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  SOME THINGS YOU SEE, YOU CANNOT UNSEE: LIKE A NINE-MINUTE RAPE SCENE.  
     
   
  The French film Irreversible has become one of the more notorious films to be released in years. It's a spare, unrelenting revenge epic about a brutal rape and its daisy-cutter-like aftermaths. Its most infamous scene is a nine-minute sequence, shot in one take, in which Monica Bellucci (who also stars in Tears of the Sun) is brutally anally raped by a gay pimp in a Paris underpass tunnel.

Black Table's Greg Lindsay and Will Leitch are the only two people we know with the intestinal fortitude -- not to mention lack of social mobility -- to actually sit through the film without walking out. Here's a discussion between the two about the film, format blatantly stolen from Slate. Clearly.

 
   
 

****

Will,

I left the theater feeling two things -- horror, owing to what I'd watched, and disgust, at how badly the writer and director, Gaspar Noe, blew it.

Irreversible struck me as a terrible "lesson" movie, one that tries to teach its audience, among other things, that you should never take it for granted that movies will be full of beautiful, enlightening, uplifting messages -- and that you're a pussy (so to speak) if you walk out during the horrific parts. Noe is also convinced that a tragedy like Bellucci's not only destroys lives going forward through time, but undermines everything that came before it (an overly simplistic, deterministic view, I think). Oh, and those evil homosexuals will fuck you up if you give them half a chance.

The rampant homophobia that runs through the movie - especially Vincent Cassel's descent into hell via the gay S&M club "The Rectum" at the beginning -- wrecks the movie from the very start. I don't mean that in the standard liberal way, the "oh, it's horrible the director thinks this way and I can't support this movie because he does," response. It's because it mashes the underlying themes of the movie as thoroughly as Noe's characters mash heads with fire extinguishers. What am I supposed to take from the film when Bellucci is anally raped by a gay pimp? It's repugnant, sure, but also cartoonish. The pimp ("The Tapeworm," he's called) isn't a character or even, really, an elemental force, like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. He's a plot device. Maybe's he there to raise the stakes, discomfort-wise. Maybe Noe just really hates gays.

This development ruins the last third of the film, when Bellucci and Cassel, happy and in love, trade banter that, in light of later developments, becomes verrrry ominous, like Cassel's playful bedroom command "I want to fuck you in the ass." If this film had been about misogyny, and been directed say, by David Lynch or Brian de Palma (a director who knows how to torture women to a good end) Irreversible could have been about how every man has the capability and the latent desire to destroy women the way Bellucci is destroyed. Instead, I learned that gay pimps are really, really bad.

--Greg

****

Greg,

You know, it's been a few days since I saw this with you - ordinarily, I think it's dopey when two guys leave a seat open between them, but this time, I understood - and I had the same initial reaction as you did after it was over. I was shocked, surely, but I felt Noe was just trying to shame me into leaving the theater. "YOU CAN'T HANDLE THIS, CAN YOU?"

But I'm not so sure anymore. It's strange how the film has lasted with me ... and not just the horrific parts.

Unlike Memento, which, as great as it is, essentially uses its backward motion as a gimmick - how much does that story hold weight if it's told forward? Not much, I'd argue - here the device is used for the ideal effect. If the film were told forward, it would be more exploitive than it is, a crushing of the good will and warmth we developed for the characters in the beginning (end). But backwards, everything is tainted with the repulsion we feel when we see the rape and violence. It adds extra layers to the playful byplay between Cassell and Belucci we see before. And somehow makes us less attracted to Belucci, which would otherwise seem impossible. It's interesting that their third character, played by Albert Dupontel, almost seem like a Woody Allen character in his later scenes, all neurotic about sex. That's a stock character in another film; given what we've seen, it has extra resonance.

The film's far too showy for my tastes, and awfully pretentious when it has no reason to be. But I'm really surprised how much more I respect it than I did originally. There is some genuine thought in this movie, and it definitely plays with the idea of that last second before your life is changed forever, violently.

