Irreversible - Inevitability As Perceived

Thoughts On: Irreversible

This is Gaspar Noé's titan art-house film about two men taking revenge for their friend, and girlfriend respectively, being raped.

Yes, this is the film with the brutal however-many-minute-long rape scene. For that reason I hope it will be clear that the following talk is not for the immature. Whilst this film is very easy to pass off as an exploitation picture with little depth (and so isn't worth being seen), to assume so, to never see this film, would be a mistake. Moreover, to assume this film is in any way unsympathetic, overly brutal or, in any way shape or form, over steps the mark, you'd also be very wrong. If you look at films that claim to be dealing with sensitive or mature subject matter, take a film like A Streetcar Named Desire for instance, and compare it with this one, they're almost reduced to  a lie. In my opinion, A Streetcar Named Desire is phenomenal, an undeniable masterpiece. For its time, it dealt with its mature themes with as much clarity and honesty as it was allowed (censors stripping away what they thought of as inappropriate). But, the way main stream cinema has often dealt with themes such as brutality (rape, extreme violence) is to imply or sensationalise it. By 'sensationalise' I mean a film either exploits or uses cinematic language to conjure up its own reality, not have itself manifest on screen. No, that doesn't mean a real rape needs to be seen, but the raw long take is one of the most convincing yet grounded pieces of film ever shot. What the directors reflex when filming such a scene will be is to adopt Hitchcock-esque methodology with dozens of cuts, close-ups, shaky cam, low, direct angles, never really showing anything. Emotive, powerful, but cinematic fantasy. If you're familiar with my blog you'll know I revere the fantasy of cinema. This is because realism is a way of trying to quash the lie, leaving the fabrication itself a further lie. However, realism done well is an attempt toward honesty. Realism concerning one of the most heinous acts commitable, allows it to speak for itself. By using cinematic language to emphasise and emote ideas surrounding rape treats an audience a little like a child. In the same way we tell children not to sit so close to the T.V otherwise they'll go blind or get square eyes, we cut, imply and shake the camera. Whereas sitting inches from a screen for hours on end will not do your eyes any good, square eyes is just ridiculous. Whilst Psycho's shower scene is poignant and reflects an aspect of the horrors of murder, it's sensationalised and, in the end, a lie not much better than square eyes. The realism this film tries to portray is what makes it so brutal, what makes it so hard to watch. After all, why on Earth should we assume that a film with a central conflict of rape should easy, at all, to watch? If you manage to make a film about rape fun and easy to watch than I think you've betrayed your themes and don't deserve to be taken seriously. That's not to say that this film doesn't adopt cinematic language (camera angles, movement, such and so on), in fact it adopts a fair chunk of the dictionary whilst writing a few pages of its own.

This film is full of insane camera movement, a myriad of complex digital effects and is made up of long (15-20 min) takes that are all in reverse chronology (like Memento). So, of course the film is rife with artifice and the realism is ultimately a fabrication. However, the illusion of reality in this film is entirely incredible, it stays true to its core conflict, allowing the act to play out with all its raw horror. Doing this stays true to the point that a film with such violent subject matter shouldn't be at all easy to watch. That aside, I want to talk about the film's stance on determinism and fate. As the title suggests, this film is very deterministic, it sees control in the hands of time and asserts that 'time destroys all things' from the very get go. Knowing the synopsis of the film and its core idea, you'd get a sense that this is a fatalistic and pessimistic piece. Again, assumption with this film isn't going to get you any place far. Determinism is often lumped with negative connotations such as fatalism, but this film shows the flaw in such thinking. This film is in reverse chronology to de-signify the revenge that takes place at the very beginning of the film, to repeal fatalism, violence, pessimism, the negative interpretations of an idea such as fate. This film is ultimately about retrospect, it is about Alex, not the rapist, her boyfriend or friend. The film is constructed to have you forget that the rapist (the Tenia) is not killed, that he stands by and watches as the two men seeking revenge for Alex brutally murder the wrong person. If the film was in chronological order it would start with 'time destroys all things', move on to show a woman discovering she's pregnant, have her raped, beaten to a bloody pulp, have her rapist get away with it, her two friends, her baby's father, imprisoned for life and then, again, say 'time destroys all things'. What you have there is a narrative of moral equivalence to A Serbian Film. Such a film pretends to have insight, pretends to be dealing with difficult subject matter, but fails to say anything more than evil exists and it always will do. It doesn't do so in an effective or lasting way at all, in fact A Serbian Film merely devolves into bland absurdism in the end--simple exploitation. What Irreversible does is flip the tables to reveal an honest and human perspective of fate.

