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Irredeemable 'Irreversible' isn't worth a fainting fit

The attention-grabbing, stomach-churning French film is little more than Hollywood hard-core extremism.

March 07, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

As if the French haven't taken enough of a hit lately, here comes Gaspar Noe. In recent weeks, the Nietzsche-spouting, overage enfant terrible of new French cinema has been making the publicity rounds sneering about Hollywood and gleefully recounting how his film "Irreversible" has caused moviegoers from Cannes to Sundance to faint. As schlockmeister William Castle once said about the art of movie exploitation, "You've got to have some little hook, whether it's perfume, whether it's incense or whether it's a flamethrower. But you've got to have something." Noe's something is rape.

"Irreversible" is a gimmick movie, a rape-and-revenge story told in reverse. The film opens with the end credits crawling backward, which makes them mostly unreadable with the notable exception of the names of the stars, Vincent Cassel and his wife, Monica Bellucci, as well as those of the production companies and the director.

After the credits conclude, the camera floats topsy-turvy outside a brick building, then cuts to a room where a slab of a man (Philippe Nahon) sits naked talking to a clothed companion. "Time," says the nudist, "destroys all things." The other guy asks, "What happened to you?" The nudist, the raging center in Noe's previous feature "I Stand Alone," replies, "I was in the joint because I slept with my daughter.... She was so cute!"

We never do learn what this prelude means, outside of the obvious: that Noe enjoys goosing the audience as much as William Castle does. Noe isn't big on explanations or, as it rapidly emerges, making meaning. His two ideas in "Irreversible" are that man is an animal and that time destroys everything. That's about it, with a graphically rendered murder tossed in at the beginning and an extended rape sequence as the narrative piece de resistance, complete with a digitally rendered erect penis. Shot with only a few scripted pages and largely improvised, "Irreversible" may be a whole lot of noisy nothing -- tricked out with flash cinematography, ear-bleeding sound design and some cringe-worthy references to Stanley Kubrick -- but it's certainly attention-grabbing.

Since its premiere at Cannes last year, the film has attracted equally passionate defenders and detractors. It's easy to see what has critics in a lather. The murder entails stomach-churning sights and sounds rarely found outside exploitation movies, and the rape hews along the lines of male fantasies like that found in Sam Peckinpah's 1971 career low, "Straw Dogs." In the years since "Straw Dogs," filmmakers have continued to push sex and violence to extremes; material that was once the exclusive provenance of the grindhouse has, increasingly, become fodder for the art house. Unquestionably, some of the work that's emerged achieves the sublime but, like "Irreversible," much of it is rubbish calculated to tickle the sensibilities of consumers hooked on shocks that are more gonzo than intellectual or aesthetic.

After the opening interlude, "Irreversible" returns to the world outside, where flashing police lights are staining the night red. Accompanied by a chorus of jeers and a throbbing low-frequency drone, two men, Marcus (Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel), are escorted from a gay S&M club called the Rectum, where a murder has been committed.

Earlier that evening, the two had attended a party thrown by friends with Marcus' live-in lover, Alex (Bellucci). During the party, Alex fought with Marcus and left the party alone, declining Pierre's offer of an escort home. Daunted by the prospect of navigating one of Paris' heavily trafficked boulevards in her high heels, Alex instead entered an underground tunnel, where a stranger (Jo Prestia) anally raped her, then pummeled her into a coma.

Movie rapes are always tough to sit through, and what makes this one tougher still is that it's a carefully choreographed spectacle. From the moment the rapist forces Alex to the ground -- with the camera dropping to face them head-on -- the assault is framed for maximum voyeurism. The attacker, repeatedly declaring that he is going to rape Alex, has pushed her onto her stomach. The position suits the rapist's stated purpose, of course, but more tellingly it also suits Noe's since it gives his camera a front-row seat from which to shoot the action. Helping to keep the view unobstructed, Bellucci periodically steadies herself by propping her body up with one of her arms, a gesture that, incidentally, keeps much of her face and swaying decolletage visible.

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