New tolerance level put to test

Toronto Star
March 14, 2003
By Peter Howell

As any car-crash victim could tell you, it takes no talent at all to make people stare.

The sight of bent metal and blood at the side of the road can snarl traffic for kilometres, as drivers slow down to gawk and cluck at the distress on view -- even if they have no intention of providing assistance.

We are all hardwired to look at terrible things, if only for a moment and even if our senses are screaming for us to run from them. To not have a reaction to someone else's misfortune is not to be human.

It's this automatic stare response that Gaspar Noé exploits in Irreversible, his rape-and-revenge film that opens in Toronto theatres today, having received the surprising blessing --  in the form of an adults-only "R" rating -- of the Ontario Film Review Board.

I say exploit because Noé eschews all considerations of art. He prefers instead to go for the maximum gawk-and-gag response by displaying as much violence on the screen as possible, in the form a horrific story of rape and revenge that spares nothing in its depiction of brutality.

We see a beautiful woman (Monica Bellucci) being raped, sodomized and disfigured by a sadist in a pedestrian tunnel, in a scene that runs nine minutes but seems to last an eternity. We see the woman's boyfriend (Vincent Cassel) exacting bloody revenge on the man whom he suspects to be the rapist, using a fire extinguisher to smash his head and face into a bloody pulp.

Noé makes sure we don't miss a single frame of pain, or a second of anguished cries. He demands not just a visual and mental response from us, but also a physical one.

There's a low-frequency drone on the soundtrack that twists the gut and magnifies the distress, and also strobe lights that cause a sense of disorientation and which could even spark seizures in people prone to them.

Noé would be delighted if watching Irreversible made you throw up, or at least walk out.

Why does he do this? I think it's nothing more than shock for shock's sake, by a filmmaker who wants to make a name for himself.

It's a strategy used by many French filmmakers these days, Claire Denis (Trouble Every Day) and Catherine Breillat (Romance) being two others who come to mind. The definition of Gallic pride for these filmmakers seems to be directly proportional to the maximum amount of shock and outrage they can provoke. Like the car-wreck junkies in David Cronenberg's Crash, they want to create their own random violence rather than just waiting for it to happen.

I don't buy Noé's sophomoric argument that love and hatred are inextricably linked, and that Irreversible dramatically illustrates this.

I'm not terribly impressed by his backward-running narrative, the revenge being shown before the rape, because it's been done before and much better — Memento used this device for more than reasons of style.

I am impressed by Noé's camera work in Irreversible, which is a dizzying whirl that makes you want to hang on for dear life. He's a better Steadicam operator than he is a director.

But saying that seems like complimenting Lee Harvey Oswald for being a great shot. The plain fact is, Irreversible is a contemptible use of violence for the sake of violence, and I don't consider myself a prude for saying so.

I've seen far worse movies, but not movies that were offered up for public consumption the way this one has. The only thing Irreversible really proves is just how tolerant our community standards have become. Twenty or even 10 years ago, a movie like this would have provoked a public outcry and probably a police raid.

I'm not a big fan of censors, because they usually get it wrong. But I do wonder and worry about what other taboos will soon be broken by attention-seeking filmmakers, now that the sluice gates have suddenly been opened in Ontario.

Pedophilia? Infanticide? Bestiality? If this keeps up, theatres will have to start hanging vomit bags onto the soft-drink holders, and I can't say up I'm looking forward to the brave new world that beckons.