Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Irreversible (review by contributor Simon Opitz)

Irreversible 2002
Rating: 2.5/5
Considerably less impactful than I had been led to believe, Irreversible is frankly a slight, insubstantial examination of gender roles with a stylistic voice that is singular, daring, and wasted.
It seems odd to say this film left me unfazed based on reports of nearly everyone else's experience with it, but it's true. No matter how distinctively gross the surface is, it's difficult for me to be meaningfully disgusted absent challenging subtext. This is paper thin underneath its calibrated pulsation of shiny nausea.
The film being told backwards does frame its story in its proper light, but it the fact that it doesn't do more with this makes it ultimately feel gimmicky. The violence of Vincent Cassel's Marcus (and Albert Dupontel's Pierre) becomes removed from its cause, emphasizing its seething male aggression. The contrived, somewhat mealy-mouthed discussion of sex coming after the infamous rape scene heightens the insight into the established gender dynamics at play. However, the material getting increasingly lighter is the most immediate effect, heavily damaging the film's narrative impact by continually losing its flavor, conflict and uniqueness. Sacrificing narrative for theme isn't inherently a negative, but the themes explored aren't big enough to justify this.
The film is an exploration of gender roles, but only Cassel's character has enough definition to actually cull meaning from. He is by no means anything but a shallow person, but that is much of the point. He exists to be the film's critique on modern masculinity and its vapidity. His escapade for vengeance that is the first act is enraged and violent towards the wrong people to the point of insanity. It not only ends fruitlessly because of this, resulting in the title theme of the pointlessness of revenge in the face of atrocity. It also purposefully comes off as more of a chance to get his id's rocks off rather than real concern for his girlfriend, who he was ignoring for other women earlier. The very idea of revenge on behalf of the woman asserts dominance over a supposedly weaker party. I'll protect you, because I am a man. His pursuit is more about property damage than emotional attachment. The themes garnered solely from him are the most substantive.
The counterbalance, Dupontel, being defined solely as too intellectual to be sexually fulfilling isn't the depth his character needs. His presence may be linchpin, but this is part of the problem. A shallow character here means a shallow film. The vision of childish masculinity needs to be juxtaposed with something a little more nuanced than a whiny smart guy. Pierre's too flatly nice for the film to be complex, espousing no real flaws and giving the film a butthurt feel. Since he's more ideal a figure to emulate, the film is easily identifiable to those men who complain that "women like jerks, not nice guys like me." Their outlook is simplistic and so is the film's.
There is, however the finale (which comes at the opening), a scene arguably even more brutal than the centerpiece rape sequence, in which Pierre destroys a man's face with a fire extinguisher. This unfortunately has no believable build up, so its use as a commentary on inherent, rudimentary male id comes off unsophisticated. This underdevelopment is a problem throughout.
Monica Bellucci's Alex has no discernible character. We learn one thing about her character the whole film but it does not define her as a person at all. She isn't even properly defined as shallow. So much for substantive purported feminism. This occupation extends no farther than men defining women's submissive place as objects, them willfully playing into it but even then men can bring them down a peg if they so choose. This notion of playing into the objectification is meant to square with the traditionally masculine men many women prefer, but this entire aspect of the idea is ill-defined due to weak characters. This notches the nuance and interest in the film's most prevailing theme down considerably.
The deliciously nasty cinematography and sound design and the truly singular direction are probably what draw so many people to Noe. While these traits certainly are cool, they aren't much more than that. The camera swirls like a seasick Malick film, seemingly disgusted with everything it sees (until it unfortunately starts to calm down halfway in). The cinematography is a balance of beauty and garishness appropriate for a film about shallow sexual politics. The sound is the real showstopper though, pumping out a cacophony of utterly repulsive whirring and churning. The film in fact indulges in its style too much, allowing much visually obfuscated swirling to go on for far too long. The narrative is also unfortunately not quite good enough to be elevated much by the ace cinematic prowess on display. But this does make me really want to see Enter The Void.
The thing we learn about Alex at the story's beginning and the film's end is that she has been pregnant all along. This is the film's view of the height of femininity, the unadulterated purity of womanhood before it's bastardized by the male gaze. The film ends on a Malickian shot of little boys and girls playing together as a vision of an egalitarian innocence unattainable before spinning out of control into a sequence seemingly intended to cause seizures. We cannot get back to that point; we are irreversible. This is just one really good shot though.
Some themes work, some don't. The first third, where Marcus' aggression and the swooping camera absent narrative context are the stars, is the strongest, but it's let down by the shortage of substance to properly contextualize it later. The lack of character development is the main culprit in all of this, as pure semiotics isn’t all that is needed. If this had been told in sequence, its faults would be far more evident, so its structure is ultimately one of its stronger aspects. Much weaker than it should be, repetitive and slight, Irreversible is what many people accused To The Wonder of being: more concerned with twirling that spinning a yarn.
I sure do come down in the middle on a lot of these "divisive" films, don't I?
(And for the record I like To The Wonder).

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