Whilst this film is about fate, it is more importantly about the perception of such a thing. As a result, the film strives to explore the perception of violence. It questions the purpose of revenge. Before (after, in terms of narrative) Alex is assaulted, two gangsters offer revenge to the two shattered men with the justification that 'vengeance is a human right'. Such a statement reveals a lot about the whole concept of rights. Vengeance is a form of fate. People assume others should get what they deserve, and that, with law, we can help the process along the way. We can further this idea with the basic human rights: equality, life, liberty, personal security, freedom. Compare these ideas to reality. We live in a world where people rape and murder, we live in a world constructed upon natural selection, survival of the fittest. In what way do rights fit into the natural progression of time--of fate--of the every day? Vengeance is seen as a form of fate because humans believe they are due predictable and favourable consequences to the actions that befall them. Here, the film opens up, making clear that inevitability is nothing more than attributed cause. This all links into the structuring of the film and its purpose for doing so. The film is in reverse chronology until the very end. With the first scenes of the day (the last of the film) Alex learns she is pregnant. This isn't explicitly stated, but we then jump ahead in time. We jump past the night that changes Alex's life, we cut to her months later, no bruises, no facial disfigurement, smiling, hands on her belly, children playing around her in the middle of a park. What is being made clear is that the effects of the night do not affect her in the ways we think it does. With time, the memory of the night has been destroyed. This is the positive spin and why the aphorism is reasserted in the end of the film. Time destroys all things is shown to be the equivalent of time heals.

This is the crux of the film. It takes a horrific event and makes it seem like the source of the film's core question. This film isn't a question of vengeance in the respect of right or wrong, but worth. This is all explained with the conversation in the train station and on the train. The three friends (Alex, Pierre and Marcus) have been compared to the id, ego and superego. This is clear with Pierre always calling Marcus an animal, a chimp, a monkey (id). But, Freudian terminology is used quite a lot in film, so, to avoid exhausting the subject I'll skip over this detail and leave it to your own exploration. What matters most is Pierre as a pragmatist and Marcus as impulsively driven. Pierre has a history with Alex, but could 'never make her come', he doesn't understand why and wants the method as to how. Marcus, more impulsive, is said to manage because he's 'selfish' and concentrates on himself. In short, Alex makes clear that sex, making a woman come, cannot be explained, there's no method. You don't talk about it, you just do it. Here is the movie explaining itself, it tells us of the futility of intelligence, of formulaic understanding. If we reintroduce the idea that this film is about (is in) retrospect, this becomes all the clearer. With the film ending on Alex in the future, the night of her assault not as effectual as one would assume, the reverse chronology of the film implies that we are seeing reminiscence. The whole film is a projection of Alex going over the night's events and being able to accept its apparent inevitability. In short, what happened is irreversible, but, that doesn't matter. In juxtaposition to the awful memories (coupled with speculation) comes the last scene which is Alex, alone, in a park, relaxing--the colour green, not red, becoming dominant. With the two 2001: A Space Odyssey reference we can understand why. The first comes with the penultimate scene of the beginning of the day. Above Alex and Marcus' bed is the 2001 poster with the tagline 'The Ultimate Trip'. And on the poster is the starchild. Childhood is implied too be a journey of evolution and is reinforced with Alex seemingly being able to cope (as symbolised with green as opposed to red) after a few months of the assault whilst her baby's father and her best friend are most probably in prison - and for the rest of their lives.

This is why the rape scene is so integral to the film. The rape is entirely about dominance, it is unflinching and it looms. Like it takes up a significant section of the film's run time it will take place as a significant event in Alex's memory for the rest of her life. Here we can link back to the idea of rights and humans trying to construct their own take on fate--control. We have law to protect ourselves from the animals within ourselves, from the 'mephisto' within. But, law stems from the same internal, base, drive. Why is rape the worst crime of all? It's not just because a person's control over their body is taken away, but also because sexual selection is taken out of the female's hands. I'll stop to say that men of course can be the victims of rape, but the term appeals to the prejudices. What the film concentrates on is a woman being raped and so that's what I'll be talking about. The film states that the 'woman decides'. This is why there are two men and one woman--to tip the tables against her presence whilst giving her control. Rape is the worst crime because a woman is not deciding what happens to her, a man is. As far as relationships are concerned, women have the majority of control. I don't need to explain the paradigm, I feel it's a clear enough idea. In a society where a woman is the key enforcer of natural selection, who she has sex with is integral to the existence of us all. Rape is universally unacceptable because a base and animalistic part of ourselves knows the importance of a woman's choice. For the same reason, rape is never a thing of passion, its an act of dominance, a display of aggression--it's an act in face of social norm. Men are wired to spread their seed, rape is often a retaliation to the denial, both on an individual and societal level. This feeds back into the narrative in two ways. First it links to Alex and turns the story into one of resilience. The ultimate trip of evolution she faces comes with the test to her sexual choice as a woman. On one hand there is her kind friend who was sexually inefficient, that through the movement of the narrative became a vicious killer. Instead of refusing revenge, as his ideals direct him, he takes it when opportunity presents itself. On another hand, there's Marcus who decides to seek revenge, but fails in taking it. His character arc too is one of devolution. And the third man she faces is her rapist. All three key male figures are bound to a theme of dominance in deficit, loss and need. And to what end? A pointless one. All characters try to rise above law and the extent of their control and all probably end up in prison. Social rule wins in the end. But, that whom the narrative affected the most and becomes more and more detached from (another reason for reverse chronology - we move closer to Alex) is being tested. This is an tale of strength because Alex is the only character with a character arc of evolution, of growth. The theme of dominance and the whole idea of women and sexual selection feeds back into the narrative with the idea of control.

