Irreversible and the Politics of the “Extreme”


The images and shots presented by a film can provoke a wide array of feelings, emotions and sensations within viewers. However, even though a majority of world film engages its viewers to convey satisfaction or gratification in comparison to torment and displeasure, an emerging class of films in France has come to the forefront to challenge the traditional norms of what compromises the experience of watching a movie. Shock tactics are taken into high regard, as directors experiment and toy with various cultural taboos. The portrayals of rape, incest, murder and mutilation are explored in depth, presented in such a manner that is so raw and unforgiving that the films even cause audiences to become physically ill.

French cinema of the last decade embodies this “New Extremism,” first noticed prominently by Artforum critic James Quandt in 2004. A new body of directors is leaving a mark on cinematic history in France, possessing a far different vision compared to the directors who were associated with the previous New Wave movement. Quandt asserts that provocations held by the past age of France’s cinema such as formality, politics and philosophy seem to be completely stripped and forgotten, replaced by tropes traditionally associated with slasher flicks, exploitation flicks and pornography (Quandt 1). Directors such as Claire Denis, Bruno Dumont, Francis Ozon, Catherine Breillat and Gaspar Noe, release highly polarized films known for their unflinching and often grotesque portrayal of issues, inciting a now stronger focus on what is and is not permitted on screen (Palmer 22).

However, unlike their contemporaries, this group is connected more loosely through commonalities of content and technique. While the New Wave directors are heavily influenced by Hollywood genre films, the new set of directors seem to deviate from the North American ideals of bravado and fleeting romance (Palmer 22). The works of Denis, Dumont and Noe offer incisive social critiques, portraying contemporary society as “isolating, unpredictably horrific and threatening” and the world it is home to as an equally uninviting, hellish, nightmare incarnate (Palmer 22). Personal relationships – friendships, couples, families – are often strained, tarnished by acts of unexplainable and often brutal violence and sex. Tim Palmer observes a “brutal intimacy” in these films, emphasized by the portrayal of human sexuality in stark and graphic terms: unmotivated or predatory sex, male and female rape, and arbitrary sex stripped of conventional gestures of romance.  Any resemblance of an ideal world free from internal anarchy and brutality bears no presence in these films, as directors, more prominently Noe, embrace graphic sex and nihilistic violence wholeheartedly.

However, audiences and critics alike are polarized about the content present in these directors’ works, hesitant to accept the cruelty and gore that seems to be a widely-accepted trademark. Most audiences contest that there is no underlying social and philosophical meaning to violence displayed on the screen, demonizing film violence as morally corrupt (Kendrick 30). Even Quandt, who first commented on the extremist movement arising in contemporary French cinema, rejects several films associated with the movement such as Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003)as failed attempts to live up to the achievements of French national cinema’s past (Quandt 2). However, there still persists the notion that mediated violence can play a meaningful, constructive role in society outside of moral or aesthetic corruption (Kendrick 30). Even though it’s a difficult task, the directors of the New Extremism use severe depictions of sexual and social dysfunction to explore complex thematic issues, directly confronting their audiences with subject matters that are ignored in contemporary society due to their shocking and unsettling context.

Noe’s film Irreversible (2002) possesses a beauty underneath its sadomasochistic grime. Upon its premiere at Cannes, the film provoked fainting and a walkout by an estimated 250 of the 2400 audience members (Brottman and Sterritt 37). It almost seems like the film’s goal is to purposefully make its audience uncomfortable, with its excessive use of stroboscopic lights in its opening credits and an equally as unsettling soundtrack (composed by Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk) that makes use of an unnerving low-frequency sound. Noe was in charge of the erratic, chaotic camera work himself, consisting of seamless edits and long takes; the swooping nature of the curious camera was noted to induce a feeling of nausea and vertigo upon the audience (Tang, Brottman and Steritt 37). However, it’s perhaps most notorious for its nine-minute long anal-rape scene set in an impassive, unflinching long take involving actress Monica Bellucci. The camera for once settles in a cozy spot during this sequence, forcing the audience to realize its helplessness as a cinematic voyeur.

