EDITORIAL NOTE: I wrote this review as part of a week-long look at what I refer to as “Infamovies” that I initially published on my personal Facebook page. As such, the audience I was writing for knew me personally and knew of my views and general candour; this does not necessarily translate outside of that more intimate setting.
I’m aware that my phrasing in describing The Rectum club as well as casually referring to the prostitutes as “whores” seems intolerant and quite judgemental – in addition to other descriptions of the film’s content which can be read as offensive. I chose this phrasing as I was trying to convey to my friends who were reading (and would not have seen the film) the way the film portrays these factors.
When I started this blog, I copied everything over verbatim, save for the occasional new hyperlink added in where I could not on Facebook and didn’t think of the new context of readership; had I written this review for the blog and not the initial run on Facebook, my wording would be more generalised and run less of a risk of being offensive. I apologise if these descriptions offend you and would like to assure you that I am not as intolerant as my naïve early reviews may suggest; please consider that, when I wrote this, you were not my intended audience.
What’s the deal? Graphic violence, graphic rape, physical-trauma inducing film design.
Still banned? Never was, though not for lack of trying.
Warning: Spoilers and NSFW and difficult content to follow.
Gaspar Noe does not make easy films. His previous work, I Stand Alone, was similarly intense and hardcore. It’s about a man, called The Butcher, who murders his family and beds his daughter. Now on paper, that sounds like a painfully European shlock piece. There is relevance and merit in the film, and very little of it is meaningless. It’s by no means a pleasant film, but it is one that has a lot more to it than just a horrible plot summary.
This is the main plague that has afflicted Irreversible.
Let’s get it out of the way right now. This film has a man getting his face pulverised with a fire extinguisher, and a 9-minute rape scene. On top of that, there’re beatings, bottles being smashed on faces, drug use, racism, vilification, and all sorts of other ‘Humans are bastards!’ type behaviour. There’s also the film’s production – the camerawork is…hectic to say the least. People say that watching Cloverfield was like being on a rollercoaster… Irreversible is like being on a rollercoaster that a giant monster has on a yo-yo and he’s whipping it around in a figure-of-eight motion, while the rollercoaster is still running. Furthermore, the films sound is produced at 28hz, the same frequency which earthquakes omit – causing animals to go batshit, and humans to feel physically ill.
When it premiered at the Cannes film festival, it caused untold walkouts, by people who couldn’t handle the content, or who were made sick by the 28hz frequency. Critics were divided as to whether it was an ultra violent masterpiece or a misguided film that causes more harm than good.
So how, I hear you say, does a film like this get made? What does it have to offer except being horribly violent? What is the point? Well read on.
The film was rated R18+ in 2004 with the following consumer advice: High Level Sexual Violence, Graphic Violence, Sexual Activity. Not really a timid fluffy bunny sort of film then. Sure enough, the shit hit the fan when the Family First party got their grubby little hands on this, and Steve Fielding started calling for the film’s banning.
Under the reliable guise of ‘protecting the children’ Fielding led a campaign to get this “vile trash” hauled from the screens. It went before the review board, who then promptly told the Family First party to stop wasting their time. The Family First party had submitted a few too many complaints about films in the past few years, and when they started decrying Irreversible, something became patently clear to the review board – no one from the Family First party had actually seen the film. They’d all had recommendations from other people, but no one had actually taken the time to analyse the film. The review board confirmed the R18+ rating, and Steve Fielding flew away to his volcano lair, promising them that they’d pay for this next time.
An actual photo of the Family First Party.
*The film takes place in reverse chronology. This is very important. So the following scenes play out in reverse order. I’ve numbered them to make more sense.*
We see the credits for the film, rolling down the screen. As they come to their end (or beginning, actually) the start skewing off differently, and a small trumpet section blares a DUM-DUM-DUM type deal, while a solid, single drum beat announces every one of the new flashing credits.
The camera spins around a narrow rise of apartment buildings, and we can see police lights flashing on the walls. It spins constantly, never ending, nausea-inducing. We also see a red billboard with a large fist on it, before we spin into a tiny bedroom, where a man (the butcher, from I Stand Alone) sits on a bid, in only his underwear, and converses with a friend. He offers the main message of the film – Le Temps Detruit Tout –and proceeds to let his companion know of the crimes of his earlier film, but justifies it in that all humans have evil at their core. It almost seems vaguely remorseful, until they start chuckling to themselves and talking of the men in The Rectum.