Control is also the summed up by the second 2001: A Space Odyssey reference. The last sequence of the film is clearly inspired by Kubrick's stargate sequence. In Kubrick's film this was a moment of transcendence, but it was granted by the monolith, maybe some alien species. This equates to power, control, being granted, not inherent to the human condition or complex. In the same respect Alex is facing a thematic power struggle. Whereas Hal and the astronauts race for the monolith, Marcus and Pierre race for vengeance. Power, however, wasn't granted to either Marcus or Pierre. Neither achieved anything, they didn't kill the rapist and they devolved as characters - Marcus losing his masculine strength and Pierre his pragmatic sense--the characteristics Alex loved them for. Alex is the only one who passed the test as given by the monolithic tragedy of the assault. By seeing the irreversible effects of the night, not trying to decipher who is at fault, what was the right way to retaliate (like many would upon analysing the film) she accepts that life must be lived. This throws back her asserting that sex cannot be explained, it cannot be talked about, you just do it. The lesson Alex learns is that she can simply carry on, endure. She doesn't stop to question the themes of dominance and control. In the end all three men who fought over the idea of a females decision, of her choice, end up imprisoned. Alex, as expressed through the camera movement, is free. The film employs her perception to explore the events of the night, they are nauseating and wandering in the beginning to reflect her disrepair at imagining her friends downfall (the final/first scene). They come under control with the rape because she no longer speculates and can only face the memory as is. For the same reason the narrative becomes more and more controlled as she recalls the details of the hours before. But, in the very end the camera is free again, the movement is however liberated, playful. Camera movement implies that Alex feels free, that she isn't broken, she simply gets on with her life.

This is why a deterministic world isn't a negative idea. All characters, male and female, are bound to their internal wiring. The film uses this idea to take control away from them. This lack of internal control contributes to ideas of fate - that it was inevitable that Marcus would get drunk, that Alex would one day end up in trouble because of his neglect. But, with a lack of control comes freedom, a huge weight lifted from anyone's shoulders. To not know leaves you ignorant and ignorance is bliss. Alex cannot know if the events of the night were set in stone and not knowing allows her to handle the present. But, before we finish, one question remained unexplored. Is there such a thing as fate? The truth is we can't know and we can't figure it out. And so, the idea makes sense. If we do not have control then something, someone, does--not a just conscious body, but possibly a deciding physical force. This leaves inevitability as perceived and, in the end, all that matters in the film is perception. Alex cannot change what has come to pass, all she has control over is how she deals with it. By accepting, not fighting an idea of fate, of blame attributed to someone, something or possibly no one, Alex is given the illusion that she controls the path she travels. Hence, the stargate-esque sequence in the end. However, there's a big difference between Kubrick's and Gaspar's sequences. Kubrick's is ominous, Bowman cannot close his eyes, he's terrified. Alex blinks, faster and faster, we only see from her point of view. The flashes imply that she blinks, that she alone experiences this path she's taken along. The film ends with the final movement toward evolution because that's the goal in a human story. Kubrick was concerned with an idea of 'what's next', for this reason the starchild is born and approaches Earth. Gaspar is concerned with 'now', not that 'then' is gone. Everything about the film is grounded in perspective as the path under our feet is only there because we see it. As always...

Control, the fantasy; control the fantasy.

... not a bad catchphrase, no? Anyway, my final words have to be to give the film a second chance. I know this is one of those films that you can only ever watch once, but on my first viewing I was entirely repulsed and only got a hint of the film's ideas. If you've read this far and have only watched the film once because it was so brutal and realistic, I recommend trying it again. The scenes that are supposed to be hard to watch remain so, but the rest of the narrative deepens and the film's complex perspective as well as final levity really make it worthwhile. Watch it again and be sure to tell me what you think in the comments.

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