Released in 1988, Jonathan Kaplan's legal drama The Accused was something of a first: a mainstream, Oscar-worthy Issue Movie in which the graphically depicted issue was rape. Most of the discussion and controversy surrounding the film centered on one lengthy, brutal sequence set in a grimy dive bar, where three men assault Jodie Foster's character atop a pinball machine while a crowd of bystanders cheers. Disapproving viewers objected not only to the scene's duration or savagery but, one would presume, to its position in the narrative structure. Withheld from the viewer's eyes until late in the film, the rape acts as quasi-climax to a conventional buildup of courtroom wrangling.
As you may know by now, Gaspar Noé's reverse-spooling revenge nightmare Irreversible also features an interminable rape as its pièce de résistance. As Anthony Lane reported in The New Yorker, and as I observed in the London art house where I saw the film, some patrons leave after--not during--the already infamous desecration of Alex (Monica Bellucci), having gotten what they paid for. (Rumor has it that the near-10-minute horror show can also be downloaded off the Internet.) This furtive attraction to the "unwatchable" brought me back to 1989, when I taped The Accused off HBO. I must have mentioned it to one of my junior-high classmates, because suddenly perfect strangers--both girls and boys--wanted to come over to my house and watch the movie--which is to say, to watch the Scene. (Creeped out, I quickly taped A Fish Called Wanda over it.) Why were pubescent suburbanites clamoring to see this film? Was it the lure of the forbidden and R-rated? Was it the star of Freaky Friday with her shirt torn off? Or did the idea of violent, nonconsensual sex prick their inchoate libidos but not their half-formed consciences--or, more to the point, their incomplete sense of shame?
As Leslie Felperin states in her laudably forthright Sight and Sound review, the buggering and beating of Alex in Irreversible will perhaps trigger "a certain sado-masochistic engagement" in some audience members. Much as this admission flatters Noé's tiresome estimate of humans as snarling wolves in bourgeois sheep's clothing, it's naive to deny that well-adjusted folks can and do get off on this sort of thing, even play it out with their partners. But it's also naive to assert that a celluloid rape by definition--and Irreversible's in particular--has to elicit a collusive response. Boys Don't Cry captures the grotesque, stomach-churning intimacy of rape; in Baise-moi (which, like Irreversible, is part of the ongoing eroto-nihilist trend in French film), a victim remains stock-still and grimly composed as she's violated, effectively short-circuiting her assailant's--and therefore the audience's--pleasure.
Noé's approach to rape is slasher-flick simple. The heartbreakingly gorgeous Alex strolls into a luridly lit Paris tunnel in a painted-on frock. She awkwardly forfeits a chance to flee. (During these fateful moments, Bellucci's body language borders on the counterintuitive.) Once her ordeal commences, the heretofore hyperactive camera freezes, mesmerized. The technique and intentions are as unadorned as those of an amateur porno or snuff video.
Likely robbed of her beauty, her life, and even more (I'll begrudgingly leave that something else a secret), Alex inspires no empathy in Noé; his concerns lie elsewhere. Anally raped by a homosexual named Le Ténia (played by famed boxer Jo Prestia), Alex is a convenient means for the director, an avowed Deliverance fan, to tap into the fecund ground of male heterosexual anal panic--the same one that provides Eminem with such a handsome living--without much in the way of actual homosexual intercourse. After all, that might alienate said male heterosexuals. (Épater le bourgeois, indeed.)
Fleetingly glimpsed as an ugly blur of slapping and shrieking, same-sex encounters in Irreversible are zoned to an infernal, shit-stinking S/M cellar called the Rectum, into which Alex's boyfriend Marcus (Vincent Cassel, also a coproducer and Bellucci's real-life mate) and her ex Pierre (Albert Dupontel) descend in pursuit of Le Ténia. Amid the dark chaos of writhing bodies, as Noé deploys epileptic strobe effects and a queasy 27-hertz rumble on the soundtrack, Marcus himself narrowly escapes rape (whew!), and Pierre pummels the wrong man's face with a fire extinguisher, over and over, in unspeakably gruesome, CGI-assisted close-up. (In Noé's debut feature I Stand Alone, which called itself "the tragedy of a jobless butcher struggling to survive in the bowels of his nation," a similar case of mistaken identity undid the bigoted Philippe, who makes a cameo appearance in Irreversible's prologue/coda.) Unfolding in a gay club, Marcus and Pierre's catastrophic reprisal mission further underlines the film's medieval view of male homosexuality as a locus of violence, imprisonment, and emasculation. (Irreversible is as numbingly butt-compulsive as 25th Hour.)
Barring the all-too-credible possibility that Noé intends the backward chronology as a structural pun, the question is: Why does Irreversible begin at the end and vice versa? To witness the murder first, before the rape it attempts to avenge, maybe renders it more ghastly and meaningless. Prelapsarian visions of children playing in a park, or of Alex and Marcus entwined in a dewy postcoital embrace, gain a layer of foreboding, even falseness. Noé has said his semi-improvised script took inspiration from Christopher Nolan's revenge-in-reverse noir Memento, but Nolan's strategy was more than a clever gimmick: Stripped of short-term memory, the bereaved antihero literally inhabits a world without time, a world where he and audience alike are left merely to contemplate what has already happened. Noé tosses his characters into the same No Exit scenario strictly for the indulgence of his own Calvinist sadism. He would like nothing more than to expose the bloodthirsty beast inside us all, but with Irreversible he only gives himself away.
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