The exterior of The Rectum, a club. The door opens, and pounding house music blares, as a man on a stretcher (Marcus) is wheeled out. A policeman tries to hold back a large man who demands he just wants his money. The large man taunts Marcus – “Got your arm broke sweetie? I hope you got your ass reamed too! Like Alex – hope it bled, hope it hurt!” before he then lets loose a slew of other vulgarities. We then see a man (Pierre) being led out of the club in handcuffs, while the large men also demand money from him – before taunting him as he is led away. The men are held back by the police. Pierre is shown in the back of the police car, somewhat shell-shocked. Marcus is unconscious, in the back of an ambulance arm in a splint.
He was attacked by bunnies, right? Right?
Inside The Rectum. It is a gay club. And not the kind where a bunch of beautiful, muscled men dance to techno with their shirts off – this is the kind of club where men hide in red-lit rooms, half dressed in leather, begging to be fisted, or to have their nipples burned with a lighter, or any other version of extreme sexplay. To describe this place as hellish is to overestimate the power of the word “hell.” This is a building made from nightmares. The camera weaves in and out of the labyrinthine corridors and rooms, moving side to side and up and down – you have absolutely no point of reference for it. The entire time, the 28hz sound drones in and out, undulating and pulsating like a plague of flies, mixing with the pounding house music, and you know that this is a place where happiness is not readily available.
Marcus and Pierre enter The Rectum, in varied states of Frezny. Marcus is frantic and urgent, while Pierre is trying to calm Marcus down. Marcus is lookng for a man called La Tenia (which means ‘the tapeworm’ – given that he is The Tapeworm in The Rectum, do you think he might be a bad person?) and is demonstrative in his need to find him. Marcus asks no less than 30 different men, all of whom are either engaging in violent sex, or being whipped, or spanked or bound or confined if they know La Tenia. Marcus is hit on by some of these men and rebukes them violently. Pierre pleads with him to leave, saying that he (Pierre) will not save him (Marcus) this time round. Marcus finds a man in a sling who says he knows La Tenia. He begs Marcus to fist him – Marcus instead beats him up, extensively, which the man appears to enjoy thoroughly. The man tells Marcus that La Tenia is hardcore, and not someone he should meet lightly. Marcus beats him harder. The man gets off on it, and at one point, when thrown to the ground by Marcus points at a man in a nearby doorway, identifying him as La Tenia. There is a short man and a tall man in the doorway. The masochist pointed at both of them, so Marcus asks which one is La Tenia. He hassles them both, rejecting the short one’s offer of poppers, and gets more and more worked up. The tall man ends up pushing Marcus out, and they fight, surrounded by the patrons of the club who cheer and jeer them on. Although Marcus is wiry and frenzied (even breaking a beer bottle over the man’s face) the tall man gets the upper hand, getting Marcus on the ground, and snapping his arm backwards, and positioning himself to attempt to rape Marcus. At this, Pierre enters the scene, fire extinguisher in hand.
The “oh fuck” moment of this image increases on repeat viewings.
He delivers a blow to the man’s face, knocking him off Marcus. Then another. And another. The would-be rapist receives a total of 23 vicious blows to the face with the fire extinguisher. His face is caved in, and blood flows freely (although given the red light of the club, it’s blessedly difficult to make out). His lower jaw is still moving, suggesting he’s still alive. Some of the men in the club get off on this, masturbating voraciously at the sight. Pierre stops, and sets the fire extinguisher down, and we see the short man from the doorway looking on, smiling widely and wildly.
Pierre and Marcus are driving a cab, speaking viciously of the driver (who is not in the cab). They are looking for The Rectum, and can’t find it. They stop and ask for directions at a local café (supposedly occupied by gay men) and are derided. Marcus gets back in the cab and drives on, stopping to ask some male prostitutes the way to the club. When they show him, he tells Pierre to get out of the car. Pierre doesn’t want to, saying he wants to go and see Alex at the hospital. Marcus rages, even getting an iron bar and smashing in the windows of the cab to get Pierre out of it.
