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Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2003

Horror for the sake of horror


Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Japanese title: Alex
Director: Gaspar Noe
Running time: 98 minutes
Language: French
Currently showing

It didn't take long, but the current Euro wave of cinema-du-scandal has definitely worn out its welcome. While a few filmmakers have used unsimulated sex and even sexual violence to explore real issues and emotions, too many others have settled for "shock for shock's sake."

News photo
Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel in "Irreversible"

After the cannibalistic cunnilingus of "Trouble Every Day," or the shot-where-the-sun-don't-shine in "Baise-moi," the game of "transgressive" one-upmanship seems increasingly pointless and gratuitous.

Leave it to Gaspar Noe, director of the controversially brutal "Carne" and "Seul Contre Nous (I Stand Alone)" to take it even further. This director has predicated his whole career on cinematic outrages, and his latest, "Irreversible," is a truly shocking film, an abomination that has provoked boos, heckling, threats, mass walkouts and condemnations by the press. However, it has also won its share of defenders, who praise it as a troubling but intelligent work of radical art.

So now it falls upon this critic to weigh the scales of justice, and either condemn Noe or exonerate him. Is "Irreversible" a savagely honest look at the ravages of violence and the illusion of revenge, a nihilistic look at the ease with which evil can undo our lives? Or is it a cheap, exploitative shocker, tarted up with allusions to Stanley Kubrick and a deliberately convoluted structure? The verdict is far from clear . . .

One thing's for sure: Love it or hate it, "Irreversible" is a singularly repellent viewing experience. Sitting through this film involves watching a man's head get slowly beaten to mush by the blunt end of a fire extinguisher, and -- Noe's showstopper -- an eight-minute anal rape of beautiful Monica Bellucci.

"Irreversible" seeks to show us the painful finality of violence, how one night can cause lives to be damaged beyond repair. "Time destroys everything" is the pessimistic message Noe hammers home, and it's revealing of this director's world-view that he chose this maxim over "time heals all wounds."

The film's structure recalls "Memento," beginning with an act of violence and working backward in time, revealing scene by scene the events that provoked this cataclysm. The film drops us into the foyer of the gay S&M club Rectum, where a man is being carted out on a stretcher, as the cops arrest someone else. An old man leans out a window from a nearby flat (observant viewers will recognize him from previous Noe films) and yells, "There are no condoms in jail -- die from AIDS, you f***er!" Yes, the world can be an ugly place, and Noe's about to show us just how ugly.

Cut back 10 minutes and we find Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) descending through the labyrinthine bowels of Rectum looking for a man named Le Tenia (The Tapeworm). The ambience is like something out of Goya or Bosch, with glimpses of all sorts of perverse horrors taking place behind bars, as moans and screams fill the air. The camera adds to the delirium, swooping giddily through this menacing murk, never stopping long enough, thankfully, to let us know for sure if we just saw what we think we saw.

Marcus is on the verge of insanity, beating and threatening everyone in an attempt to find Tenia, while Pierre tries to hold him back. In the lowest depths of this hell on earth, Marcus thinks he's found his man; he lays into him, only to get his own ass kicked in return. His arm broken, he's about to be forcibly sodomized before an admiring crowd of sadists before Pierre arrives with the aforementioned fire extinguisher. What follows is a textbook example of "beating someone's brains in."

Ten minutes down, 88 to go. Can you handle it? The sensitive viewer will probably choose to leave, while the jaded viewer will make it a point not to let it get to him. Either way, Noe loses, if his aim is to reach an audience with this film. The breaking point for many will be the almost real-time rape of Marcus' lover Alex (Bellucci) in an underground pedestrian tunnel. In one of cinema's most brutal moments, a seemingly endless scene, the camera remains motionless as a ghoulish pimp rips into the woman and then kicks her face to a pulp.

There's more to go after this: The story cuts back to show Marcus and Alex's happiness together and the lovers' tiff that sent Alex walking home alone on that fateful evening. The film even, ironically, delivers a happy ending, showing Alex pregnant and content, lying on the grass of a park, imagining her future with Marcus -- which we now know she'll never live to enjoy.

But there's no getting past that rape scene: Did it really require 10 percent of the film's running time to fully express the brutality of rape? Are viewers so stupid that they cannot imagine this horror for themselves, that it has to be portrayed in every detail? Did Monica Bellucci, in a nipple-revealing dress that's heavily featured in the film's ads, have to be so overtly sexualized before she was violated?

It's impossible to shake a nagging feeling that this scene was Noe's real reason for making the film, that any ruminations on time, virulent male sexuality, or the illusion of vengeance (it turns out Pierre and Marcus missed their man, though the film's reverse structure means most audiences will not notice this) were second to the impulse to make a scene that would get in your face and make you squirm. Perhaps watching "Taxi Driver" or "A Clockwork Orange" when they were released in the early '70s was a similarly disturbing experience. But both those films contained an intelligence -- and a streak of black humor -- that is singularly absent in "Irreversible."

Ultimately, Noe's film is a 90-minute proof of the hypothesis: "Life sucks and then you die." Granted, it's at times a brilliant, painfully disconcerting proof, filmed with operatic intensity, but it's still a rather banal excuse to engage in such excessive ugliness. "Irreversible" is an undeniably powerful and moving film, but it will move many viewers straight to the theater's exit.

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