Z To A: Irréversible (2002)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: Alex (Monica Bellucci) and Marcus (Vincent Cassel) are a couple whose story is told over the course of a fateful day. The odyssey begins with a brutal killing then unspools in reverse to reveal the horrifying events that lead to the gut-wrenching, violent climax of the opening scene. Irréversible’s disturbing look at fate and destiny pushes the envelope of human emotions and takes filmmaking to another level.

– From DVD Production Notes

(Spoilers Ahead)

Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible is the most important film I’ve seen in my adult life. It’s also my favorite film in that regard (Alice In Wonderland still rules my childhood).

Many viewers find the film unwatchable or the kind of thing you only see once. In fact, it’s been on so many lists of “Movies You Only Watch Once” that I’ve lost count. People always have something to say about Irréversible. It’s a devastating, difficult experience. It’s especially difficult for men, who walked out of screenings more often than women. It even infuriates them. I was at a formal dinner where the film was mentioned and a man got so riled up he began swearing and called Monica Bellucci a slut.

My perspective on Irréversible is different, to say the least. I see it as an exercise in empathy, and when you hear people talk about it you discover just how empathetic they truly are. In my experience people are frightened by the film and immediately assume nothing close to its events could happen to them (in fact, I’ve heard people say as much while watching, “That would never happen to me”). I disagree. If Irréversible teaches us anything it’s “anything can happen to you.”

When it comes down to it, Alex, Marcus and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) aren’t particularly remarkable people. What makes them notable are the extreme circumstances they find themselves in. There’s no way of telling how we would react when ambushed by those same circumstances. It’s easier to make judgments than actually think about it.

This becomes even more troubling when you think of how much can change because of an offhand, banal decision. Like being too impatient to hail a taxi.

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In fact, a lot of the film’s second half (in this case, the story’s beginning) is a culmination of split-second choices that people make all the time. Some are good and some are bad, but most of them remind me of a suggestion uttered earlier in the film, “There are no good or bad deeds, just deeds.”

It’s the characters’ reactions to these choices that propel the first half (conversely, the story’s end). Viewers are plunged into a nightmarish situation as Marcus tears through Paris, threatening and beating whoever he talks to, showering them with racist and homophobic slurs. Pierre is the one who tries to stop him until they reach the end of their journey in The Rectum, a gay S&M club. Acting on self-righteous anger and cheered on by the crowd, he murders one of the patrons.

To say the least it’s an extreme situation. We discover that the two men are trying to avenge the violent rape of Alex, who prematurely left a party they were attending. The camera movement aligns itself with their irrationality and anger, or as writer Jason Shawhan puts it: “picture the camera as floating on a body of water during the course of the narrative. [Alex’s] rape is the equivalent of dropping a two hundred pound rock from about thirty feet up into that body of water, and the turbulence caused by the impact effects the camera for a considerable amount of time.”

But that isn’t all there is to Irréversible, even when it comes to its most controversial scene: an unbroken shot in which Alex is berated, sodomized and ultimately beaten into a coma by a pimp named La Tenia (Jo Prestia). Is it horrible to watch? Yes. But when people rail against it I’m tempted to tell them: tough shit.

In order to watch this scene you have to sit through a dizzying, stomach churning murder that aligns you with a perpetrator. However, for some reason aligning yourself with a victimized woman is less acceptable. It belittles the scene, which in my opinion is the most realistic and brave thing a director and two actors have ever done.

During an interview about the scene Noé revealed that one of the crew members had been raped under similar circumstances as a teenager, but thought the scene was important, telling him, “This is what it is about.” He was also quick to point out that most rapes are much longer (at least an hour). The scene is only nine minutes long, which puts things into perspective.

Whenever I’ve seen this film I feel the least I can do is endure what Alex is going through, not walk away. Of course, this was the scene in which most of the walkouts took place. Noé observed that the most masculine men were the ones to storm out of theaters or cause a scene.

As the film backtracks from this event the story reveals that the three principals aren’t too different from people you know- family members, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, even yourself. They love each other, embarrass each other, act selfishly, argue, theorize about human behavior and share their dreams. There are playful conversations and implications of sex, which seem even more tragic, linking themselves with the violence ahead.

Still, these interactions are important and a respite from what we’ve just seen. We’re given the opportunity to understand these people before things went awry.

Since watching this film I’ve begrudgingly seen parts of myself in Alex and Pierre, which made me realize just how vulnerable and violent I could be in extreme circumstances. I simply don’t know what I’m capable of, only of how I would be judged. This remains true to the “anything and anyone” framework of the film. A notable line from the prologue is “We fuck up and they say it’s bad news.”

Shawhan also noted that Irréversible is about “white male privilege going to the hood and getting its ass (and soul) kicked.” He maintains it’s a political reading, but he has a point- the film confronts and delves into experiences white straight men fear the most. Marcus and Pierre are proxies for their worst reactions- racist, homophobic, entitled, illogical and violent. To say the least it’s uncomfortable and hit a nerve. It still does, and perhaps always will.


8 thoughts on “Z To A: Irréversible (2002)

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