More Than Just Film
I let it happen too often for my own good and (unless your hobbies include cage-fighting and vigilantism) I’m going to assume that you do this too. I’m walking home late at night and dispite the fact I’ve not been in anything resembling a fight since the 1980s, I allow my mind to become overrun by fears of a random attack. It’s unlikely that I’d be too handy in a ruckus but beyond the physical pain of getting a beating, or the humiliation of not behaving in a suitably masculine manner, my biggest fear is that such an attack could change how I see the world. It could undermine my belief that we are all ultimately civilised and civilising agents (and more than just animals with iPhones) whilst proving the old adage that the definition of a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged.
In Gasper Noe’s infamous urban horror film, Irréversible (2002), three bourgeois teachers – Marcus (Vincent Cassel), Alex (Monica Bellucci) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) – have their beliefs in liberalism and intellectualism torn apart over the course of a harrowing night out in Paris. Having left the safety of their idyllic middle-class homes to attend a party in the city centre (a district portrayed as being plagued by immigrants, prostitutes, homosexuals and gangs) their lives are effectively destroyed; Alex is raped and viciously beaten and, shortly afterwards, Marcus and Pierre are arrested for the savage killing of a patron of a gay sex club, mistaken by Marcus for Alex’s attacker.
Through prolonged scenes of graphic violence, bursts of strobe lighting and an ideology which borders on the fascistic, Irréversible sets out to bludgeon its audience’s senses and sensibilities. This calculated approach to shock, disturb and disorientate is encapsulated by the film’s central act, the twelve minute rape scene. Leaving the party alone and finding herself in an alien part of the city, Alex takes an underpass to a taxi rank where she is confronted by The Tapeworm (Jo Prestia), a homosexual pimp who violently hawks the services of foreign transsexual prostitutes. At knife-point, he tells Alex that he usually wouldn’t have sex with ‘a cunt’ (his term for a woman) but wants to violate her beauty. We then watch him pin Alex to the floor and anally rape her. It is an arduous and gruelling scene, trapping us all for what feels like an eternity in that blood-red Parisian underpass, as our noses are rubbed in Alex’s agony and The Tapeworm’s ecstasy. The scene eventually concludes with Alex attempting to crawl away and The Tapeworm repeatedly punching her in the face and slamming her head against the concrete floor.
The sense of shock and disorientation is further compelled by Irréversible’s form, nine scenes each lasting approximately twelve minutes which are arranged in reverse order, so that the film starts with the story’s conclusion and ends with its beginning. The result is a revenge narrative which actively denies the viewer the satisfaction of the retribution by showing it before the initial wrong-doing. Kermode describes this as ‘the spectacle of violence in the abstract, uncontextualised by narrative, unjustified by ‘previous’ action’’. This places us all in an ideological vacuum. We attempt to attach meaning to what we see before we can fully comprehend what it is we’re seeing.
The rape scene is also notable for employing a range of arresting stylistic devices. As soon as Alex is pinned face-down on to the floor by The Tapeworm, the entirety of the rape is shot in deep focus by a static, ground level camera in a single take. This approach led to a debate on whether it prevented the scene from being sexually exploitative. McGill deemed that the camera’s fixed position meant that the scene avoided ‘the kind of titillating cuts and close-ups that bring many cinematic rape scenes all too close to cinematic sex scenes’. Leslie Felperin suggests that the reason d’être for Irréversible’s narrative structure of ‘real time’ scenes is to make the audience watch the entire attack. She also dismisses McGill’s point by claiming that, ‘if anything the unedited, detached monotony of the scene puts one in mind of porn films’.
Potentially more disturbing than how the rape is portrayed is what it represents within the logic of the narrative. It is as if Alex is being punished for straying outside of what is deemed acceptable behaviour for women within a traditionally patriarchal society. Alex starts the story/ends the film at the centre of an idyllic scene of social cohesion, lying in a park on a summer’s day, surrounded by children and young adults. She rests her hand on her stomach; seemingly aware that she is pregnant (something that is confirmed later that evening). It is a vision of motherhood and heterosexual ‘normality’ which operates in stark contrast to her behaviour later that night.
She decides to not immediately tell her boyfriend Marcus and to still go out to the party, wearing a revealing silk dress which, as Felperin notes, ‘seems painted on (her) perfect body’. At the party she openly flirts with homosexuality by dancing provocatively with two women, she enjoys being watched by Pierre (her ex-lover), and then castigates Marcus for his unruly behaviour before leaving the party on her own. To literally add insult to injury, as her bloodied and comatose body is carried away in the aftermath of her attack, she is mistaken by onlookers and the emergency services for a prostitute. Due to the reverse narrative, this is how we are introduced to Alex.
Differences between the social interactions leading up to Alex’s rape and the rape itself are collapsed in order to highlight how The Tapeworm, Marcus and Pierre all contest for Alex’s body and sexuality. As the three teachers travel by train to the party, the physical space of the metro is linked to that of the underpass, while the sense of violation as Pierre interrogates Alex on her sex life since they split up resonates with Alex’s physical violation by The Tapeworm. Marcus offers direct gestured links to The Tapeworm by restraining Alex and covering her mouth as she responds to Pierre, acts of control that, in the film’s reversed structure, echo her rape.
The distinctive narrative device of placing the scenes in reverse order ultimately hammers home the futility of the protagonists’ actions. Despite their faith in free will and rational thought, they were always doomed to make the wrong decisions when faced with such base emotions and unchecked aggresion. Within the film’s ideological framework, Alex, Marcus and Pierre are confronted by the harsh realities of a failed multicultural state in which a proliferation of immigration (which the film links to gangs, drugs and violence) has been allowed to create no-go areas for the police. When they find themselves in such an area, they are each devoured by nothing less than the results of their collective failure.
As a hummus munching/Guardian reading liberal myself who believes in equality and multiculturalism, I get Irréversible‘s message loud and clear. If did find myself a victim of a violent street crime in a major city, this wouldn’t be a random act and I wouldn’t be an innocent victim.