Saturday, January 15, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#15) Gaspar Noe's IRREVERSIBLE

That's how I like my titles: In a fucking mirror!
Ah, Irreversible, what a sweet little slice of life it is.  It was actually suggested by my wife, bless her fuzzy pajama'd self, as she had wanted to see it for years.  I, too, was curious about it, but it was also one of those "dangerous" movies, one that polarized audiences to a maximum level, and in fact was designed to annoy the viewer with its soundtrack (I shit you not) featuring audio that is meant to make people nauseus and have vertigo (the ol' 28Hz, usually found during earthquakes).  It seemed like the cinematic equivalent of that scene from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure where Pee-Wee has to get all the animals out of the pet store, and yet he always sees that tank of snakes.  Some time he has to get to them, but oh Lord, does he really have to?  Don't we all.

Shot in blood-cum-o-vision
My feelings about writer/director Gaspar Noe going into it were also, at best, mixed.  I hated his first film, I Stand Alone, which wallows in the degradation of his protagonist without so much as a morsel of something to actually care about with all of the agony and depression of the character (plus, yeah, some pretentious shots and scripting don't help).  Then his latest film, Enter the Void, actually impressed me with its high-flying pirouetting view of life after death, or life as a some-spirit-thing in the skies of Tokyo, an overlong but visually captivating and gleefully deranged mind-bender through life and death.  So this, too, was a factor in not rushing to see a movie where the main attraction- that is to say its centerpiece and its most notorious point (if not the reason for its existence)- being an unbroken shot of a ten-minute rape scene (give or take a few seconds).

And make no mistake about it: that's why this movie is really here as it is.  It's like when looking back to a movie like Rififi, the classic 1950's French heist movie, where the heist is mostly what people remember about it.  And yet when looking back at Rififi, it's still an amazingly crafted crime story with interesting characters and *about something* when it's not about its central long-ass heist sequence.  Irreversible is different: its lead up to this, that is to say Noe's gimmick of having the action of the film told backwards, is shot so repulsively that it reflects its content and is just shameless (or shameful) exploitation.  And then after this rape scene... the movie actually gets better somehow, or rather it is a little more tolerable and not quite as shocking as before, albeit with some gratutious dialog between characters, somehow improvised, aluding to what happened at the start/end of the movie.

But a problem that Noe has here, or it's just his intention is...





Whew.  Yeah, just getting that out is extreme enough.  But it's so much about how the movie is about its extremeness that decreases what is so compelling and, for a few moments, morally challenging and engaging. That rape scene, the one you've probably heard about associated with Irreversible and featuring the ever brave Monica Belucci before adventuring to watch, is so moving and harrowing and leaving one dead cold in one's seat (as my wife and I were just frozen in position, me grabbing her slanket-covered self, her holding my hand) precisely because of a decision Noe makes with the camera and cutting.  

He never cuts, not once, and it doesn't move for a good five minutes during the "main action" of the assault.  We're forced to confront the horror and torment that all women fear and that men fear for the women in their lives (or that rapists themselves, the ones who go all out, may do one day or have done), and it's not cheap or exploitative.  I'm reminded of how Jean-Luc Godard talked about tracking shots being a question of morality.  I think the same could be said for static shots with a long take (and no, Andy Warhol from the grave, you don't count, sit down).

I praise this sequence, and Noe's intentions, and yet what comes before this in the film, the first half hour, still has my head reeling.  We see the consequences of this rape, the revenge of it by the character Vincent Cassel plays, as he goes to seek the bastard who did this to his girlfriend in a gay club called The Rectum (ho-ho).  Actually more than that, it's meant to be a hell-on-Earth sort of place, loaded with men in bondage and crazy fisting sessions and men in corners doing things I can't write here without washing my hands.  

