(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2003)
Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible is the latest official atrocity from French cinema – infamous for a scene of a man being beaten to death with a fire extinguisher and for another, nine minutes long, of a rape in a subway. The movie premiered at Cannes last year, and people walked out in significant numbers. Since then it’s been a major talking point among critics. The issue, as always: is it art or exploitation.
Well, somewhat to my own surprise, I’d probably vote for art, although not without some reservations. The film’s first half, in particular, is a fairly miserable viewing experience, denying the viewer any of the pleasures conventionally associated with narrative cinema. It’s arranged in reverse chronological order, shot in an extremely vertiginous camera style that frequently adds to the confusion and would certainly provoke motion sickness in some viewers; even the credits, which here come at the start of the film, are hard to read. And then there are those two sequences – each masterfully executed, but painful to watch.
The second half of the film, moving back in time, takes us to the events before the rape, and Noe’s feeling for character may come as a considerable surprise. We see the two lovers (Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel) waking up in bed, enjoying the experience of each other – it’s a fresh, beguiling scene, almost joyous after the film’s dark first half, but of course utterly compromised by our knowledge of what’s to come. The final scene is a playful vignette with children playing around a water sprinkler; the camera tilts up to the sky, and then the image starts to oscillate and shimmer, as though the screen were under attack by some inner force. This arises to a crescendo, an experience that seems to have left cinema far behind. It suddenly ends, and there’s nothing else except a closing title that fills the screen: Time destroys all things.
This echoes the woman’s earlier statement that “the future is already written.” Noe’s film certainly makes the case for a fatalistic pessimism. But that’s not of particular artistic interest in itself, any more than the various ironies that flow out of the structure. I was most taken by it as a simultaneous embrace of cinema, and a repulsed coil from it. Even at its most grueling moments, the film exudes artistic engagement – the rape scene (a single take) is chilling in its precision and determination. But, as I said, it denies the spectator everything. I think the movie is too knowing and (in its own grim way) sincere to be exploitative. But it’s too nakedly experimental to be passionately admired.
Before Irreversible, the most recent cause celebre was Fat Girl, which actually got itself banned from Ontario for a while. The ban’s been lifted now, and the movie coincidentally found itself playing here at the same time as Noe’s work. I went to see the film again (my first viewing was at the festival a couple of years ago) and I think the verdict on this one is clearer – it’s a stunning artistic achievement; probably the best film by its director Catherine Breillat.
Breillat is known as a feminist who uses explicit sexuality in her films. She has many defenders, and others who find her work pretentious, self-indulgent and unilluminating. Her best known work, Romance, chronicled the sexual hang-ups and encounters of a morose young woman: the film was so oppressive that even many well-wishers recoiled from it. Fat Girl (the French title would be more accurately and allusively translated as To my Sister) is more cunning and insinuating.
It revolves around two teenage sisters – Elena, lithe and attractive, and Anais, the fat girl of the title. Their relationship swings between hostility, with the attractive girl regularly belittling the other, and extreme closeness, at which times they acknowledge that their intermittent hostility only confirms the depth of their bond. On a summer vacation, Elena meets a boy who talks her into losing her virginity. His long artful manipulation of her, while Anais listens from the other side of the room, is the film’s centrepoint, perfectly fulfilling Breillat’s clinical interest in the mechanics of sexual politics.
But the film’s greatest impact comes at the very end (on the assumption few will go to see it for the story as such, I’m going to give away the ending here, so read on with caution). On the trip home, the two girls and their mother pull into a rest stop. Anais watches from the back seat as the others fall asleep. Out of the darkness, a man jumps on the hood of the car. Swinging an axe through the window, he kills Elena; then he strangles the mother. He drags Anais into the woods and rapes her. In the morning the police bring her out. “She says he didn’t rape her,” says one policeman to another. “Don’t believe me if you don’t want to,” she shoots out, and the film immediately ends on a freeze frame of her face.
Earlier in the film, Anais said several times she wanted her first sexual experience to be with someone meaningless. Now she has her wish, and in the process, her film has been wiped almost clean (the film allows a reading of the final incident as Anais’ fantasy, or as a fulfilment of her will). She insists on keeping for herself the truth of what happened; but on hearing the policeman tell her story, she instantly reacts, anticipating skepticism and trying to deflect it. The destruction of her family marks, in the crudest sense, her ascension as a woman, but that instantly brings compromise and evasion. It’s a moment gripped in ambiguity and contradiction, a microcosm of Breillat’s cinema.
The theme of feminine self-determination turns up in Irreversible too: Bellucci says at one point, before her world collapses in on her, that it’s always the woman who decides. Rape is the ultimate violation of that point of view, but Irreversible isn’t really concerned with that – it’s violating the universe itself. Noe’s cinema is one of total pessimism, if not despair. Breillat in contrast seems almost lighthearted, although that’s a highly relative assessment. She maintains at least some of the pleasures of classical cinema (since Fat Girl she’s made another film, Sex is Comedy, that recreates the shooting of the sex scenes in Fat Girl and exhibits a general sense of goodwill toward the medium), which I think ultimately makes her indictments more powerful.
In both these cases, the elements underlying the controversy are central to the film’s artistic intent. I’m sometimes skeptical myself about the claims that attend extreme material, but not here. Both films, quite reasonably, may be beyond the bounds of what you generally want to look at and think about, but such a judgment of taste would involve a sacrifice of artistic experience.