape Me," perhaps subconsciously paying obeisance to the radical feminism of Andrea Dworkin, in which Sex=Rape.) And now we have Irreversible by Gaspar Noé, a film that cleverly marries the formalism of Memento to sex and violence — in as shocking terms as possible. It seems as though there's a race among French filmmakers to outdo one another in reducing all human condition to meaningless graphic sex and violence.

The above films were meant for the art-house crowd, but the trend has leaked into commercial films as well, as shown in Wasabi, a cute toy of a flick that went straight to video. There, Jean Reno goes to Japan to protect his daughter from the yakuza and in the process behaves with far more disrespect for the law than all Hollywood's dirty cops combined. The blame for the trend is laid at the Americans' door: if Truffaut and Godard took their inspiration from Ford and Hawks, Mr. Noé lists his as Deliverance. To link movies to politics too closely would be to fall into a French-made trap, but one would have to go to a desert island to disconnect this from the headlines.

Enough preamble already — what's this "irreversible" thing about? Well, it seems that after a night of coke and techno music, Alex (Monica Bellucci at her sultry, provocative best) dumps her boyfriend and her ex-boyfriend (Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel), leaves on her own, and is brutally raped and beaten in a hellish-looking underpass. After she is taken to a hospital in a coma, the boyfriends vow revenge, which leads them to an S&M gay club, and the rest is… well, that's where the film opens and proceeds in Memento-like reverse-time fashion, all the way to the idyllic scene where Alex lies in a meadow, with young children running around her. And that's the entire story — pretty thin by conventional standards, but to treat filmmaking like storytelling would be like eating at McDonalds, non? Mr. Noé is after something bigger. But of course. Surely Mme. Breillat was after something more than plain epatage de bourgeoisie when she had her character raped by a homeless man in Romance.

First of all, there's the Memento trick: Is the real purpose to de-story the story, to strip the narrative of convention, to go back from the man's condition of satanic violence to his endemic state, or is it merely to camouflage the story's flimsiness? Of course the flimsier the narrative, the easier it is to de-bone. In general, the time-reversal trick is just that — a trick — an infinitely flawed concept. When conventional time markers lose their meaning — you can't have the action reversed second by second, you can do it only piecemeal, scene-by-scene — it is the director who arbitrarily imposes his own markers, which would make any independent-minded viewer squirm a bit. Those who saw Memento will recall that its director, Christopher Nolan, tried to anchor his time-reversal trick in the real narrative need: the hero suffered from a form of day-by-day amnesia that led him to write down things that he would otherwise forget. One could say it was a trick propping up another trick, but at least the director was trying to justify his concept in creative terms: no such sucking up to the audience for our Parisian auteur.

But forget the time-reversal: that's not what everybody will be talking about. The heroes' search for the rapist is shot with a camera that appears completely out of control, turning the viewer into their comrade, just as stoned and drunk, stumbling through the Gehenna of The Rectum, an unimaginatively named S&M club. The prime color is flaming red, and the roles of devils are performed by the patrons sticking their private parts in your face. And then there's the beating that, yeah, will probably shock the hell out of you, pun unintended.

And then there's the rape itself, followed by a beating. To Mr. Noé, "less is more" must sound like another capitalist slogan, so the scene is 10 minutes of pure violence to turn most people sick, while the sheer length of it risks to bore those who do not look away. Did Mr. Noé learn from his Parisian philosophy "profs" the Marxist law of quantity turning to quality? Give it up, dude. It doesn't work. Those who can't stand graphic scenes — and it is graphic — will look away, and those who can will start looking at their watches soon enough.

The scene is seasoned by social commentary ("You rich bitch!"), though, save from an expensive-looking gown, nowhere else in the film do we see any evidence of Alex's wealth. Granted, American myth goes too far in the opposite direction, substituting racial violence for class-based one, but this is just a tiny reminder of how the ideas of the French Left, long on life support, refuse to die. Au contraire: now they get an adrenalin shot from the coming war.

Way into the film you begin suspecting that Pierre might have bludgeoned the wrong guy after all — should it matter? Well, yeah, in conventional terms it would — but not to Mr. Noé, who is here to denounce humanity at large (especially the male half). His vengeful white males (helped by mercenary Arabs, to be fair) spout all sorts of racist and homophobic nonsense and eventually might be getting the wrong guy. Now, isn't that a great argument against all violence? But then Mr. Noé claims to be apolitical — just French, I am tempted to add.

All these modern films are like postmodern art — it's not what you see that counts; it's what the artist tells you that you should see. In his interview le maitre confirms that yes, the wrong guy was killed, and he voices disappointment that "some viewers fail to pick up on that fact." Well, we don't want those viewers, do we? We want to put velvet ropes and bar them from coming into the exclusive club called French Cinema, whose ardent backers still think of Americans as a bunch of cowboys. So what should Americans-the-cowboys make of the French?

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Lions Gate
Movie Web site: Irreversible



Photo credits: © 2003 Lions Gate Entertainment. All rights reserved.