As something of a film buff, one of my interests is viewing extreme or so-called transgressive cinema. Always looking to see what is new and different (dare I say hip) in the genres most likely to be controversial or offensive. Usually this is in horror or 'thrillers'.
Currently France with its loosely-grouped 'New French Extremity' films is the forefront of my, uh, educational viewing. Most of these I've found to be pretty good, delivering as advertised; shocking, compelling horror that goes places US releases fear to tread.
I have a strong stomach and an ability to handle (at least for the viewing duration) different messages, themes, and subtexts... but if done 'effectively' I still react to this material something like the way intended by the film. All the stuff I've seen has certainly built some level of tolerance and immunity to screen horrors, but I'm not jaded. All my social and cultural boundaries are intact and in place, I'm just able to lift them up enough to see whatever screen controversy is next on the list. I don't really like poor filmmaking per se, and there are plenty of extreme films that are just dumb or cruel. Occasionally one comes along that makes me think about acceptable limits.
I think I've just seen the signpost for my limit. The film 'Irreversible'.
With all the difficult-to-handle stuff I've seen the first twenty minutes of this movie probably the most harrowing of all. Movies like 'Salo', although well-made, are held out as immoral and repulsive. 'Wolf Creek' is considered utterly bleak and misogynist. 'The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things' is perverse and nihilistic. Yep. Maybe true for some and all depending on your view. I can see the point for anyone reviling these films for the above listed reasons and more.
But they are all pretty tame, ultimately, compared to 'Irreversible'. There aren't many things I wish I could un-see... and I probably don't really want to un-see this movie either, but I'm damn close. As any internet search can tell you, the movie is about the events leading up to a rape and subsequent revenge, but told in reverse chronological order. A very early film in what would become The New French Extremity, the movie is well-made (apart from an overabundance of swirly between-scenes camera work) not some back alley straight-to video-quickie, though it looks it. It is grimy-looking on purpose, with improvised (French) dialogue that was effective for me.
The first scenes are set in a gay 'club' and features some disturbing scenes and characters, (the place is called The Rectum, so you figure out what kind of activity's going on there), as the two male leads march through the place looking for a rapist. These rapid-fire handheld shots culminate in a very effective, horrific act of violence that makes the viewer flinch the way seeing real violence on a war documentary might. So that in itself is pretty grim.
But moments later, Monica Belucci becomes the victim in the rape scene. THE rape scene. Notorious. It is nine excruciating minutes of unblinking, hyper-realistic degradation that the viewer is given absolutely no respite from. The camera just sits at ground level as if dropped there by some passerby in a hurry to get off the location. I guess Belucci should get some kind of kudos for having the guts to do this scene. She's been interviewed dozens of times about it, and seems pretty unaffected. But husband (and co-star as her vengeful boyfriend) WAS affected. Belucci asked him not to be on set when this was filmed, and he was in tears during the screening at Cannes.
I want to give props to the filmmakers too, because the film IS some kind of art, but it is difficult. Art can be difficult, I know.
The rape isn't the only thing in the movie, the rest of it is interesting, and it does some cool things with foreshadowing in reverse. The story would probably be strictly exploitation fare if it weren't for the methodology in ordering the scenes. Belucci and Cassel (and the third lead) are all pretty funny and kind with each other... which of course makes the shit you've already seen even worse. The film shows Cassel just go ballistic and loose a bunch of verbal abuse on gays, a transsexual, and a chinese cab driver. I won't say his behavior is literally justifiable, but the subsequent scenes make it more and more understandable... and I'd say the more idyllic stuff that comes AFTER the rape make the point perhaps even more because they show how HE thinks about her... what he may have lost.
But the rape dominates. It just fricking sprawls all over this movie. As it is supposed to. And given the absolutely horrible way it is depicted I'm not sure I CAN give props to the filmmakers. There is a message in here about the fleeting nature of ordinary lives... maybe even a 'hey ladies, be smart when you're alone' deal in there somewhere. I could definitely see this movie inspiring some women to think twice about their own security. Hopefully constructively. But it just hard to drum up a recommendation on any level for this thing. I suppose it could be used to 'teach' someone how horrible and destructive the crime is... I dunno.
I actually feel bad about the guy playing the rapist. It'd be easy to say he has something in him to be able to play the part... he sure is 'good' at it. I'm sure he had to dig down and do it the same way Belucci did. And the scene is one long take. She said it was done like six times or something. I'd feel horrible about 'going there' to do that scene... like Bill Moseley did during certain scenes of 'The Devil's Rejects'.
Couple of additonal notes about 'Irreversible'. Screened at Cannes, the movie was extremely divisive, as one would expect. No one 'liked' it, but some people walked out (fair enough) and others shouted at the screen or at the filmmakers afterward... including Belucci. Now I can't speak for anyone else, but whatever one thinks about the film and its motives, the rape scene is not exploitative. Its about as far from that as is possible to get, in my opinion. So shouting expletives at Belucci *feels* a bit like someone telling a rape victim they deserved it. She did a job, and she did it (too) well. There is barely any nudity in the scene, it isn't explicit in the sense usually meant when describing a sexual screen topic. People blame HER for the film getting made? Like the director wouldn't be able to find someone else? Or what? I'm kinda bewildered by that... not that Cannes audiences don't have their loonies.
That brings me to another bit of looniness. Roger Ebert. Reading his review, I largely found myself agreeing or at least understanding his points... until he starts talking about women's 'wisdom' in how they dress. WTF? Here is one of the most-read film critics in the world, a man who is known for his tolerance for genres that other critics dismiss, and HE throws in a passive reference to 'she was asking for it'. Belucci IS dressed provocatively. She was attending a pretty debauched party. If Roger saw the same film I did, it'd be obvious that how she was dressed made absolutely no difference to the attacker. The rapist, was an extreme abuser and hater and Belucci was a bystander to his horrible behavior. Being female she was going to get it even if she was 85 years old and dressed in a roll of astroturf. Not that Roger has never said something asinine before, but cripes! Here is the actual error on the character's part: going somewhere in a big city unfamiliar, alone, late at night, particularly as a woman. I'm not saying she doesn't have 'the right' to do so, but if there is wisdom lacking... to me, THAT course of action was it. Even then, the film sets up what happens as pretty believable. She isn't far from friends and she takes the route she does on advice from a young woman, after failing to hail a cab. Running across the rapist (a pimp berating a whore) in an underground street crossing was pretty much just the worst luck.
And THAT is the point of the movie, necessary or not, enlightening or otherwise. Through circumstances beyond your control, your life can be wrecked in an instant. Watch this film if you want the point made in the worst possible way.