In nature, living things prey upon each other all the time. Humanity, on the other hand, has a choice. It’s flouting this choice that turns on director Gaspar Noé. In his latest project, Irréversible, he basically swipes Christopher Nolan’s backward-narrative structure from Memento to tell a lurid tale of rape and vengeance — but not necessarily in that order.
Although the movie ends — at its temporal beginning — with some pricy-looking cinematography, it opens extremely crudely and remains shaky and tense through most of its 95-minute length. It opens — at the end of the narrative — with a couple of miserable inmates discussing incest (“She was so cute” — ew). Then we hear sirens. There’s been a scuffle nearby at a Parisian S&M club none-too-euphemistically called Rectum. (Are there sister clubs in Berlin or Bangkok with nifty names like Duodenum or Sigmoid Colon?)
The camera then spins us through an urban hell where we’re barely able to catch glimpses of wounded Marcus (Vincent Cassel, France’s answer to Ben Affleck — all implications intentional — and Bellucci’s husband) and confused Pierre (Albert Dupontel). Outside Rectum, the air is filled with ghastly obscenities of the sort one rarely hears away from children’s playgrounds.
Marcus’ girlfriend, Alex (Monica Bellucci), who’s also Pierre’s ex-girlfriend, has been (or, rather, is about to be) anally raped in an underground walkway. The perp, called Le Tenia (Jo Prestia) — “the tapeworm” — is the nastiest sort of human predator, and his attack on Alex is akin to the random rage explored in the vital missing-girl documentary Señorita Extraviada. Lovesick dork Marcus and Pierre, a cauldron of unresolved issues regarding Alex, decide to seek revenge.
It’s really, really easy to poke fun at the untalented Noé for his cinematic histrionics. In his first feature, I Stand Alone, he wanted to be Taxi Driver-era Scorsese. Now, with his gruesome ultraviolence and a couple of thudding homages to 2001: A Space Odyssey, he wants us to believe he’s the next Kubrick. Puh-leeze. Memento, despite its failings (including being useless if told chronologically), was at least an ambitious gimmick picture. But Irréversible is mostly just a trite tantrum.
The horrifying scene between Alex and her attacker is so grotesque that it makes Ned Beatty’s squealing of yesteryear seem relatively quaint. But what good does it do anyone to witness several uncut minutes of something so vile? It’s definitely worse than the actors’ pointless nudity and ad-libbing later in the movie. It could be argued that viewing this nastiness in a relatively safe cinema steels the nerves against real horrors. Or does it merely corrode the senses?
If rape-chic (that rite of passage for actresses, models and pop divas) is to your taste, The Accused and Leaving Las Vegas are both more revelatory, as are several videos by Tori Amos, Fiona Apple or even Madonna. But if you want to see what everybody’s talking about this week, you can give Noé your money. Is his movie truly Irréversible? Probably. But unforgettable? Hardly.