Marcus: reasonable and rational.
We see the start of the cab ride. Marcus and Pierre are being chased, though we don’t see by whom. They tell the Asian driver to go to The Rectum, but he doesn’t understand them. Marcus rails at him, telling him to take them to the ‘fag club’ and calling him a slanty eyed chink. Pierre raves at Marcus, telling him that half the energy he’s spending on berating the driver could’ve saved Alex. The driver gets fed up with Marcus and starts screaming at him, so Pierre tells the driver to stop, and they’ll get out. Marcus gets out, but so he can throw the driver out and steal the cab.
We see Marcus and Pierre on the streets, accompanied by the two men we saw outside The Rectum, demanding money and berating them. They are looking for a man named Guillermo Nunez. Marcus is less haywire here, just seething with tension. Pierre is still trying to calm Marcus down, and is assuring the two men that they will get their money. He tries to persuade Marcus to leave the streets and go to the hospital. Marcus largely ignores him. The two men are acting like a guide of sorts, and pointing out the whores on the street who Pierre and Marcus should ask about Guillermo Nunez. The problem is that the whores are largely Spanish, and don’t understand Marcus’s French. They find a whore named Concha, who should know who Guillermo Nunez is. The two men and Marcus get fed up with the language barrier, and threaten to beat her up. Pierre intervenes, trying to play peacekeeper. Concha reveals that she in fact is Guillermo Nunez, and is a she-male. Marcus deduces that this means “she saw it!” and holds a knife to her face, demanding information. Concha tells them that they are looking for La Tenia at a club called The Rectum. The horde of prostitutes on the street witness this, and chase the men down. Marcus and Pierre get into a cab, driving off.
We see Pierre being interviewed by the police, just asking a few necessary questions. When he is let go, he rejoins a dazed Marcus and the two are approached by the two men we saw in the last scene. They explain that they are gang members, and that this is their turf. They point out the supposed uselessness of the police, and that the “man who did this” will get a doctor. That Marcus and Pierre’s friend didn’t get a doctor. The two men assure Marcus and Pierre that they know how to get revenge, that they “found a purse” with an ID inside – Guillermo Nunez. For the right price, the two men can help Marcus and Pierre get their revenge.
We see Pierre and Marcus exiting a party, and walking along the street. Pierre is encouraging Marcus to drink as much water as possible, and chiding Marcus for letting Alex leave. They try to get a cab but are stopped by a police barricade on the footpath. While the two wonder what is going on, Marcus catches sight off screen of Alex – the music in the background is drowned by the sound of a heartbeat, and we watch as Marcus dissolves into a wreck at the sight of Alex, a beautiful woman lying bloodied and beaten on a stretcher. He pushes past the police and rushes to her, crying and screaming her name. All he can say is “she’s my girl!” as he is left alone, and she is carried off in an ambulance
We see a beautiful woman leaving a party. This is Alex. She is wearing a beautiful dress which clings to her curvaceous figure like Glad wrap. She tries to hail a cab across a busy road, but the traffic is too fast and plentiful. A woman on the street tells her to take the underpass, as it is safer. Alex does. On the way through the underpass, she sees the short man from The Rectum walking with Concha. It now becomes clear to the audience that this man is La Tenia, not the one Pierre crushed in the club. La Tenia pushes Concha up against a wall and beats her, shocking Alex. She screams and stops, about to help Concha, when instead Alex is set upon by La Tenia, who pulls out a knife. He forces her to the ground, cuts off her dress and rapes her.
L-R: Concha, La Tenia, Alex.
This rape scene is horrific, largely due to the performance of Monica Bellucci. It also takes place as one single, stationary shot, with the camera being set on the ground, in horrible contrast to the constant moving energy of the camerawork from before. She is raped anally by La Tenia, who admits that women aren’t his usual pleasure. For every second of this rape, and it lasts 9 minutes, Alex fights against him, as much as possible. She screams for help whenever she can. Though he overpowers her, she doesn’t give up fighting him, even though it’s helpless. At one point, in the distance, a man walks into the underpass, witnesses what is happening, and walks away. When La Tenia is done, he rolls off her and relaxes on the ground, taking this time to sniff some more amyl. Alex tries to crawl away from him, in shock, but he stops her, and kicks her in the face a few times, before grabbing the back of her head and pounding her face into the pavement below.
