Where can lines safely and firmly be drawn between pleasures, perversions, and outright transgressions? Are such lines possible, or have the boundaries between sexual acceptability and indecency become too dangerously blurred?
Gaspar Noé's beautiful yet nerve-shatteringly disturbing tragedy Irreversible examines this theme among many other insightful inquiries.
Throughout history, various periods have been marked by more or less accepting attitudes toward deviant sexual practices. In our present time, a long list of sexual fetishes have entered the common lexicon: sadism, masochism, bondage, coprophagia, water sports, fisting, electrostimulation, furrydom, and so forth into more obscure territories. These perversions in essence are harmless. Consensual, safe, democratic participation is sought on the parts of all parties, even when the playacting involves dangerous rape. Many people today (though certainly not all) will respect another person's desire to privately engage in consensual and legal though unusual sexual practices in private with their partners, even if they don't find those particular practices appealing. Kinks and fetishes, embarrassing and private as they are, are more widespread and thus less abnormal than the average person will admit, so a tolerant attitude is in part a reaction against hypocrisy.
Sexual pleasure is a peculiar thing. Who can say where and how it's hardwired in the brain? While some people--guided by religion or tradition or their own personal preferences--will maintain set, narrow guidelines for the circumstances under which any normal person should be able to derive suitable sexual pleasure, others will admit that what works for one person might not work for all. Conflicts over what makes good sex arise even within close, loving relationships.
In a late scene in Irreversible--which, chronologically, is an early scene since the film is told in reverse--Alex (Monica Bellucci) discusses with her current (Vincent Cassel) and her ex-boyfriend (Albert Dupontel) the conditions that allow her to orgasm. Ex-boyfriend Pierre was very loving but a failed lover, whereas present boyfriend Marcus is a selfish pig who achieves excellent results in bed. They have this loud and explicit conversation in public on a crowded Metro car, which seems oddly indiscreet to me being a southern American but which perhaps is more commonplace in Paris, where nobody even turns a head, pointing to a very sexually tolerant and permissible environment. Pierre talks to his dedication to lovemaking--his orgasmic self-sacrifice, his physical diversity, his poetic whispers, all of which were unsuccessful. At which point Alex admits that what is most important to her is the satisfaction of the man she's with. She doesn't want a man sacrificing his orgasms for her continued pleasure; she wants a man who is having a great time. If the man comes, then she will come.
This admission is eerily ironic given that later in the night (and earlier in the film) Alex is raped by someone entirely interested in his own pleasure. Needless to say, she does not enjoy this. The rapist, a bisexual pimp known as Le Tenia, "the Tapeworm" (Jo Prestia), is a sneering, ugly parasite who extorts money from transgendered prostitutes and spends his free time at The Rectum, a red-lit, underground labyrinth of extreme sexual deviancy. Accustomed to an environment where men willingly beg to be raped, tortured, tied up, and fisted and where exploited sex workers are more or less willing to submit to fantasies of domination and adultery, Le Tenia's perceptions of acceptable interpersonal behavior are, to say the least, warped. He compliments Alex as he rapes her, and as he holds a knife to her face he asks her if she is turned on by the sadism. His words hover somewhere between mocking derision and a genuine belief that this passing woman might actually enjoy the brutal sex act, like so many in the past who have enjoyed simulated rape with him while pretending to resist.
There is no forgiving Le Tenia, however, for his actions are rooted not in an attempt to share good sex with Alex but in a hateful, destructive derision. Le Tenia comes across Alex in a red-lit, filthy, concrete highway underpass while threatening one of his hookers. Alex cowers in response to the violence, a fearful reaction that titillates Le Tenia. Though he is not normally interested in women, he is motivated to rape Alex by a desire to punish her--first and foremost for having witnessed his indiscretion, but mostly out of jealous rage against her beauty, wealth, and normality. His gruesome crime is in part an act of class warfare, a violent revolt against the bourgeois morality that he imagines she represents. By raping her, by accusing her of enjoying it, and by ultimately destroying her physically with his fists and feet, Le Tenia attempts to taint the pure, white-clad Alex with his subterranean evil.
On a certain level, Irreversible is a bellicose depiction of a clash between classes, an upper and a lower class divided not by economic status but by values, a division made trivial by being wrought with hypocrisy. In the opening scene, a fat, naked man confesses to his accepting friend that he went to prison for having sex with his daughter. Despite his own severe depravity, he allows himself the superiority of deriding the gay men who flock to the Rectum club in his neighborhood. He is an incestuous, pedophile rapist, but at least he's not a queer! Alex's boyfriend Marcus is an adulterous, immature drug addict, but when he launches on a reckless course to avenge his battered girlfriend, he allows himself to launch insults against everyone he passes, including those who help him. He beats a man at the sex club who is the only person who can identify the rapist for him. He chastises gay men in a restaurant, even though they can help him find the Rectum club where the rapist cavorts. He hurls racist insults at and steals the cab of a Chinese taxi driver who is driving him to his destination. Most tellingly, he assaults and threatens the transsexual prostitute who can tell him exactly who raped his girlfriend. His unnecessary violence is no different or better than the beating that Le Tenia gave to the very same hooker earlier in the night (later in the film), the beating that involved Alex in Le Tenia's life.
