By JERRY JENAE SAMPSON
Gaspar Noé is a curator of nightmares. These nightmares may not contain the most obvious horrors (no deformed monsters or haunted houses to be found), but he captures the nightmare of mundanity and the normalization of wickedness within humanity. From The Butcher in Carne and I Stand Alone, a man whose fatherly love for his mentally stunted daughter mutates into something darker and more carnal, to Climax, a psychedelic dance flick that descends into hell, Noé is consistently pushing the boundaries of cinema and taste.
It’s easy for the lay viewer to dismiss such auteurs as Noé and Lars Von Trier solely as men who court controversy. Both directors create subversive films that carry with them a strong stigma due to the thematic and visual assaults on the eyes and ears that are inherent in their work. However, when challenging oneself to explore the world of extreme horror, as you may be if you keep coming back to “Beautiful Filth” and the movies explored therein, Gaspar Noé’s filmography is an imperative addition to the sub-genre.
Associated with the New French Extremity movement, Noé is no stranger to both scorn and praise. Released in 2002, IRRÉVERSIBLE was met with harsh criticism in large part due to the brutal and explicit rape scene that lasts a stomach-churning ten minutes as well as the rampant use of homophobic and xenophobic dialogue. One critic stated that the film “might be the most homophobic movie ever made,” while Roger Ebert claimed IRRÉVERSIBLE to be “a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable.” The accusation of homophobia was countered by Noé himself claiming that he in no way feels “superior to gays,” citing his appearance as a masturbating patron of The Rectum, the gay bar that appears at the beginning (aka the end) of the movie.
The ease in which people, critics and viewers alike, are comfortable with accusing directors like Noé and Von Trier of homophobia, misogyny, racism, or perversion is surprising. It castigates the artist for their art, supposing that what is shown on screen is a depiction of how the filmmaker sees the world, as opposed to being a representation of that which society itself has deemed “normal.” At the time the New French Extremity came to be, France was grappling with the consequences of their role in World War Two as well as the current (at the time) fear of the “other,” as immigration concerns and political upheaval resulted in violence in the streets. Through transgressive filmmaking, the filmmakers of the New French Extremity (including Claire Denis, Pascal Laugier, and others) critiqued the social and political norms that were being touted by right-wing extremists.
IRRÉVERSIBLE is a film steeped in rage. The tragic story of Alex (Monica Belluci), her boyfriend Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and her ex-lover Pierre (Albert Dupontel) is told in reverse chronology with rotating camera work to separate moments in time. It utilizes low-frequency sound that is meant to create a sense of unease and nausea in viewers, though it’s likely this effect was more evident in theater viewings than at home. Noé’s original treatment was told from beginning to end, but he was unable to find financing for the film until he flipped the script and opted to tell the story in reverse. This choice was what ultimately altered the course of the film’s history. In reverse, the narrative is deeper and more heartbreaking, as the viewer witnesses the search for vengeance for a horrific act before we see the act itself.
We are forced to view Marcus as a man who is seemingly out of his mind. He spews hate upon everyone he meets as he storms through The Rectum searching for Le Tenia. When Marcus resorts to violence, he is quickly overtaken and his arm is broken, a point that is beautifully foreshadowed toward the end (beginning) of the film. As Marcus is threatened with rape, Pierre steps in and beats the offending man in the head with a fire extinguisher until he is dead, with onlookers gazing in wonder and no one stepping in to help.
The violence of this scene is shocking. Brutality combined with the mind-altering effects of the camera that never seems to stop moving, it becomes difficult to identify exactly what is happening on screen. This is anxiety-inducing in itself. It causes the viewer to feel complicit in the act without understanding why it is happening. Pierre, who at the start of the scene is the one trying to calm Marcus down, saying such things as “even animals don’t seek revenge,” becomes the perpetrator of a completely counterintuitive act of gruesome violence. It doesn’t make sense. And as the camera spins up and out of the bar, backward in time, the viewer takes with them the knowledge that these men will soon be carrying out more awful deeds.
What Noé does with IRRÉVERSIBLE is ask his audience to trust him. But everything about the film from the very beginning is dark, unsafe, and cruel. He asks for patience from us, to stick with Marcus as he torments a taxi driver with racist remarks and beats information out of a prostitute. Noé shows the city as he sees it, filled with xenophobia and desperation, the juxtaposition of high-class citizens on their way to fancy parties and pimps assaulting their prostitutes in the pedestrian underpass.
The film continues its backward trajectory until Pierre sits dazed in the back of a police van. This moment offers a bit of explanation of Marcus’ actions, the reason behind which will be shown in terrible detail in mere minutes. The cop grills Pierre about Alex, his relationship with her, her involvement in the party earlier that night, and whether she was drunk. These questions, like most questions asked of victims, are accusatory and inconsequential to the crime committed. They are meant to identify how one could have possibly allowed themselves to be put in such a compromising position. While Pierre is not the victim, he is being interrogated as if he were one. At one point the cop mentions that you never expect it to happen to you, an interesting point to make as, in fact, the crime committed did not happen to either Pierre or Marcus, but the yet-unintroduced Alex.