However, despite the film’s technical achievements, the movie’s major plot premise is familiar: rape-revenge. However, the story is unique in that it ‘s told in reverse chronological order, consisting of 12 acts. Much like director Christopher Nolan’s film Memento (2003), which Noe cites as an inspiration for his film, the act of vengeance is presented before the audience can formulate a justification for it (Tang). The audience familiarizes itself with the worst representations of the main characters through this process, piecing together the facets of a complex set of personalities as the story progresses. In an interview with Jean Tang of Salon, Noe states the unconventional mode of storytelling associated with the film makes the movie all the more tragic to viewers, because the characters cannot escape their individual destinies. The devastating, horrible events of life are therefore emphasized to an extreme in Irreversible, as both the audience and characters become trapped in a web of inevitability and fruitlessness.

The film opens with the “Butcher,” the protagonist some might immediately recognize from Noe’s past film also dealing with revenge, I Stand Alone (1998). While engaged in a drunken and detached monologue with another man, he confesses that he was put into prison for sleeping with his daughter. He regrets his actions, lamenting that “time destroys everything.” The man next to him asserts that his wrongful act is no big deal, and declares, “there are no bad deeds, just deeds.” The entire exchange takes place in a claustrophobic and drab apartment, complimenting the mood of the conversation.

The discourse then shifts to concentrate on the gay S&M club aptly named The Rectum below the apartment, which the Butcher expresses negative feelings towards. Sirens are heard from outside the window as the camera plunges to the street below to reveal the nightclub and the harrowing, dehumanizing environment inside the building. Inside, Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) are in a mad hunt to find and inflict revenge upon the male prostitute known as ‘Le Tenia’ (Jo Prestia), who the audience finds out later on in the film, rapes and brutally assaults Marcus’ girlfriend and Pierre’s ex-lover, Alex. The camera never stops shaking and bobbing inside the club, its movement mirroring the chaos and violence of the situation and the characters’ wildly out-of-control states of mind (Brottman & Sterrit 38). A recurring deep-bass thrum mixed into the soundtrack accompanies the erratic camerawork, purposefully included by Noe to make viewers uncomfortable as well as heightening their sense of fear (Frazer 2).

Marcus represents the aggressive, incredibly frantic leader of the duo, who chooses confrontation  instead of negotiation to resolve a conflict. In contrast, Pierre is more complacent as a worried sidekick and seems to hide his anger more effectively. Marcus’ temper and roughhousing of the men in the club eventually leads to his arm being broken and his body being pinned down by a man he assumes is the Le Tenia. As the man tries to anally rape Marcus, Pierre, hesitant and cautionary in nature, interferes. He starts to attack the man’s head savagely with the blunt end of a red fire extinguisher, eventually pounding the man’s skull in. The camera never lingers away from each blow, as the booming noise of the extinguisher meeting the man’s skull constantly reminds both the audience and spectators in the club of the depravity and almost excessive length of the situation. Even though the audience does not know this yet, the real Le Tenia (Jo Prestia) is cheerfully looking on, amused by the situation before him.

Moving back in time, Pierre and Marcus are seen in a taxi driven by an Asian taxi-driver as they frantically rush to find the elusive Rectum. The camera seems to wander in and out of the car in quick bursts, an unexplainable occurrence contributing to the overall turbulent nature of the situation. All the while, Marcus is verbally and physically assaulting the driver, unable to contain his relentless wrath. Ironically – knowing of his brutal attack in the club – Pierre is the mediator of the situation, as he tries to calm both Marcus and the driver. At the same time, he insists that Marcus is acting like an “animal” and should constrain his actions.

Alex enters the tunnel.

Moving back in time again, the camera captures Alex walking into a dark underpass hauntingly-lit with a deep shade of red. As she walks into the abyss, she confronts Le Tenia while he’s physically assaulting a transvestite prostitute seen earlier in the film. When she lets out a scream, the prostitute escapes and Alex now finds herself cornered with a knife. What follows is a merciless, nine-minute long rape sequence, where Alex is anally raped and beaten so severely that she’s rendered comatose. Time seems to stand still, as she screams for help and reaches her hand toward the camera in a gesture of desperation and futility (Brottman & Sterrit 38). Afterwards, the audience sees an irritated Alex leaving the scene of a party alone due to a doped Marcus’ unfaithful and immature behavior. Pierre, always the Good Samaritan, insists that she shouldn’t go alone. She leaves without taking his advice.

