Please note, the below article refers to sexual violence and depiction of rape and therefore may not be suitable for all readers
By Mique Watson
You might have heard of this film’s controversy–that it garnered hundreds of walkouts when it premiered at Cannes, while on the other hand–those that stayed sang praises about it. One wonders whether or not they’d like to even give a kind of film like this an attempt; and in truth, this is an extremely difficult film to recommend (and I’ve gotten friends to watch Pascal Laugier’s “Martyrs”–but this is one a whole other level).
The camerawork is dizzying, the color palette is muddy with gaudy fiery colors, the score (The film’s soundtrack was composed by Thomas Bangalter, one half of the electronic music duo Daft Punk) throbs with a frequency that is sickening–and the overall effect it has on the viewer is not one that is–in any way, shape, or form–pleasant. Like most of Gasper Noe’s films, each individual scene in this film is a single, uncut shot; some scenes going on for 20 minutes at a time.
This posts both a challenge to the cast and leaves us both in wonder at the film maker’s technique, but also staring at the screen in utter horror (I personally had to fast-forward) when the infamous 15-minute long rape scene happens. Alex is disgustingly violated on the concrete floor of a deserted underground tunnel; Noe doesn’t shoot this scene in any way that fetishizes the attack; he forces the viewer to understand the gravity of the awfulness that many women all around the world are subjected to on a daily basis–the acts of utter cruelty that humans are capable of inflicting on one another are soul-crushing.
The film has quite a heavy message, and a serious purpose in order to justify its existence. And, the whole notion that Noe hasn’t intended to fetishize this, is probably the only consolation any viewer with the fortitude (and stomach) to make it to the end will have. The best indicator that proves how this film is ultimately positing an anti-rape message is the fact that the whole film is told backward (like Christopher Nolan’s “Memento”).
What happens at the beginning of the film is so horrific and haunting, that it casts a dour shadow over the rest of the film. Even seeing the couple basking in the afterglow of their lovemaking–with golden-hour sunset hues tinting the room with the color of rich honey–you can’t help but recall the horrific events that were on display prior, and this seemingly blissful moment has a shadow of despair and inevitability cast over it.
“Noe’s choice to tell this story in this way makes the violence and rape something that does not happen in the film’s climax, as an exploitatively trashy B-movie would have it.”
This wouldn’t have worked if this film was told in chronological order. It centers around a couple, Alex (Monica Bellucci) and Marcus (Vincent Cassel); Noe is a provocateur who is not one to shy away from displaying sex and nudity in his films. After the aforementioned scene of them making love, they end up at a party–Alex is seen in a revealing, tight dress that emphasizes Bellucci’s beautiful figure; thus, she is flirted with as people in the backdrop of the party speak about her with derision at her immodest fashion. A friend of the couple, Pierre (Albert Dupontel), who–it is revealed–was a former lover of Alex.
After this setup, one thing leads to another and Alex storms out of the party as she walks en route to her home. She makes her way down to this subway tunnel, when she is then confronted by Le Tenia (Jo Prestia)–what happens next is a rape scene so dragged out and horrific that it will certainly distress the most steeled of viewers. Subsequently, Marcus and Pierre explore the midnight streets of Paris for La Tenia, which leads to them happening on an S&M club, where the rest of the horrific incidents transpire.
All of this is purposefully told in reverse order; the film starts off with the events documenting the aftermath of the search for La Tenia and so on… Noe’s choice to tell this story in this way makes the violence and rape something that does not happen in the film’s climax, as an exploitatively trashy B-movie would have it. Because we, and not the character are aware of what is to happen, we feel saddened as we think about how the film starts whilst we watch how happy the couple is at the beginning.
“Irreversible” proves to be both a scathing condemnation of how films have pornographically depicted violence against women and in turn, how our culture sexualizes women and victim-blames them.”
Also, because we see Marcus’ revenge occur prior to the graphic rape scene, the film’s effect is different: had this been told in chronological order; we’d see this as a story punishing Alex for her choice of attire and her promiscuous dancing; it would be a nasty film about slut-shaming.
It can then safely infer that Noe’s ire is geared toward the rapist, and not Alex., This, in turn, pushes back on the notion that women and what they wear are should be blamed when they are assaulted; in reality, it is the men who choose to do the assaulting that are to be blamed, and Noe reinstates that with every shot of this film.
All this, coupled with the fact that the film, ending where it does, depicts Alex as a human being, and doesn’t reduce her to a sex object whose only purpose is to appear in a titillating rape scene (spoiler alert: there is nothing titillating about this rape scene; it is bloody, graphic, cold, cruel, and utterly horrific to endure).
This is a film that is unflinching in its depiction of rape, and it is brutally honest in that regard. “Irreversible” proves to be both a scathing condemnation of how films have pornographically depicted violence against women and in turn, how our culture sexualizes women and victim-blames them when they are subjected to cruel acts at the hands of men.