Gaspar NoÃ seems determined to be known as the Bad Boy of French Cinema ' l'enfant terrible. His first film, 1999's I Stand Alone, introduced us to an unemployed butcher (played by Philippe Nahon) whose thoughts about Paris would make Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle blush like a schoolgirl. And his second film, IrrÃversible, returns to that slaughterhouse on the Seine, the City of Blight, with a fresh haul of meat, wrapped in white paper dripping with blood. Few movies have come to us with such advance warning ' reports that more than 200 audience members fled a screening at Cannes last year and that dozens of people have become physically ill as a result of watching the movie. Not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach, IrrÃversible prides itself on its ability to get under our skin. NoÃ wants us to throw up.
Why else would he add a low-frequency hum, the kind used by police to induce nausea in rioting crowds, to the movie's first set piece, a minutes-long shot in which a man's head is repeatedly bludgeoned with a fire extinguisher? Alas, not only is the soundtrack buzzing through our brains, like a lawn mower making pass after pass, but the camera is acting like a fly circling a toilet, combining horizontal and vertical pans in such a way as to make it impossible to figure out what's going on without the snippets of dialogue tossed our way. What's going on is that two men, Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel), have entered the bowels of a gay S&M club called Le Rectum in search of a man known as Le TÃnia (Jo Prestia) ' translation, The Tapeworm. Never mind what Le TÃnia did, for now. His skull is all the movie cares about.
Okay, onward and upward ' actually, backward and upward. For IrrÃversible, like Memento, is told in reverse, beginning with the 'end' credits, which scroll from the bottom of the screen and look as if they'd be easier to read if held up to a mirror. The scenes themselves don't run backwards, but they're arranged in reverse order, so that after the long ordeal involving the fire extinguisher we're shown Marcus and Pierre running through the streets of Paris, Marcus shouting to everyone they pass, 'OÃ est Le Rectum?' Where, indeed? For NoÃ, it's on the outskirts of civilization, where man reverts to beast. And what we don't realize during the movie's opening round of savagery is that it's a response to an earlier round of savagery in which Marcus' girlfriend, Alex (Monica Bellucci), is brutally raped and beaten by, you guessed it, Le TÃnia.
I would call the rape scene one of the most punishing experiences I've ever had while watching a movie if I didn't think that's exactly what NoÃ wants me to call it. To his credit, we're shown, not a sexual act, but an act of violence ' a woman being anally penetrated for minutes on end, her screams muffled by the hand over her mouth. We're in a pedestrian underpass that's smeared with the same infernal red that lit our way through Le Rectum's grotty grottoes, except this time the camera just sits there, like a spectator with a front-row seat. And the damn scene goes on forever, giving us plenty of time to feel horrified, then offended, then bothered, then bored, then horrified that we're bored, then offended that we're bored, then truly horrified again, wishing there was a fast-forward button we could push. Instead, the fast-backward button gets pushed. Suddenly, it's all behind us.
Or is it? Running the scenes in reverse has a curious effect on our sense of time and our sense of justice. As for time, it seems to be hurtling forward, hurtling backward and standing still, all at once. As for justice, there doesn't seem to be any. When Pierre (for it's the reluctant Pierre, not Marcus, who wields the fire extinguisher) crushes Le TÃnia's skull, there's no sense of retribution, as in Straw Dogs and Death Wish, two of the landmarks in vengeance-is-mine cinema. Therefore, there's no catharsis. The act seems motiveless, insane. Cause and effect, the underpinnings of reason, have slipped away, and all that's left is barbarity. 'Time destroys all things,' NoÃ tells us more than once ' a nihilistic variation on 'Time heals all wounds.' And although this sounds like a needlepoint pensÃe by Jean-Paul Sartre, it's meant to fill us with despair.
And yet, the despair starts to lift as the story continues its journey from sad 'ending' to happy 'beginning.' Alex and Marcus had a fight at a party, we learn, and Pierre is Alex's ex-boyfriend, a constant worrier who fretted over making Alex happy in bed at the expense of making Alex happy in bed. As for Marcus, he's a party animal, the kind of guy, NoÃ suggests, that women claim not to prefer but keep winding up with. By now, we're so desperate for information about these three that anything they say seems rife with meaning. Then, we're back in Alex and Marcus' apartment, where they're lolling in bed, blissfully unaware of what's coming. Cassel and Bellucci, who are married in real life, have no trouble playing this extended scene au naturel, causing us to forget, as they appear to have forgotten, that there were cameras present.
There were cameras present, but NoÃ didn't yell 'Cut' very often. Like Hitchcock's Rope, IrrÃversible consists of extended takes that last about as long as there was still film in the camera. In Rope, it was a stunt ' another technical challenge with which the Master of Suspense amused himself. Here, it's part of NoÃ's overall effort to keep it real. Truth be told, he spliced most, if not all, of these scenes together from the multiple takes he shot, but the effect, especially early on, is of something caught on the fly ' perhaps too on the fly. The scene inside Le Rectum, where we're lost in a maze of sight and sound, stops just short of incomprehensibility. And that NoÃ expects us to stick with him through it is a testament to both his audacity and his arrogance. Come to think of it, you could say that about the whole movie.
So, what do we have here? A fresh new way of depicting violence, which brings out its horrific banality? A not-so-fresh, but nevertheless effective, way of depicting time, which brings out its horrific banality? A self-indulgent piece of crap that brings out NoÃ's horrific banality? Some of each, perhaps. Personally, I was disappointed that NoÃ can't seem to see a distinction between brutal violence and S&M, the latter an activity participated in by consenting adults. To him, it's all part of taking it up the ass, which he considers the depths of depravity. I was also disappointed that, once again, it's a woman who's victimized and men who avenge her. Hasn't NoÃ seen Baise-Moi, where France's answer to Thelma and Louise go on a little killing spree? Or Romance, where a Parisian woman explores the nether regions of S&M and lives to tell about it?
Despite these reservations, I found IrrÃversible a thought-provoking film in the in-your-face tradition of A Clockwork Orange. NoÃ doesn't have the kind of control that Kubrick had ' a vice as well as a virtue for each of them. But in his singular way, he has shown us how we can get out of bed one morning, ready for whatever life throws our way, and, as if in some dreadful fairy tale, live happily never after.