Exercises in Revulsion

Irréversible

Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible is such a formal accomplishment that its already repellant content becomes even more so.

The film is a classic rape and revenge story (as gruesome as Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left), but done with such technical prowess and structural innovation that it’s gotten much more attention than it deserves. It employs the long takes and seamless editing of Hitchcock’s Rope, an episodic backwards form that will remind many of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, the unblinking, realistic portrayal of violence of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, and a camera whose movements mimic the moods of the scenes.

The movie starts with a prologue (apparently including a character from Noé’s last movie) with portentous philosophical dialogue: “You know what? Time destroys all things”; “No bad deeds. Just deeds.”

From there, Irréversible’s plot proper kicks in, as two men, Pierre and Marcus, are running through a seedy gay club (called Rectum, establishing the movie’s serious anal fixation) looking for someone called Tenia (translated: Tapeworm). Marcus is frantic, accosting men getting blowjobs, men giving blowjobs, men jerking off, men fucking other men, asking them about Tenia. Pierre is chasing after him, trying to rein him in. Marcus is finally pointed toward one couple, and he begins attacking one of them. He gets his arm broken (gore expert Tom Savini would be proud), and is about to be raped when Pierre takes a fire extinguisher and bashes in the attacker’s head (Savini would be really proud). Remember: This whole sequence is done in what appears to be one shot.

It is only a half hour into Irréversible’s 90-plus minutes that we learn why Marcus was so agitated, and even then the pronouncement is vague: “Someone got raped.” It’s five more minutes before we see the victim and find out that she is Marcus’ girlfriend Alex.

Irréversible’s backward structure basically means that we see the consequences of actions before the acts themselves. The murder at the beginning of the movie is devoid of context, and the characters’ back stories are filled in during the film’s final 40 minutes. Alex is bloodied and in a coma the first time you see her; then she’s whole and in an evening gown, leaving a party right before she’s attacked. Only after you see the rape do you learn that Marcus’ drunken, drugged behavior drove Alex out of the party, and that Pierre is her former lover, and that she might be pregnant.

To the point of the rape, Irréversible’s camera has been all movement, circling and skittering into corners, mirroring Marcus’ state of mind and body. But when the movie reaches the source of Marcus’ rage — the rape of Alex — it slows down. For 10 excruciating minutes, the camera barely moves as she is sexually assaulted (anally, of course) and beaten in a subway tunnel.

The scene is painful to watch, and meant to be. It’s visually explicit in showing the victim’s suffering but not the violation. To its credit, Irréversible tries to make the distinction clear between sex and violence. Nudity, sex talk, and relatively explicit sex are pervasive in Irréversible, but it’s always consensual if not often heterosexual missionary.

And yet, this frank acknowledgment of sexual practices confuses the movie’s politics. The focus on the anus and the S&M gay subculture suggests incessant debauchery, and there’s nothing to counter that. The seediness of the Rectum and the attackers could upset audiences as much as the two primary acts of violence.

And the movie emphasizes that Alex isn’t just raped; she’s anally raped, as if that makes the attack worse. Gay people, the movie seems to be saying, are even a threat to women. And when you throw in the fact that the man who was going to rape Marcus is not Tenia, there’s the implication that all gay men will rape anything with an asshole. It’s dangerous to read too much into movies that are as specific as Irréversible, but the film at least teeters on homophobic.

Oh, wait. Pierre kills the wrong person? Yes, although you probably wouldn’t notice unless you know it going in — and even then you need to go back to make sure. (Don’t beat yourself up. Roger Ebert missed it, too.) It’s an interesting twist, because it’s amazing that Marcus even gets close to finding Alex’s attacker. Some thugs found a purse in the subway tunnel, and that leads them to a prostitute, which leads them to Rectum, which leads them to Tenia.