Marcus considers himself better than the trash he comes across during his vengeful journey into hell, but not only does he need this trash in order to continue his journey, he is also no different or better than the trash.
Even Pierre, easily the noblest man in the film, is not without sin. A professor and philosopher, he is reserved, mature, and calm, and he expresses a genuine concern for Alex's safety and feelings, but even he is preoccupied with sex, crossing boundaries to engage Alex in the explicit discussion on the Metro, which she tolerates even though she is obviously unhappy with it. Alex allows room for an indiscretion, and Pierre unashamedly takes it. A complex film about rape must also say something about personal space and consent, and Irreversible chillingly hints at these specifics. In the final scene of the film, a bedroom scene between Marcus and Alex, the nude and horny Marcus prods at various taboos, aggressively seeking new territory from Alex that she hesitantly relents to. There is talk of sexual punishment and of anal sex. The talk is gentle and consensual, but in what ways does it erase the boundaries between what Alex truly wants, what she's willing to give, and what she might be forced to give? Structured as the climax of the film--following the revenge, the rape, and the argument--these scene is charged with a power it otherwise wouldn't have if the film were told linearly. Given our knowledge of what will happen later in the night, we see the rape from within this scene as an explicit, external culmination of Alex's internal fears about her relationship--that she is losing control. She has just learned she is pregnant (the final revelation of the film, which adds a horrifying twist to the rape and beating), and she is unable to control her lover--the baby's father--in bed in ways that she should be able to control him. This powerless escalates at the Metro, where she is forced into an uncomfortable, indecent conversation by the one man she does seem to trust and where she feels subjugated to her man, who wraps his arm around her and cups her breast in a very possessive way. (It's easy not to notice her face during this scene, since Pierre and Marcus do all the talking at this moment, but the expression that covers her as Marcus wraps his arm around her torso is one of surreal horror and helplessness.) At the party, she loses complete control of how her life should be ordered. Her boyfriend, a future father who should be acting responsible and committed to her, abandons himself in drugs and attempts to seduce numerous other women. When she leaves the party and--unable to hail a cab--crosses through the underpass on the advice of a stranger ("It's safer!"), her life descends into complete hopeless chaos. She is anally raped and beaten into a coma. Her universe dissolves.
Gaspar Noé offers predestination as a consideration in the film. The title, the backwards structure, the spiraling omniscient camera, and the epitaph "Time Destroys Everything" encourage this thought process, as do a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alex's references to a philosophical book about time that she is reading. Premonitory dreams alert us to the future according to the book, and Alex indeed dreams about entering the red tunnel before it happens. (Marcus also dreams about being unable to feel his arm, which inversely foretells the fact that later in the night he will have that same arm broken.) Everything is written beforehand, the author claims, and fate cannot be changed. We experience this firsthand by watching the film, since we have already seen what is coming. Knowing that the future is miserable, we likewise feel the same helplessness that Alex feels, though we witness it in reverse. Gaspar Noé has made a truly discomforting and terrifying film, the most disturbing one I have ever seen, and this is fitting given that his two major themes are two of the ugliest elements of human nature: sexual and physical violence--or, more specifically, rape and revenge.
The early scenes of the film detail Marcus's revenge tragedy. When we first see him in the film, he is being hospitalized and Pierre is being arrested, so we know--as in any revenge tragedy--that things will end poorly. To explain things chronologically, after discovering Alex's comatose body, Marcus and Pierre are interrogated by the police. The police know nothing, and the best lead they are able to come up with is that Pierre did it. In the depths of their dismay, the duo is approached by two soft-spoken thugs who promise inside information and revenge. The police are for pussies, they claim. Revenge is for men. The two thugs exploit the tragedy, seeking payment, of course, but they deliver on their promise. Navigating the criminal underworld, Alex and Pierre are led underground to the cavernous corridors of the Rectum.
At this point Pierre insists that revenge is for animals. Men should derive their actions from the higher faculties. Rather than pursue a path that can only lead to ultimate destruction, they should go to the hospital to sit with Alex. Marcus refuses to listen. Though he could care less about Alex when they were at the party, now he must overcompensate to avenge his woman. Finding the man he believes to be Le Tenia, he starts a fight before a live audience of sex fiends. He is quickly overpowered, however, and the man snaps his arm in half.