This theme, that the deed has in fact been done against the men, is prevalent through the revenge portion of IRRÉVERSIBLE. Marcus acts as if someone has damaged his property. While Pierre begs him to abandon his search for Le Tenia and go to Alex at the hospital, Marcus never sees through his vitriol to understand that Alex is the one suffering and would benefit more from his being at her side than his performative acts of vengeance. Marcus and his incessant chest-beating and threats toward innocent people are in direct opposition to what a victim needs – support and understanding.
As time again rewinds, the camera focuses on the back of a woman as she exits a building. We don’t see Alex’s face when first being introduced to her. She wears a skimpy, silk dress – the kind of dress that the cops will surely tsk tsk and insist she was “asking for it.” In the moments leading up to her assault, the viewer is witness to the little decisions that can so radically change the course of a life. The things we don’t think about on a day-to-day basis; the cab that isn’t caught, the pedestrian underpass that has all the signs of disrepair and isolation, the choice that Alex makes to go underground.
Alex witnesses a man as he slaps around a prostitute. The prostitute runs away and the man focuses his attention on Alex who is unable to escape. This is a moment that will surely shake the attentive audience, as it becomes clear that the man in the underpass is, in fact, not the man singled out by Marcus and Pierre at the beginning of the film. This man, with a distinctive, hardened face, is the one who stood staring and laughing as Pierre bludgeoned the wrong man with a fire extinguisher. Before anything happens to Alex on screen, a sense of hopelessness washes over the viewer. It becomes obvious that everything that happens after this point is not justice for Alex, but one huge misunderstanding that ultimately allows the real culprit to go free.
This realization is cut short by the camera’s sudden placement on the floor of the underpass. Up to this point, Noé’s camera moves frenetically, harshly alternating the spinning lens with diegetic sounds of the rough cityscape. But at this moment, the moment when Alex becomes painfully aware of Le Tenia’s intentions with her, the camera forces the viewer onto the ground with Alex, just off to the side, unable to help her but unable to turn away. At one point during the brutal assault, Alex reaches a grasping, pleading hand toward the camera, as if begging us to come to her rescue, only to have her hand snatched away roughly.
The rape of Alex is often considered one of the most graphic scenes in film history. It has carried IRRÉVERSIBLE into the annals of extreme film, with many accusing this scene of being exploitative. But there is nothing, and it should be repeated nothing, titillating about this scene. It carries with it all the implications of what the viewer has already seen; the realization that vengeance and likely justice will never come to this perpetrator. It is a visual assault on the audience as well, the singular destruction and subjugation of a body, which is all Le Tenia sees Alex as, is punctuated by Alex being beaten within an inch of her life while Le Tenia calls her “dead meat.”
Le Tenia is not satisfied by rape alone because rape is not about sexual gratification. It is about power. His hatred toward Alex’s presumed “high class” status as well as his obvious hatred of women will ring familiar to many female viewers. Despite what many may think, Noé condemns both the violence depicted toward women in films as well as the hyper-toxic tropes of a man’s revenge over the destruction of his “property” (i.e. his woman). Noé has said that he has walked out of a rape scene in the middle of a movie, stating “Well if this is the middle of the movie, I don’t want to see what happens next.” It’s an interesting point to make, for a director who is so notorious for his depiction of rape onscreen. But the rape is not the “peak” of the film. We have already witnessed the worst that will come. Now, as in a dream, we move away from the chaos, backward in time, far from Marcus’ raucous behavior at the party that was the catalyst for Alex leaving alone, and into a far more intimate moment.
As Alex and Marcus lounge after a late afternoon nap, we become privy to the sweet nature of their relationship. To this point, Marcus and his behavior are nearly inexcusable, and, in a challenge to the viewer, the man we see with Alex is of completely different character. It shows how trauma and unprocessed grief drive latent aggression. After over an hour of such visually and aurally alarming storytelling, the abrupt change in tone is a welcome one, though tinged with tragedy over the knowledge of the couple’s future.
This scene foreshadows the events to come as Marcus complains that he can’t feel his arm, the same arm that is later broken at The Rectum, while Alex tells of the dream she had, walking down a red-hued hallway that splits in two. The viewer wishes they could save the couple from their impending doom, but we know that what will be done has already been done. The path has already been chosen for Alex, the future is written with no hope of change.
IRRÉVERSIBLE is a definitive example of what I consider Beautiful Filth. Noé is a master storyteller and a maestro of controversy. He elevates the narrative in a way that transcends boundaries, that doesn’t just push buttons but obliterates them. Filth is not something that should be shamed and banished, and beauty is a subjective lie. Extreme horror films take the worst of humanity, the worst of what could happen, and dares us to confront our fears. At the forefront of innovative storytelling, Noé has created both a tragic love story and a vicious tale of revenge, a reckoning over the violence that is inflicted upon women and the ongoing struggle for women to be seen as more than objects. IRRÉVERSIBLE is equally heartbreaking and nauseating and for those looking to explore the world of the New French Extremity, it is an absolute must-watch.