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IrreversibleIrréversible, Gaspar Noé’s second feature, made a significant impact on me. I felt strong in my conviction that it was doing something meaningful, that it succinctly expressed something worth saying about time, causality and experience. This view held up under repeated viewing, whether alone, with family or friends – testing the impact through a range of different viewing environments and partnerships. What best supported this view was the stunned reaction of a friend, and the lengthy discussion of Kant and Hume which it provoked. There was something to be said on the intersection of ethics and aesthetics; trauma and memory; on morality and violence, and on what it is to be human.

It seems only fair to consider what a film has to say in terms of the thing itself – to let the object or artwork speak without prejudice in light of context, circumstance or exegesis. On those terms there would seem to be a fascinating puzzle to unravel in the constellation of the film’s three riddles – its reversed structure, its title, and the epigram, “Les temps détruit touts“. In the space between these lurks not only a commentary on the philosophical issues, but also a minefield of potential offense. I wouldn’t fail to understand a disgusted reading of the film: an outrageous affront to the homosexual community, a panegyric to heterosexual purity and hierarchical-masculine rage. But I felt there was enough there, and placed enough faith in Noé (a first crucial misstep in reading the film per se) to take such accusations with a pinch of salt. And equally, it seemed that there was a lot to be found out about how we relate to film in examining the diverse responses to and corresponding experiences of this provocative work.

Irreversible2Then again, I failed to take stock of one significant dimension to my experience, and also (naturally) of myriad other responses which were off-limits by virtual of past experiences. As I came to the film as a teenager, at a time when my consciousness of gender difference was more externalized, it at no point occurred that there was something highly suspect in the complete omission of the female perspective. Of the female perspective in a film which is structured about the most horrific depiction of violence against woman committed to commercial film. It would be begging the question to defend this use of the offending event on the basis that Noé is not concerned with woman as victim in this work, and moreover, no doubt would provoke a multitude of effective arguments against the film, its composition, its meaning, which can all stem from this first feminizing step, this realization that Irréversible is by a man, for men, about men. And in any case, of what use is the philosophical investigation if it is necessarily exclusive, justifiably if relativistically objectionable, and only formally rational?

Why did I come to be so fascinated with and blindsided by this film? Simple. Its affective power. Noé has a remarkable knack for using the tools of cinema to coerce, to nauseate and exhilarate. A lot of these things are going on in the audience’s body and brain before whatever we conceptualize as the ‘cognitive’ stuff really kicks in. In thinking about Irréversible, and in failing to think about it in a more holistic sense, I succumbed to the undetected power of the aesthetic and stylistic. It is for this same reason that the superior Seul contre tous fell below my radar – I am less readily seduced by its bludgeoning.

It is a film which will continue to be of interest for its aesthetic impact, and its critical reception. But it is of little interest beyond these, and for insight into ethics, time and the human experience, I would no longer go near Irréversible. Or maybe I’m just succumbing to the persuasive power of Peter Bradshaw? Oh dear… considering the film per se is proving socially problematic. Whether or not I believe the film to be significantly more profound than even the most forgiving critics have allowed, I cannot share the joy of insight with others because the means most certainly do not justify then end. Irréversible is a prime example of “auteur rape”.

It is with great excitement, then, that I look forward to the release of Enter the Void, which promises to offer the aesthetic and intellectual reward without the heinous contention.


Irréversible, Dir. & Writ. Gaspar Noé, Star. Cassel & Bellucci, 120 Films, France, 2002; available on DVD
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Written by James P. Campbell

19/05/2009 at 12:40

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