Napoleon Bonaparte once wrote some very profound words about warfare: “It is the move that is most decisive, it is the one drop of water that makes the cup run over.” His analogy on battlefield strategy isn’t lost on the aspects of the human experience. It’s one decision that can change everything and alter the course of events. In a sense, that’s what life is; it’s the decisions one makes at any given moment, and the consequences that follow.
There’s something so be said about choices such as these. It only takes a single moment for our world to change. That’s what thought about when I confronted Gasper Noe’s controversial film Irreversible. As someone who’s navigated the waters of some of the most shocking exploitation films ever made, and considers Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo (1975) to be one the greatest artistic endeavors of all time, even I was shocked when all was said and done. Watching it was a harrowing experience, as well as an endurance test of my sensibilities. Any provocative form of art should accomplish this, stir your emotions, make you think, and make you reflect on you own place in the world.
Irreversible was different kind of film, and the reactions to it were as diverse as one might expect. As someone who has nothing but admiration for the French Extremity movement, I feel it’s an important part of film history. However, not everyone is too enamored with Noe’s tour-de-force. It’s been branded as both misogynistic and homophobic, and has stirred more than its fair share of controversy because of its depiction of violence and sexual assault. A story of revenge for the ultimate crime, it went far beyond many expectations.
If there’s one thing many agree upon, it’s the tiresome way the rape-revenge storyline has been shamelessly trotted out. At this point, it’s a dead giveaway for screenwriters who lack talent for original and creative ideas. For every film of this type that holds some form of merit such as The Last House On The Left (1972), you have Megan Is Missing (2012). The difference between the two is the intent and necessity for the plot. Last House On The Left, while both shocking and disturbing, does have its importance in the horror cannon. Arguably Wes Craven’s greatest film, his retelling of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) served as commentary on American television during the conflict in Vietnam. All Megan Is Missing did was shamelessly throw a graphic rape scene into a film that was boring, tiresome, and predictable, just to shock the audience. Needless to say, that film is pile of garbage, one that doesn’t deserve the dignity of being set on fire. Even I Spit On Your Grave, while vilified by many, possesses a core audience that hold it in high regard as a feminist statement.
Which brings me to Irreversible. Its reputation preceded it, and I thought I knew what I might be in for. I knew of its controversial rape scene, and more than one person had said they could only sit through it one time. To be quite honest, I was fully expecting another entry in the rape-revenge field, only something a bit more shocking. It took the concept and took in a brand new direction, and in doing so did the last possible thing that could be done with it. At the same time it exists within its own domain. It’s an unrivalled work in that respect, and one that remains autonomous from so many others.
What set it apart from so many was its distinctive narrative style. Presented in a reverse method, (a la Memento) it wasn’t so much about the outcome, but the paths one travelled to get there. As the film progressed, I couldn’t help myself from getting more involved with the scenarios that the characters were confronted with. Things went further than just telling a story. Earlier, I mentioned the act of making decisions, and the outcome that occurs from doing so. That’s what I took away from this one. If you were confronted with such a grave situation, how far would you go to seek retribution? At one point do you take yourself out of your comfort zone, and take the road less travelled? That’s what the meaning about the film was, at least for me. The title itself spoke to me on a deeper level; it seemed to suggest a point of no return. Irreversible lives up to its name, once you start watching, there’s no turning back.
I suppose one could refer to the films rape scene as the climax, but more so than that I see it as the epicenter. All of the proceedings that occur within Irreversible are impacted by the event in question. Because everything is told in an inverted sequence, it makes everything that much more effective. The scene itself was filmed in such a way, that I felt I was being punished for watching it. Filmed with one single continuous take, it thrives on a voyeuristic feeling. The camera holds its position for several minutes, and has the perspective similar to someone witnessing the actual event. It was a far cry from the forty minute ordeal featured in I Spit On Your Grave, which itself went on for far too long. Because I felt like I was actually present, it resonated with me. Much like the conclusion of Salo, I was forced to watch, and simultaneously punished for doing so. It’s very hard scene to watch, and easily one of the most unnerving I’ve ever seen. It’s from this point that the whole texture and overall mood of the film drastically changed, especially for the characters involved.
In the film, our protagonists are forced to come to terms with an unbearable situation. While I watched it, I found myself wondering what might have happened if they had made a different choice. I thought of all the moments that would have brought about a different completion, had they gone down a different path.
The film’s conclusion, which stood in sharp contrast with the rest of the film, almost hit me just as hard. To paraphrase a song title from Led Zeppelin, we were shown “what once was, and what will never be.” After walking away from Irreversible, I had a lot of questions. Not necessarily about the film, but about the world I live in. One lesson that I learned when the end credits began to roll was this; violence is a never-ending cycle. It perpetuates itself much like a pinwheel. The causes are different, but the end results are always the same. It’s suffering that most of time goes unpunished. There’s no such thing as a resolution, just a cycle that repeats itself in various ways. Revenge is just a concept; a fantasy in which we’d like to see justice carried out in extreme measures.
If you sit down with this again, it might be worthwhile to look past the imagery shown before you. There’s a deeper picture Noe is attempting to unveil, and bleak depiction of the world we exist in. Irreversible brought me world to the edge, and forced my eyes to look into the void.