This one is going to be tough.
WARNING – BELOW CONTAINS FRANK DISCUSSIONS OF ADULT THEMES, VIOLENCE, RAPE AND MURDER. PLEASE PROCEED WITH CAUTION AND AT YOUR OWN RISK.
When you make a film, you make a statement.
When you make a film which concerns the darkest of natural evils, it only succeeds if it accurately reflects those evils in the real world.
The reason why Irreversible (2002, Gaspar Noé) is so terrifying, is because it feels so real.
But a film is not reality. And what this film does is take the human world, a world in which such awful acts and awful consequences can occur, and make it more real than real. And there’s two big ways that occurs. The first is the film’s structure, the story told from end to beginning in 13 scenes. It’s an experience equivalent to walking up a flight of stairs, the whole set of stairs moving rightwards but you’re walking up them leftwards. It’s a truly disorienting structure, akin to walking up(?) a flight of M. C. Escher staircases. It forces you to reverse engineer everything, something so abstract from our normal processes of daily life. Usually you start with thoughts, motivations, expectations which then lead to action, doing and consequences. But to be forced to refocus your mind, to not grow with and alongside the characters, but to witness their ending’s first and work backwards. It’s a perspective which forces you to understand the events in a different way.
More than that, it’s a perspective which forces you to encounter the consequences of the actions, and their abhorrent nature, before you can use the framework of character motivation to talk about justice and justification. The film’s guttural, inexpressibly dark actions are presented as raw as can be understood, horrific actions that happen to the humans in front of us. Before we have gotten to know them, their motivations, their loves and fears and tensions and relationships, we witness what they’re capable of. And you are forced to bear witness to it, in some of the most uncompromising cinema and cinematography I have ever seen. You have to reconstruct the story, but not in the way you might in a film noir or crime story. You are not a detective working out a puzzle, because the ending is your starting point. All you can do is witness the strands slowly unweave themselves, as they become darkened by the knowledge of their ending.
It’s style is the other bastion of refocusing your mind, and it is delirious. The cinematography is mind-bending, the equivalent of starting off at the harsh end of an acid trip. It pays no attention to the traditional markers of human experience; scale, distance, orientation, perspective. It rolls backwards, passing through the walls and skies of Paris with reckless, trippy abandon. It destroys your normal limitations of how you experience the world, but its power is volatile and explosive. It throws you into a cinematic typhoon at points, barreling through space and time completely lost, as a drunk might do on the edge of blackout. And then at other moments, it becomes still and clear, resolutely focused on witnessing the black, pulsing heart of humanity, rape and kill its way through the world.
It’s whole world is tainted, tainted by the inevitability of its actions, but also as the film moves forward and backwards simultaneously, it’s tainted by the sheer horror of its actions. The irreversible actions you bear witness to, it is impossible for their effects to be irreversible either. There is no going back, no way to un-experience it, even as it moves into a time before those events. The hellish red, a colour which invokes blood, sex, violence, seeps into everything, practically bleeding through the films walls both literally and metaphysically. The scenes that happen earlier, become charged with sickening dread, charged with the knowledge that God might have of knowing how every story ends. And the sound of the film, explored here from pg 87 onwards, is one which matches that hell. One which through music and sound, is discordant, grotesque and nausea inducing (literally, through low-frequency sounds).
And you can’t talk about the hellish experience of the film, without invoking the actors, the human participants who you are anchored to. And never has that anchoring process, of aligning yourself with the characters of a story and sharing their experiences, felt so caustic and soul-destroying. As we watch Alex (Monica Bellucci), Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) have their lives up until then obliterated, our empathy is assaulted alongside it, the waves of events crashing over us and rippling through us. The obscene violence, the degrading and unending nightmare of the rape, all of those are endured, channeled through the actors into our vision, experiences so brutal they can often not be lived through. Noé asked his actors to go further, to do more than almost every other film ever made. To put them through the knife-edge of darkness, and it is some of the bravest performances I’ve seen.
The whole film is one of disorder, the most violent assault of chaos on the human soul. And it’s nightmare is so violently unendurable, just like the nightmare of rape is for so many sexual assault and rape survivors. It’s an experience which creates a void space, something that can become impossible to process, reconstruct, to ever properly heal from. The phrase “Time heals all wounds”, feels pitiful and ironic next to Noé’s ending statement, “Time destroys all things”. The one thing I was terrified of, going into this film, was the potential for the films events to not be given the weight they truly represent. Rape especially has had a poor, often misogynistic treatment in cinema history, but violence itself has also become something cartoonish. Countless experiences of action films, superhero movies, war films and all the like, portray the aspects of violence we want to believe in. The thrill of the fight, the valiant defense, the fight against invisible and unknown enemies we don’t need to empathise with.
Irreversible does not do that. It forces you to encounter the colossal, unimaginable weight of the real life actions. The ugly, brutal, cruel and often unpunished nature of humanity’s most irreversible sins. It presents unflinchingly, the closest experience besides real life. And it is a film which sears itself into your consciousness, a film which gives screen violence and screen rape the core-shaking effects it has on the real human psyche. And for Noé to pull that blood-drenched heart out and expose it to you, to confront anyone brave enough to watch it with an experience that mirrors the trauma of real life rather than try to hide it or edit it out, it’s to be supported. Films should not just be made for entertainment, because life is not just entertainment. And art must reflect the world around it, through whatever stylistic forms it chooses. And while the legacy of this film will remain forever muddied, in its violations of normal good taste, decency etc, it proves one thing.
Fearless works of art are irreversible, for better and for worse. That’s the truth.
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