We see Marcus, jumping up and down energetically talking to Pierre. Their conversation is largely prattle, but we do learn that Pierre has been prying into Marcus’s sex life with Alex, and that Pierre in fact used to be with Alex. Pierre is disgusted at Marcus, as Marcus is running around this party, drinking heavily, sniffing a lot of cocaine, and making out with a lot of non-Alexual women. Pierre berates him some more, but Marcus largely shrugs it off, ignoring him, although he does aquiesce to Pierre’s demands that he drink water. The two find Alex, and she is dancing with some girls. That dress really clings to her, and shows off her body amazingly. Pierre certainly thinks so, and enjoys watching her dance. Alex is the kind of person who is just inherently sexy and doesn’t have to work hard at it at all. Marcus goes up and dances with her, makes some crude innuendoes about the girls she is dancing with, and complains that Pierre is such a bore. Alex goes to Pierre and dances with him, while Marcus bounds off. Pierre complains about Marcus to Alex, and notices that Alex never danced with him before.
Alex leaves Pierre behind to find a pregnant friend of hers. Alex talks closely with the pregnant friend, admitting that tonight is a “special” night, and that she is here with her man. When she looks down, she sees Marcus a little too cosy with a girl, and gets pissed off with him, finally agreeing with Pierre that he’s acting like a child. Annoyed, she leaves him behind and tells him she is leaving. She says goodbye to Pierre, who it now seems is trying to win her back from Marcus, and leaves to catch a cab.
We see Pierre, Marcus and Alex riding an elevator down to a platform station and catching a train to the party. Alex tells them about a book she is reading in which the future is stated as being already written, and that the clues come to people in premonitory dreams. Pierre is asking intrusive questions about their sex life, particularly the fact that Alex has managed to achieve orgasms with Marcus, which she couldn’t do with Pierre. Marcus is largely silent, merely holding his woman and contributing to the conversation rarely. It’s not that he’s pissed off or reticent – just that Marcus and Alex are motormouths. Pierre is trying to get answers as to what Marcus does differently, and Alex accuses him of being too cerebral, that he cares too much about the woman’s pleasure instead of having his own. Their sexual conversation ends when Alex stops being gentle, and saying that “it’s not women who can’t come, but the men who can’t fuck.” As this scene transitions into the next, we see the camera race down the track of the subway, juddering and shaking until the image splits in two.
Alex, Marcus and Pierre on the train.
We see Marcus and Alex asleep in bed, naked, presumably having just had sex. They are awoken by Pierre leaving a message, saying that his car is broken, and that they’ll have to take the subway. Alex tells Marcus that she had the strangest dream, and describes the transition, where the subway split in two. Marcus mentions he can’t feel his arm – the same one that would later be broken. They play around for a while, play-wrestling, with tickling being the ultimate punishment. It’s very clear that these two love each other. Alex asks Marcus how he would react if she was pregnant – Marcus says that it would be great. Marcus leaves, to go and get a bottle of champagne, and Alex takes a shower. She then uses a home pregnancy test, and while we don’t ever get a definite answer, it is implied that she is, in fact, pregnant
This scene is just beautiful and intimate, regardless of what’s happened in the film beforehand.
The final scene of the film shows Alex in a park, lying in the sun on a towel, reading a book, holding he belly while children run around a sprinkler. The camera then whirls into the sky, fading to white, which then strobes a bizarre image beneath it. The best way I can describe it is that it’s kind of like if you shut your eyes and then stare at the sun, and it looks a bit like what you see on the inside of your eyelids. The same droning noise from the start of the film resumes. It then cuts out. The film then ends with the words flashed up on screen again – LE TEMPS DETRUIT TOUT.
This camera angle is not unusual in the film…
Although the enthusiasm on that smiley’s face is a bit too dissonant with this film, this is an astoundingly good movie. It’s very hard to watch, very, very hard, in fact, but that’s also testament to the film’s power.
This is a film of massive calibre compared with the other films I’ve reviewed this past week. Consider its casting – Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassell are France’s Brangelina, not least of all because the two are also married in real life. It’s not like they’re going to sign on to a meaningless, worthless film.