That Marcus goes after (and Pierre kills) the wrong guy is one of the movie’s many winking ironies, and they sour the movie. Noé fills his film with cruel cosmic jokes: that there was no revenge, that Marcus is somewhat responsible for what happened to Alex, that Pierre (who had been an inadequate lover, unable to focus on his own pleasure) is finally able to let go of himself, that Marcus kidded about anal sex with Alex the afternoon before her attack, that Alex dreamed of being in a tunnel broken in half and is reading about how dreams are premonitions, that perhaps Alex is punished for her ability to reproduce.

This level of contrivance is a symptom of a larger ill: It’s apparent the story is built around the structure and specific technical and ironic goals, instead of serving as their foundation. The movie pretends to take rape seriously, but the formal elements are too perfectly realized; the attack is literally at the center of the movie, creating a symmetry that emphasizes the structure instead of the act. And the director seems so pleased with the special effect of the murder that starts the movie — I’m assuming the shift from having a man living and moving to missing the top half of his skull in one apparent take was done through subtle jump cuts — that the violence is robbed of its impact.

“Those movies seem to think they’re perfect,” David Thomson wrote about several of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s films, “and I want to scream.” I’ve puzzled over those words for years, but Irréversible made me understand what he meant.

Funny Games

(This was originally published, in slightly different form, in The Octopus [which no longer exists] in 1999. I present it as a contrast to the above essay on Irréversible. I’m not sure how I’d feel about Funny Games given what I write about Irréversible, but I think Michael Haneke’s austerity, straightforward approach, and lack of ironic twists make Funny Games more earnest and honest, and hence better.)

Funny Games is the movie Natural Born Killers wanted to be: an effective response to a culture desensitized to violence.

Unlike Oliver Stone’s screaming experiment in masturbatory (but brilliant) filmmaking, Funny Games is deliberately harrowing, sober, taut, jarring, and difficult. It features no cartoonish violence, no hammy performances, and no out-of-control energy. The shots are long and static, with minimal cuts.

The irony is that for such a revolting film, the audience sees little of the physical violence. The sick feelings come from witnessing such fully realized emotional torture and humiliation.

Writer-director Michael Haneke tells the story with sparse adornment. A couple and their young boy arrive at their vacation home and are visited by a pair of young men in tennis garb and white gloves. The awkward one, Peter, asks for eggs, then drops them, then asks for more. The more socially adept one, Paul, tests a golf club on the family dog. The boys then hold the family captive, threatening to kill all three within 12 hours.

The movie gives no hint of the background of Peter or Paul, or the family. And as the film progresses, it offers nothing in the way of character development. As a result, it’s been easy for critics to dismiss Funny Games as a mere exercise in revulsion. “Why would anyone wish to continue enduring an intentionally unendurable work of art?” asked the British film magazine Sight & Sound.

A couple of reasons. Funny Games is an exercise — in formal restraint, in re-claiming violence from mere entertainment, in conveying the horror of being a victim.

That the killers and victims remain largely without context actually works in the film’s favor; it is powerful because even though the audience knows little about the family, it can see and relate to the anguish of the parents and their young son. The raw, naked performances by Susan Lothar and Ulrich Muhe as the vacationing couple humanize Haneke’s “characters” (term applied loosely) and render them heartbreaking.

The director’s decisions to show so little were smart. When Anna, the wife, is forced to strip, the camera stays trained on her face and shoulders. And only one act of bloodshed is shown on-screen. Instead of giving the audience what it expects — a person being shot, T&A — Haneke focuses on the impact.

Paul’s running commentary to the audience — at one point, he turns to the camera and says he must prolong the torture to make the movie feature-length — suggests that viewers are as guilty as he for watching what he’s doing. But that seems to me only one interpretation. It’s quite possible that Paul simply imagines he’s making a movie and is the ironic star. Or maybe Haneke does mean for the audience to feel complicit for reveling in bloodshed and exploitation. Everybody who was exhilarated by Natural Born Killers — me included — deserves it.

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