Irreversible (2002)

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This one is going to be tough.

WARNING – BELOW CONTAINS FRANK DISCUSSIONS OF ADULT THEMES, VIOLENCE, RAPE AND MURDER.


 

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.

-Alex

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Irreversible (2002)

“The Child and The Toybox”: Captain America: Civil War

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As I perhaps rather meanly remarked to my sister who took me to see it, “It’s the best Avengers film yet.”

Let’s not mince any words here. No matter what is said, what is discussed or who says it, Captain America: Civil War will be a commercial and most likely critical success. 13 films in, even with the constant tinkering and refinement, there’s simply too much production investment and formulaic story-telling for any Marvel film to be anything less than average. The biggest shock at this point would be if no one went to see a Marvel movie, and it was also terrible. So with that out-of-the-way, its time to actually look under the hood and see what’s going on in here.

I’m no huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the two exceptions being Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man), and I was certainly no fan of the previous film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  The faux politicking, the plodding and hammy plot combined with essentially the least colorful (metaphorically) characters in the Marvel Universe (really most of the film is about guys in muted blue/greys fighting each other) did nothing to convince me of the apparent excellence of it.

This film, Civil War however is arguably the best “straight” film to have come out of the MCU. When I say straight I mean a film primarily dedicated to “action-adventure” not “action-comedy” as say Guardians or Ant-Man is. It’s plot and thematic elements are interesting enough (even though they’re the same themes found in Batman vs. Superman, which all seem to stem from Alan Moore’s Watchmen). The battle between oversight versus individual liberty is a question which can be answered pretty easily (Hint: It’s don’t let any one person have the unlimited authority to do anything they think is right), but is still fun enough to ground a movie, and give cause to the supposed “civil war”. Luckily, since the politics involved are all rather creaky, when it exhausts and abandons this train of thought (as a rated BBFC 12 superhero must do if it ever tries to ask a serious question), it falls back on the familiar ground of personal vengeance and murdered parents, something I can only describe as “The Batman” mode of storytelling. It’s the right move in comparison to The Winter Soldier, which carried its flaky politics all the way through to its flabby and weak ending (hardcore fascism is defeated by dissolving any oversight, rather than say just having an Internal Affairs department.) It’s a cliché, but that’s okay, because there are far worse things to use in films than well-known truths or devices.

So thematically, it carries easily the greatest gravitas on any Marvel film to date, simply because it turns over the one rock that all superheroes and vigilantes awkwardly face, “why do you get to act above the law and get off scott free causing collateral deaths?”. But really it all seems to be used as a way to get everyone to go globetrotting and fight each other but not really because they’re all friends. A Civil War this is not. This is essentially two friends falling out in high school, and asking their friends to take sides. The big climactic fight scene can only be explained through an allegory I am making up right now.

THE CHILD AND THE TOYBOX

The real set piece of the film, the meat of the dish so to speak, is the [spoiler] scene where Team Captain America fights Team Tony Stark. They’re fighting each other essentially with the training wheels on. Neither party wants to hurt the other, Captain America is trying to chase the real villain, Iron Man is trying to stop Captain America because he doesn’t know who the real villain is and thinks its Bucky/The Winter Soldier. So the people who like Iron Man try to stop the people who like Captain America.

When I was a child, I had many a number of toys. Superheroes, film characters, wrestlers, animals, my sister’s toys, it didn’t matter. We just had a toy box. So when I pulled toys out to play with, often I would make them fight each other. Toys from all different fictional worlds, it didn’t matter, they would all just have a big bust up. They would fight and kick and punch and slam together, rocketing around the room as they had the greatest fight ever. A good visual reference might be this old video I saw a very long time ago.

And so it went. But the thing that would happen, when I would launch my toys at each other, was that eventually they would break. And suddenly it wasn’t so much fun, because real damage had occurred to a toy I owned.

