Friday, January 02, 2009

Irréversible by Gaspar Noé

Irreversible (Irréversible) by Gaspar Noé is one of the most well-known films in the New Extremism league. Along with Michael Haneke and Bruno Dumont, Noé aims at a cinematic expression of violence in which the viewer is forced to see the human condition in its raw brutality, without any hint of entertainment or operatic stylishness. Consider in contrast the violence in the so-called action films, where the spectacle of destruction is calculated to thrill and wow the audience.

All three of the above filmmakers are extremely gifted, and their films can be appreciated not just for the questions they raise, but also for pushing the frontiers of cinematic art. In a typical film, a director has only a couple of hours to try and make an indelible mark on the viewer. This calls for novel ways to present a story or a theme. But in films (as compared to books), the "auteur" has also a larger arsenal of tools (sound, editing, scene composition, special effects) at his disposal. Great cinema is therefore not just in which something profound is conveyed, but also in which the tools are used in unconventional, highly effective ways.

I consider a director to be gifted if he is able to invent a new language in cinema and say something profound with it. For this reason, I am not a big fan of Jean Luc Godard. I consider him gifted in breaking new ground, but as a film technician, not as an auteur.

Apart from the usual cinematic tools and techniques, I appreciate original and effective titles design. A feature film has two title sequences, one at the beginning and the other at the end. Many big-budget films spend a lot of money on their beginning and closing titles. For example, the James Bond films have traditionally been eagerly anticipated for the beginning titles and the music accompanying them. Many great directors use these sequences to complement the film's tone and message, as well as to (obviously) give credit.

For unconventional and extremely effective title design, consider the beginning titles in Le Pianiste and in Caché, both by Haneke. In the former, the piano music and a few other scenes are brutally cut short by minimalist, tiny, white lines of text on a black background. This suggests a contrast between the public life and the private, hidden world. It also hints at the film's intention to present a narrative in which many blanks will have to be filled in by the viewer.

In Caché, the end titles design is a master stroke. (In addition to the beginning titles, which convey the message that reality is being "portrayed" and it is not being merely presented.) In the middle of a prolonged shot of a seemingly innocuous exit of a public building, while the audience is busy piecing together the film's narrative, and has no clue that the film is anywhere near the end, the titles start rolling almost imperceptibly, and continue, as a nod to the continuation of life after the film. The viewers are left reeling at the shock that the director has left the film, made the more effective because the shock is delivered so calmly and methodically.

Irreversible is one of the most effective and artistic instances of titles design that I have come across. The beginning titles start with an ominous bass sound (which continues in a strange rhythm), and the words strangely move from top to bottom, with some letters reversed. As the viewers are trying to make sense of what is going on, the titles bend, as if the reel is being consumed by the projector. The disorientation and sense of dread this creates has to be experienced to be believed. It is as if one is entering the gates of hell. Soon these preliminary titles end, and after a shot of a naked old man sitting under a bright bulb, there is a flickering assault of large letters, accompanied by the sound of a hellish clock sounding the hour. The viewers cannot help but sit up straight and be prepared for something akin to a purgatory of time.

And at the end of the film, the painful and rapid strobe effect with a very white background... The last scene of the film proper is an idyllic Eden of happiness. The strobe and the sentence which follows it are a jarringly effective way of contrasting the "natural" Eden with the human nightmare. The strobe is something completely artificial, and that is why it is so effective. It is a human hell. The director has also mentioned that it is a symbol of the passing of time. But the discrete, painful way in which it is done (instead of showing, say, the continuous flow of a river, which is also a metaphor for time) lends a sense of tragedy, and the sentence at the end ("Time Destroys Everything"), when we almost can take it no more, is the regret which the protagonists will have to live with after the night(mare) is over for them.

What a tour-de-force!

As I remarked earlier in my review of Silent Light, Irreversible is much opposed in form and content to Reygadas' film. If it can be said for Silent Light that "Rarely has a film depicted religious experience with such power and clarity, bringing the audience uncannily, exaltingly close to a state of holiness," it can be said for Irreversible that "Rarely has a film depicted the hell of man with such brutality and unflinching realism, bringing the audience horrifically, tragically close to a state of nihilism."

Whereas in Silent Light, redemption is possible, and mistakes can be corrected, the very message of Irreversible is that there is no redemption, and that mistakes once made haunt us forever. Whereas in Silent Light, people and spaces are filled with light, in Irreversible it is as if there is no day, only night. If it is water and flowers and peace in Silent Light, it is urban decay, drugs and vehemence in Irreversible. Where Silent Light is about Love and Forgiveness, Irreversible is about Hate and Revenge. And finally, where the camera movement in Reygadas' film is meditative and surreal, the camera movement in Noé's hands is shaky and hyper-real.

Gaspar Noé has invested the film with many subtle, and some not so subtle, ironies and questions. I present the ones I could detect on a second viewing:

Orgasm should be a selfish pursuit (a regard for other's satisfaction is pathological) or should it?

A woman is a thing to be stolen and consumed, or is she?

A philosophy teacher is more evolved and in control of his aggression than a drugged misanthrope, or is he?

A downtown party of men and women is "acceptable", compared to a gay and fetish bar, or is it?

A husband is sensitive whereas a rapist is not, or is he?

Whereas criminals hurt and violate, normal people help others, or do they?

Only perverse men are intimidated by, and cannot dare to love, a beautiful woman, or are they?

Women invite the rapists by flaunting their attractiveness, and they revel in the power of their beauty, or do they?

Revenge and Punishment is meaningful, or is it?

Consequences are inevitable, or are they?


The film is also notable for some formidable technical achievements, e.g. the uncut and fluidly joined shots, the camera work (e.g. the rhythmic shake of the camera to convey the heart beat of Alex on the stretcher, the steadily increasing steadiness of the camera as we go back in time, the shots from above) and the sound design (According to Noé, he incorporated an almost inaudible 28-Hz beat in the first 30 minutes of the film to induce nausea and disorientation in the viewers).

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