I agree with the homophobia, however, but I'm not sure it offends me as much. Yes, there are many times when I wonder why Noe puts in some unnecessary details - seriously, the rapist is a gay pimp? Please - but I feel it's almost minor. Getting caught up in the little details of a film like this seems beside the point. This is a relentlessly pounding the skull, and then an examination of why, afterwards, even a flower looks blurred and obscured.

And remember, Greg, it's not a French film ... it's a freedom film.

--Will

****

Will,

Actually, it's not really a "freedom" film -- it tries to make the point that its characters are doomed from the beginning in the same brutal, clumsy way it deals with them at the end (chronologically, I mean).

I remember we agreed immediately afterwards that the film is very pro-determinist, but like I said, it doesn't make that point convincingly. This is the point in our exchange where I prove I read the **New Yorker**: Irreversible seems to suffer from "creeping determinism," the phenomenon that Malcolm Gladwell dissected in the magazine a few weeks ago regarding 9/11 intelligence failures. By seeing the end of Irreversible first, we are urged to see every event leading up to the horror as inevitable steps along a chain that should be instantly recognizable. But that's a fallacy. They're inevitable because Noe wrote it that way.

Perhaps that's why I couldn't regard the ending (chronologically) as anything other than pure artifice -- Noe obviously wrote his screenplay beginning with the brutality and then worked out the details. The dialogue between Cassel and Bellucci in their tender moments was written explicitly to give us the creeps -- to underscore, in a shallow, overly dramatic way, a sort of reverse foreshadowing that worked for many viewers, including you.

But it struck me as the sort of thing that only happens in screenplays. There is rarely foreshadowing in real life. The only obvious ominous note that resonate with me was that it was another woman who tells Bellucci "Take the underpass; it's safer," and thus she heads off to her fate. I thought women knew better; my female friends have a much greater sense of personal danger than I do, and I would have expected better advice.

I also find it interesting that you say Bellucci looked less attractive in the final third of the film, after she's been defiled and bloodied in front of our eyes. Is that because she's been
violated? Because she's less pure? Why do you say that? I'm trying to open the feminist Pandora's Box right here. Irreversible is the sort of film that Camille Paglia would love - it aligns perfectly with her early '90s writing (read: attacks) on feminism. When Cassel and Bellucci banter in their bedroom that "the woman always chooses" and then "if you choose, you have to pay," Paglia should be smiling. Irreversible wants to prove that women are always at risk from men, everywhere, and that the act of appearing desirable is an inherently risky and possibly deadly one. Again, this is an idea that's ruined because she's attacked by a gay man, but viscerally, I learned that lesson.

Since seeing it, I've made doubly sure to personally put my female friends into cabs at the end of the night, and I don't know when I'll relax on that rule.

--Greg

****

Greg,

I have no female friends, but I get your point. I didn't mean to say that Monica Bellucci actually was less attractive; she's certainly gorgeous. I don't mean that she's sullied either. I just mean, essentially, that the movie at that point, after all the carnage has gone down, makes me feel like I'm doing something wrong by finding her so attractive. Noe certainly stacks the deck, cladding her in a dress that's almost surreally erotic. There's something to be said for a movie that makes me feel guilty about wanting to have sex with Monica Bellucci. For better or worse.

But weren't you impressed with how unforced the late (early) scenes of romantic bliss were? I wouldn't have expected that. It could have been far more clichéd, the Perfect Happy Couple Who Don't Know What They're In For. But it's all the more eerie for how real those scenes feel. (Perhaps Noe has a future directing messy-yet-charming Noah Baumbach-type comedies. OK, maybe not.) You really do sense not only that these two are in love, but also that both of them are complex, three-dimensional people. The Cassell character seems like an immature cipher when we see him at the party, but we learn there that there's more to him than that. It's a touch that this movie didn't have to add, but it works.