That’s essentially the mechanic every Marvel film indulges in, but this one takes it too its logical extreme. Except for the last part. All the cool characters gather to have a fight, and they all have an extremely compelling and fun to watch fight. It’s the visual externalisation of that childhood fantasy of watching all your favourite characters battle it out to see who will be the winner. Of course, like any childhood fantasy, it tells realism to promptly fuck off in the name of entertainment, and this is perhaps why the film works so well. Because its entertaining and as a result, fun. It’s witty without being incessant (the Avengers films spring to mind), it’s humour is honest and to a degree innocent, and just like a childhood fantasy, its damage is limited to essentially the least favourite character.

Don Cheadle’s (who is the second addition to the list of “Why are all the best people playing bit parts”, the first being Paul Rudd as Ant-Man in this film) character, War Machine, takes a tumble and by the end of the film we see him in physical therapy trying to learn how to walk again. The real issue of course, is that no real harm can come to the main players of this entire franchise, which is only growing increasingly larger. Each film they batter down cardboard villains whilst jeopardising the main players, and transferring the actual consequences onto foils. This is exactly the same problem that Avengers: Age Of Ultron had. Quicksilver, who is introduced in the film before promptly being killed off, is meant to be the emotional stand up, the one who reminds everyone that these superheroes exist in a real world where their actions matter. And that’s also the large thrust of Civil War. Tony Stark is upset because the events of AoU lay heavy on his shoulders, while a woman explains that a building falling on her boy during the climactic fight in AoU is somehow directly the fault of Iron Man himself, asking who will “avenge his death”.

Hell the entire villain of this film, easily the best villain Marvel films have had (while also reminding me very much of the much better villain of the Sony Marvel production X-Men 2, William Stryker) is a direct consequence of the actions of the previous consequence-less romp. His family was killed by the city drop in AoU (God just keeping up with all these happenings is exhausting).

What I’m saying is the film seems to be aware of its own dissonance, it is a film exploring the consequences of superheroes, by having them essentially have another consequence-less romp through the globe. It almost works as a self-reflexive inner retreat, as if their violence and actions suddenly become okay or just less problematic if they decide to fight each other instead of other people. That way at least they’re not directly hurting anyone (even if they destroy millions of pounds worth of property). I think in essence, the film is caught between the child mind, and the adult mind. When Tony Stark and Captain America engage in the final fight, it seems inevitable that one will kill the other, just by going too far. In fact I did think that had occurred at one point, as Captain America digs his shield into the machine that keeps Iron Man’s heart going. But no, Captain America leaves and Iron Man doesn’t chase him and they become kind of friends by the end.

There’s no toys really breaking, just a relentless thrashing of child-like play fighting that has been going on now for 13 movies. And that’s entertaining, but its incomplete. We can’t stay in paradise forever. Sooner or later, someone has to wedge some truth into this increasingly schizophrenic superhero medium, it’s only getting increasingly maddening to see. This purgatory of relentless stake raising combined with lack of meaning, forever deeming the superheroes to constantly question if the world needs them, only to face a foe they have to defeat at the expense of one person/1000 persons/a city/a planet/who knows what else, which then leads to everyone decrying them and then rinse repeat.There’s no progress, it’s the definition of insanity.

You could argue that I’ve gone down the rabbit hole too far, that I’m over-analysing what is essentially a kid’s movie, but it’s not! It’s about personal responsibility and societal oversight and the conflict of personal vendettas against law-abiding actions and government conspiracies and my god it’s not exactly a Saturday Morning Cartoon here. This is heavy stuff, so I can try to switch my childhood passive consumptive brain on, but my adult brain can’t stop prodding me awake. It’s just crazy.

Then again, so is watching 10+ people in crazy costumes pummel the crap out of each other. But it sure is fun.

Anyway in short Paul Rudd is the best thing about this movie and everyone should go watch Ant-Man.

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– Alex

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“The Child and The Toybox”: Captain America: Civil War