After this scene, the film continues down its path of reverse chronology, yet gradually starts to reveal a calmer side that varies greatly compared to the past sequences. In this respect, the rape becomes the center of the film; the gross qualities of the world, present in such places and people like the Rectum and Le Tenia, establishes a violent, grotesque identity of the first half of the film for viewers.Alex, Pierre and Marcus are seen as a happy trio as they take the subway to the party; following this, a long, intimate sequence between Marcus and Alex naked in bed, playfully messing around. The film ends with Alex – newly pregnant – reading the book An Experiment of Time in an idyllic park equipped with lush greenery as young children run and frolic around her. The nondiegetic music (Beethoven’s Symphony N° 7 In A Major Op. 92) contributes to the overall serenity of the sequence, as the frantic, anxious electronic music present in the first half of the film loses prominence, further emphasizing the shift of dualities present in the film. However, the established peace soon disintegrates as the camera begins to lose its composure as it starts to spiral, contributing to a blurred, dizzied effect. Distressed, ear-splitting music (aptly named “The End”) starts to replace the classical music, as the frame engulfs with white. The music becomes increasingly louder as the strobing and flashing lights assault the viewer. The movie eventually ends with an abrupt title card declaring “Le Temps Detruit Tout” (Time Destroys Everything), the same phrase uttered in the film’s first scene by one of the men in the apartment. The jarring finish of Irreversible serves as the final reminder of the inevitability and cruelty present in the world, directly engaging the audience with the horrors present in the film by trapping (or draining) them inside the viewer’s psyche.

Through the reverse chronological presentation of the film’s narrative, Noe morbidly awards a happy ending to his audience. Numerous critics have even commented that the relationship Noe establishes between the film and the viewer is a similarly sado-masochistic one: ‘like a cruel lover, the film frightens and abuses you, then tries to kiss it better’ (Downing 275, Felperin 48). When asked during an interview in Prospect Magazine if all of his films end on happy notes despite their seemingly pessimistic nature, Noe answers that his films simply try to be realistic.  To him, sometimes the morality of a film is found outside the frame, not necessarily within the movie itself. For example, presenting a film about the silently experienced horrors of the world, such as rape, help bring more attention to the problem. He asserts that if “you do a pessimistic movie, it will help people to enjoy the life here and now” (Villiers). These views might explain Noe’s negative sentiment towards mainstream popcorn movies, viewing them as an outlet that “portrays reality as so sentimental and deeply humanist” to the point that they disgust audiences (Torreo).

Noe’s viewpoint towards the superficiality of most mainstream movies offers insight upon Irreversible’s most difficult scene and the climax of the movie: the rape sequence. When asked why Noe decided to shoot the scene in a long take of nine painful minutes, he answered simply: “It seemed the normal timing of the situation” (Tang). The scene only appears drawn out because most audiences aren’t familiar with such a raw, true portrayal of rape presented before them on screen. By deciding to shoot it the way he did, Noe allows his audience to experience the brutality of rape in a manner unprecedented before in cinema. Shot in a vivid, nonsexual way, the scene strives to refuse arousal to audiences, despite Bellucci’s seductive appearance in a silken, white dress that seems painted on her body (James and Kermode 21-22).