Well, not in Europe anyway…
This film has heaps to say, and even then leaves room for your own interpretations. This is due to the film playing backwards.
Played as it does, we get no thrill or justification from the violence. The brutality of Pierre’s actions with the fire extinguisher are unexplained as the film goes on, and when we see the rape, we already know what comes of their vengeance – misaimed aggression. If the film was played A to Z, we would see a beautiful, pregnant woman, horribly raped and beaten when she leaves her immature boyfriend behind at party. The boyfriend, then determined to get revenge, makes rash decisions that lead to the murder of an ostensibly innocent man.
The implications of this film would be horrible – a beautiful woman is shown dressing provocatively and raped for it, and the man responsible for the rape is a degenerate homosexual hiding in a den of bloodthirsty homosexuals. (As it is, Noe filmed himself as one of the men in the club to combat accisations of homophobia – I’m not sure how that proves it, but it pleased the French…)
Played backwards as it does, we instead see a bizarre world of men who we don’t understand – unless of course these are fetishes that play into your bag of tricks – but the point is that the club is not associated with the crime. It’s just an extreme place where extreme men go. La Tenia is an extreme man. By showing Alex as her sexy and alluring self after the rape, we come to understand her as a beautiful and confident woman, but not invincible. There’s an added vulnerability to her scenes at the party, knowing that his amazing woman is soon going to be beaten down.
But with the film playing as it does, it also has two hidden positive messages. Firstly, it suggests that even a horrible act like the rape or fire extinguisher beating doesn’t diminish the beauty in the life lived before those acts.
Secondly, the film’s message: LE TEMPTS DETRUIT TOUT. It means ‘Time destroys everything.’ At first it sounds depressing and doom-and-gloomy but it also highlights the fragility of the characters lives. Pierre is a man who was too hung up on the past he had with Alex. He never let go and instead made a pain of himself to Marcus and Alex. Marcus and Alex on the other hand, are deeply in love and live as such. Even though we know what will happen to both characters in time, they are happy now. If time will destroy everything, isn’t it better to love and be happy now, while you can?
There’s also a convincing argument that in fact, it was all a dream. Scenes 15 – 2 can be seen as the kind of dream Alex was talking about. This is supported by the last of these moments being exactly what she describes when she tells Marcus about her dream. Also, it’s in this scene that we see her finding out that she is pregnant. The next scene shows her sunbathing, and shows her belly prominently, suggesting that perhaps this is in fact a scene taking place after scene 2, and that the events of scenes 15 – 3 never happened. The argument could be made that this is a dumbed down and simplistic reading of the movie, but given the genuine intimacy in the final two scenes of the film, it’s as equally valid if you want to read it that way.
The point is this: this film has a lot more going on, than just two particularly horrible scenes.
Understandably (nearly) banned?
No, but yes. I admit, despite my admiration for the film, that on paper it sounds harsh and rough. That’s because it is, but no one mentions the other worth of the film. It’s understandable that someone who hadn’t seen it would be fooled into thinking it ban-worthy.
But this is shit reasoning. It’s bad enough that we live in a society that bans films, but to have it nearly happening on the complaints of a group who haven’t even seen it? I applaud the OFLC’s decision to allow the film to survive with its R18+, but I downright cheer at the restrictions they then put on the Family First party.
This is definitely a film that should be restricted though. Some argue that there are even 18-year-olds who wouldn’t be emotionally ready to see this film – that is certainly true. But here’s another issue with people who call for the banning of films based on the audience – most people don’t see movies that they don’t want to see. This is a tough movie that makes no bones about it – it doesn’t try to be anything except what it is. Its marketing shows it to be a tough film, and the ratings alone show that it isn’t suitable for all audiences. That’s why its ridiculous when jokers like Steve Fielding call for this film to be banned so children won’t see it. Firstly, any parent who allowed their children to see a movie like this, assuming we mean children as in 14 years old and below, would have incredibly questionable judgement. Secondly, children who try to seek out something naughty to watch, to rebel against their parents’ rules, are hardly going to watch an arthouse French film.
This film should never be banned, and I’m glad it wasn’t.
A tough and uncompromising film, but a dark masterpiece.
Copied over from my Facebook on inception of the blog. Originally written 6/9/2010