And yet it wasn't the content that disturbed me so much- although a beating with a fire-extinguisher is brutal to watch (until one notices how CGI-fake it looks as the beating goes on to unendurable length)- but the style.  I'm reminded of what Jim Emerson wrote in his Dogme 95-style blog on new rules for filmmakers, and the first one being about getting a tri-pod, and that when people notice the camera is moving to throw things at the screen.  Believe me, dear reader, in this part of the movie on The Rectum, I could've thrown a piano at the screen and it wouldn't of been enough.

Gaspar's mother reacts to seeing Irreversible
The camera moves around as though it were handled by an apopletic wolverine high on angel dust and upset that the Red Sox lost the World Series for the 100th time.  It swives and shakes and jars and goes into such jagged points of view as to make Terry Gilliam want to blow chunks, and it doesn't nothing, nothing, to really drag one (or rather ME) into the action.  Maybe for some this EXTREME FILMMAKING will work, but it just didn't for me.  It's too all over the place, too jarring, too noticeable in its trying to be extreme and, in its own way, self-important in itself.  If one doesn't know, as Noe doesn't seem to in this particular sequence and then somewhat over to the next/previous scene of Cassell in the cab fighting with the driver, that the style of the camera and the cutting (or lack thereof) corresponds with the material being shown, then one should go back to school and learn how to shoot a fucking scene in a gay club and a murder with a fire estinguisher!  DOGDAMNIT!

Now, on the other extreme side, Noe also calms down somewhat after this big-centerpiece rape scene.  And this is not as intolerable because, as going with the Dome 09.8 creedo, it's not noticeable handheld work and works with telling this story (or what little there is to tell) of this relationship between Alex and  Marcus and somewhat with Alex's ex Pierre (also, a side note, a little weird to see so comfortable conversation between a girl, her ex and their current ex, and about sex no less, but hey, they are French, at least two of them anyway).  The shots are still hand-held but not wobbly or zooming just a bit in and out to make like it's breathing (ugh).  And the actors do what they can with the characters and it does do its best to make the tragedy that comes later/before matter more.

For a moment happy times for Belluci and Cassel and, for us too

What undercuts this though are Noe's frustrating attempts to make it even more depressing and tragic than it already is with references to a) the tunnel itself where the rape happens, b) a certain 'time of the month' mini-drama that feels cheap and manipulative (which includes, I also shit you not, a LOOK-AT-THIS shot of the Star Child from 2001 on a poster above the bed in Alex's room), and c) a certain sexual reference.  If these were cut out the already touching momentum would be there, and it wouldn't be so in-your-face about it.  But Noe in an ironically Hollywood-moviemaker way about him, isn't sure audiences won't get it unless he hammers it into their consciousness; ironic since this attempts to be (and perhaps is) one of those notorious 'controversial' movies, the likes of which back in the 1980's would have been thrown in a trash compactor in Britain nevermind the Video Nasties list, and would be 'that' movie you come across in college... like I Spit on Your Grave.  Shudder.

And no, thankfully, this isn't as bad as I Spit on Your Grave (thank goodness as only the Holocaust and root canal are worse than that travesty), though both filmmakers, perhaps, do share a pretention in common and involving rape.  Thankfully in terms of having an eye and (mostly) knowing how to use it and in letting actors improvise who are good at it, Noe knows his stuff.  But he knows it so well that he's going to piss off an audience who has come to, well, if not entertained, at least get something fulfilling out of it.  By the time the last minutes go by and Beethoven's 7th/2nd (the best music that has been over-used for dramatic effect WAY too long) and the last minute is just seizure-inducing white light, it's enough.  I want to respect this movie, and I do in some part, but its own maker makes it so hard to get close to, like a postulous scab that has little hope except to pus and sore all around.

Harry Plinkett prepares his review of Irreversible after Baby's Day Out

PS: As for my dear wife... she took it less kindly than I did, outright hating it for its pretentions and for it being all surrounding the rape sequence AND for having its non-linear structure wrapped around a thin story (which I can't argue too much, though it does give a "huh, yeah, that thing, I feel bad about that" moment after the preceeding scene, maybe too much I gahter).

Or her comment on seeing a picture of this sums it up:

Gaspar Noe is an evil fetus

Well put, my love!

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