The most striking evidence supporting the argument that the rape sequence is not meant to titillate is the scene’s use of a static camera to portray the act. As mentioned before, the positioning of the camera in this way forces the viewer to look at one sequence in just one perspective for a long time: “unlike in pornography, there are no close-ups; the body is not ‘cut up’ and offered as a series of parts to the spectator’s gaze” (Downing 276). The mangled bodies of Bellucci and Prestia inhabit the entire frame, destroying the audience’s ability to divert their attention to another part of the mise-en-scene. This presentation subjects the audience to either identify with the victim or the victimizer; if uncomfortable, the viewer must suspend his or her identification until the violence ends.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the camerawork is morally neutral. (Downing 276). It does however shed light on one perspective of the film: that the people inhabiting the world, not external factors such as “God’s will, the devil, fate, the government, one’s parents or the configuration of the planets at birth,” are the main causes of worldly destruction and violence (Brottman and Sterritt). In Noe’s apocalyptic worldview, humanity has adopted a devastating face of apathy in the face of evil; “a sort of ethical indifference” (Downing 276). The rape scene is notable because it makes the viewer assume the role as an apathetic spectator, indifferent towards the horrors of what is happening before him or her. Even as Bellucci’s muffled cries and futile grasps toward the camera serve as one of the many reminders of the viewer’s inability to resolve the situation, the audience is prominently reminded of their apathetic role by the intrusion of a man in the background of the sequence. The dark, small figure hesitantly monitors the circumstance before him, until eventually he walks out of the frame.

Many people ask Noe to clarify the identity of the man who witnesses the rape and leaves. Noe, yet again, offers a simple answer: “It’s just anyone. It happens all the time. Witnesses get scared and run away” (Tang). Therefore, the lingering figure in the underpass can be seen as a representation of humanity itself, an allegory to postmodern humankind’s urge to cower away from the grim realities of existence. The film Irreversible, as well as directors associated with with the New French Extremism such as Noe, use radical resources such as mediated violence and graphic sex to “distress, disorient, and alarm” an audience accustomed to movies as mesmerizing, guilt-free sources of gratification (Brottman & Sterritt 41). The treatment of the rape-revenge genre in the film doesn’t deviate much from the moral logic inherent to the genre. An act of extreme sexual violence becomes subject to retribution by the law: Irréversible opens with the arrest of Marcus and Pierre for murder at Le Rectum (Palmer 27). The unconventional display of the situation in the film (vengeance before its justification) confirms, perhaps, Nick James’s suspicion that Noé’s bleak and violent vision paradoxically bears witness to ‘a suppressed (to the point of denial) nostalgia for moral certainty’ (James and Kermode 20).  The meaning of an image presented in film, no matter how gruesome and savage, is wholly dependent upon the ideological positions that it appears to uphold (Palmer 278). Therefore, the extreme violent and sexual vision inherent in the French postmodern films interprets as not just mere exploitation. The films of the New French Extremity incorporate hardcore elements to grip the viewer, challenging the traditional relationship between the voyeur and subject on screen in order to give thought to various ideological concerns that are otherwise glaringly ignored.

Works Cited

Bellucci, Monica. “Monica Bellucci: Unafraid to Bare Body and Soul”. Interview by Paul Fischer. 2003. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

Brottman, Mikita and Sterritt, David. “Irreversible.” Film Quarterly 57 (2004): 37-42. Print.

Downing, Lisa. “French Cinema’s New ‘Sexual Revolution’: Postmodern Porn and Troubled Genre.” French Cultural Studies 15 (2004): 265-280. Print.

Felperin, Leslie. “Irreversible.” Sight and Sound 13 (2003): 46-47. Print.

James, Nick and Kermode, Mark. “Horror Movie.” Sight and Sound 13 (2003): 20-22. Print.

Kendrick, James. Film Violence: History, Ideology, Genre. London: Wallflower, 2009. Print.

Noe, Gaspar. “Exclusive Interview: Gaspar Noe.” With Justin Villiers. Prospect. Prospect, 2010. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

Noe, Gaspar. “There are no bad deeds, just deeds.” Interview by Jean Tang. Slate. Slate, 2003. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

Noe, Gaspar. “Gaspar Noe on ‘Irreversible’.” Interview by Erin Torreo. IndieWIRE. IndieWIRE, 2003. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

Palmer, Tim. “Style and Sensation in the Contemporary French Cinema of Body.” Journal of Film and Video 58.3 (2006): 22-32. Print.

Quandt, James. “Flesh & Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema.” Artforum (2004): 1-7. bnet. Web. 3 Dec. 2010

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