I feel like we might have lost the regular Black Table readers, the ones who just know Irreversible as "the rape movie." So let's deal with that scene, and the violent murder of the alleged perpetuator. First off, the murder itself is gruesome, but, to be honest, I've seen enough Dead/Alive-type movies to recognize a gross-out makeup effect when I see one. Sure, the shaky camera - which seems to be participating in the beating itself - adds to the difficulty, but I could handle that. (It's also odd how the sequence almost made me feel, initially at least, that the victim was getting a strange sadomasochistic thrill from the beating. Did I imagine that?) But the rape scene ... well, let's just say that no other movie's rape scene will ever be able to call itself "realistic and verite" again. (Remember when they used to say The Accused had a disturbing rape scene? They won't after seeing this.) I'm not sure whether I want to congratulate Noe or strangle him, because I can't imagine a scene more unrelenting and unflinching than that. She's screaming the entire time, she's utterly devastated, the scene is endless, and at the end, he beats the shit out of her. I wasn't surprised so many people left the theater; I was honestly surprised there weren't more.

By the way, what do you think of the fact that they apparently kill the wrong man in the gay club? I'm not sure I like it. It's a little too "ah-HA!" for me.

Will

****

Will,

When you mentioned The Accused, I immediately began ranking my all-time most harrowing cinematic rape scenes. (Yes, I am a High Fidelity parody of myself.) I, too, was amazed that more people didn't walk out during that scene, although I didn't have that reaction myself. (I was seconds from leaving during the murder of the wrong man, but that had more to do with my motion sickness from the pointlessly nauseating camerawork and industrial thrum.)

What was your coping mechanism during the rape scene? I locked onto her knees and the way they were bent during the scene. Her screams, however, I couldn't get out of my head. But it wasn't the worst (best?) rape I've seen on film. Boys Don't Cry had me squirming for well over an hour before Hilary Swank was destroyed, and almost as bad (and still worse than Irreversible) was Strange Days in which, thanks to some creatively applied high technology, the victim is able to feel the pleasure and excitement of her rapist from the inside out even as she's being raped, which increases her terror, thus increasing his pleasure. (And both of those films were directed by women.)

Irreversible isn't as clever by half -- either visually or intellectually. Bellucci's rape scene is so horrifying only because it's so long. It's a sledgehammer scene, and its effect has lessened for me since I saw it, simply because those nine minute make only one point, unlike, say, Dennis Hopper's brutal sex with Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet, which has all sorts of psycho-sexual ripples emanating from it. Irreversible also proved to me, once and for all, why it's never a good idea to just out-and-out film brutality from close-up. While it's not boring, it's not interesting, either. The way Lynch or De Palma shows a bystander's face instead (particularly Kyle MacLachlan watching from the closet in Blue Velvet) does a far better job at implicating us in the crime than just showing it. Of course, that might just be my yuppie sensibilities showing.

I readily admit I've been unrelentingly critical of Noe in this exchange, but that's largely because he had a brilliant premise and mostly failed to live up to it. I do salute him, however, for not stylizing the violence in his film. Watching it made me feel sweaty and tense, unlike The Matrix, which gave me a terrific serotonin rush when it shifted into slow-mo and started upping the body count. Tellingly, the sequel to that film will be the event movie of the summer, while you and I will likely remain the only people I know to have seen Irreversible.

--Greg

****

Greg,

How did I cope with the rape scene? Well, by grabbing and squeezing your knee until the joint popped off and rolled down the aisle, that's how. I'm surprised you didn't notice.

Actually, I picked a random spot behind the action, and then looked down every 20 seconds or so. That nine minutes was like the last two minutes of an NBA game; it seemed like dog time, multiplied by seven or something.

We really are the only people who are going to see this movie. To be honest … I think that's probably for the best. Even though I don't think the movie is bad, and actually was worth my while … I wouldn't dare recommend this movie to anyone. Well, unless I didn't like them.


--Will

 


*BT*

Greg Lindsay and Will Leitch occasionally go and see movies together. We have no joke here.