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Cause & Punishment



Gaspar No, France, 2002

Rating: 3.6



Posted: April 26, 2003

By Laurence Station

Modern philosophy defines Causality as such: The cause of any event is a preceding event, without which the event in question would not have occurred. French filmmaker (and shameless provocateur) Gaspar No's Irreversible examines this concept, only in reverse. He shows us the end result before revealing what provoked the subsequent action. Playing God, as viewed from the limiting constraints of what he chooses to film (and in what order), No gets to muck around with time, perception, causality and, naturally, his ultimate underlying motivation: waging war against his audience by challenging their thoughts, emotions, tolerance levels and expectations as to what crosses the line when it comes to art and decency.

(Before proceeding, a cautionary warning is needed. The unrated Irreversible is egregiously contrived to offend and stun audiences from the very outset. It contains scenes of shocking violence and incredibly repugnant brutality. If you have no interest in seeing the film, or no desire to know anything more about it, please stop reading now.)

Okay. For those of you still with us, Irreversible begins with the climax and then moves backward to the morning of one very long day destined to forever change the lives of its three principal characters. Alex and Marcus (real-life couple Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel), are attending a party that evening, along with Alex's ex-lover Pierre (Albert Dupontel). Pierre still pines for Alex, but apparently he couldn't satisfy her between the sheets and was sacked in favor of the more primal, less intellectually-distracted Marcus. This triangle of former and current lovers has built-in tension, but No is less interested in character development than in tracking the chance cause-and-effect events that irreversibly alter the course of his characters' lives. For No, characterization simply gets in the way of his relentlessly nihilistic examination of bad things happening to seemingly innocent people.

After a brief scene in which Philippe Nahon, (the tormented butcher from No's films I Stand Alone and Carne), clues us in to the film's ironic theme ("Time destroys everything"), we proceed to jump back in time to Marcus and Pierre entering a gay S&M club (subtly called The Rectum) in search of a person known as Le Tnia (The Tapeworm). No's in-your-face, claustrophobic camerawork and use of natural lighting, while certainly raw and jerky enough to make Lars von Trier and fellow Dogme 95 devotees happy, proves disorienting and narratively irresponsible. (Unaware or perhaps uninterested in the fact that clarity is a sign of confidence, No risks making the audience seasick because he's either incapable of, or uninterested in, properly framing a shot.) The men in the club are presented as demented, amyl nitrate-snorting sex fiends, one of whom demands Marcus fist him in exchange for information leading to Le Tnia's whereabouts. All of this leads to a confrontation wherein Marcus has his arm broken and is about to be anally raped before Pierre steps in and beats off his attacker with a fire extinguisher -- and then proceeds to crush the man's head to a bloody pulp as No's handheld camera all but salivates with each lethally punishing blow. It's ugly, shocking, and horrific. If No wanted to get our attention, or perhaps drive those with weak constitutions from the theater, then mission accomplished.

We then skip back in time a little further, with Marcus and Pierre beginning their hunt for Le Tnia, with Pierre trying to calm the enraged Marcus as they steal a cab after bullying a prostitute for information. Further back, we see a bloody and battered Alex being pushed into an ambulance. Something horrible has happened to her. Flashback to Alex leaving a party alone and, rather than crossing a busy Paris intersection, taking a pedestrian underpass instead. This scene, which occurs around the middle of the film, is the one that's caused the most uproar, and with good reason. No sets his camera at ground level and leaves it in place during a nine-minute anal rape scene, wherein the aforementioned Le Tnia brutally assaults the innocent Alex.

This is an extremely uncomfortable scene to watch, naturally, mainly because No is forcing the audience to consider what to make of the action occurring on screen. On the one hand, we're witnessing a rape, and it's horrific. But what's with the garish red walls of the underpass and the ridiculously clingy dress hugging Alex's voluptuous frame? It's not really the character of Alex in that skin-tight dress we're seeing, but internationally known Italian model/actress Monica Bellucci. Bellucci's bodacious curves and naturally beautiful features skew the entire veracity of the scene. She's simply too beautiful, too exaggerated, like some fertility goddess made flesh. To show her so degraded and assaulted by the psychotic, homosexual Le Tnia (played with cruel menace by former Thai boxing champion Jo Prestia) forces the audience to consider whether No is pushing us toward some sort of sadomasochist, voyeuristic thrill. Is he attempting to force us into feeling an uneasy, unwilling glee in seeing Monica Belluci raped? Does he want his audience to acknowledge that deep down, they want to see Belluci punished for her beauty?

Had No selected a lesser well-known, more modestly endowed actress for the scene, the true horror of the act might have been more effective. As it stands the contrivance of his obvious, sensationalistic staging outweighs any naturalistic statement he might have wanted to make regarding rape or violence in general. No tries to have it both ways -- to condemn violence by exploiting the reaction to seeing a famously beautiful woman humiliated and beaten -- and the forced dichotomy of the two is simply too incongruous to be effectively reconciled.

(The final half of the film, for those still left watching, shows the three characters having a good time at the party, conversing on the train on their way to the party, and ultimately, Alex and Marcus in bed together earlier that morning -- in love and blissfully unaware of the ultimate darkness awaiting them.)

No is a gifted filmmaker, and Irreversible displays genuine moments of artistic grace (the closing overhead shot of children leaping over a water sprinkler, for instance), but he confuses provocative images for solid storytelling. Since we only learn the motivations of the respective characters after they've reacted to whatever provoked them, it's difficult to understand or even care for them. Of course, if one played the film in chronological order, there'd still be little weight to it, other than as an urban retread of the thematic ideas Sam Peckinpah more effectively explored in Straw Dogs (seemingly civilized men avenging wronged women at the most basic, primitive level). The real challenge for No is learning to trust his own instincts to the point where he doesn't have to rely on tired time-bending techniques to tell an honest and meaningful story, one that doesn't involve ham-fisted manipulation of either his actors' bodies or the audiences' perceptions in the process. Will he ever reach that level of confidence in his own abilities? Time will tell.

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