At this point Pierre, who has maintained his cool throughout the hunt despite being profoundly upset by Alex's fate, knocks down the assailant with a fire extinguisher and then proceeds to repeatedly bash in the man's skull with the heavy, thudding instrument. The man's jaw quivers as his blood splattered face caves in. Though one or two hits would surely suffice, calm and passionless Pierre is overpowered by rage and revenge. He demolishes the man beyond repair. By showing this extremely brutal murder in one of the opening sequences of the film rather than at the end, we are forced to examine the outcome of revenge without regard to its incitement. The revenge is horrible, animalistic, primal, demonic. It unlocks something in Pierre that can never be covered up, and it kills an innocence in him that can never be regained. By seeing the revenge before knowing why it's happening, we have no desire to cheer for it or support it. We must examine it on its own terms and decide that there can be no justification for its brutality.
Even more unsettling--though this is not readily apparent on first viewing--is that they attack the wrong man. Le Tenia is one of the passive spectators of the fight, who smiles and snorts drugs while devouring the murder with his eyes. Though the thug informants promised results--that the rapist would be punished instead of, at worst, spending a peaceful life being cared for in prison--the consequences of reckless revenge are disastrous. The wrong man is destroyed, the guilty man will now probably never be caught, and the avengers will be punished instead. Not to mention that nothing can change that Alex was raped and beaten.
The men at the sex club watch the beating but in no way involve themselves in trying to stop it. Some of them even encourage grislier violence, like spectators at the Roman circus. Given the nature of film, we are spectators, too, though different in that we could not help or change things even if we wanted to. One of the most horrifying images in this thoroughly horrifying film is the silhouette of a man who passes in the background of the underpass while Alex is being raped. He takes a few steps forward, pauses, and then hurriedly leaves. Did he realize it was rape, or did he think it was consensual, perverse sex that he should just tolerate and ignore? If he realized it was rape, why didn't he interfere? Would we interfere--or, more importantly, would we interfere after having seen this film and this shadow of a passerby? By showing us this nightmare, Gaspar Noé prepares us to react heroically in the (hopefully never-will-happen) event that we find ourselves in the same position as the faceless passerby. Hopefully, we will not remain faceless, retreating in the shadows. Hopefully, we will know to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. In a rare bit of heroism in the film, the prostitutes rise up with curses and sticks to defend their troubled sister when Marcus attacks one of the prostitutes. Courage like this is in short supply in Irreversible.
There is an infinite variety of sexual practices. Many of them are fine. Some of them aren't. The nude man's friend in the opening scene laughingly dismisses the man's incestuous rape as merely "the Western syndrome," par for the course. When Alex's mutilated body is discovered, some of the spectators on the sidewalk seem satisfied and entertained. "Some whore got raped!" one of them cheers, as though the fact that the woman may have worked in the sex industry makes it okay that she was nearly killed. Rape is never okay, but how can you tell when rape is actually rape in a world where some people genuinely want to be raped in a way that looks, feels, and sounds like rape yet isn't actually rape?
Irreversible is a clever and complicated film that operates on many levels. Though unsettling to the core, the film is a beautiful work of craftsmanship. Gaspar Noé's fluid, ghostlike camera (with cinematographer Benoît Debie) weaves in and out of cars and buildings, hovering and spinning, inducing vertigo and nausea in the viewer. Cuts are seamless, giving the impression of one endless (though nonlinear!) take, a feeling which increases the dramatic inertia and hopelessness of the film's story. The acting, largely improvisational, is flawless, with desperation pervading in the lives of normal people. Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk did the score, a pounding, hellish, nerve-shocking techno soundscape that regulates the heartbeat in stressful ways. Visual effects by Rodolphe Chabrier are more extensive than they appear (a good mark of any special effects artist) since the impressive camerawork, cutting, and detailing received a thorough (though unnoticeable) digital makeover. The bashed in skull of the man in the revenge scene, one of the most unforgettable and macabre moments of cinematic history, was impressively fabricated using a combination of matte painting, latex models, 3D imaging, and acting. The attention to detail--a jaw that gasps for air even after the rest of the face has been rendered unrecognizable--turns just another murder into one of the most gruesome murders ever filmed, and Chabrier should have received more recognition for that.
Irreversible is an unpleasant film, and many will avoid trying to think about it too hard, if indeed they're even able to watch the whole thing. Though they may dismiss the film as sensational, the film has much to say, and the sensation is intended to moralize rather than glamorize (this boundary is never crossed). Irreversible treats horrifying, unsettling, and difficult themes with horrifying, unsettling, and difficult filmmaking techniques, and in this regard Gaspar Noé is an artist of the highest caliber. Though I can't recommend it to the faint of heart, Irreversible is one of the most important and life-changing films of recent years.
d/w: Gaspar Noé
(Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel)