Tuesday, October 5, 2010
When I report that Irréversible is the new most violent movie I've seen, keep in mind that my tally of horror films has hit 271. That's a lot of precedent to overcome. I did not know what I was getting into.
The film is presented completely backwards, like Memento, which presents an unusual problem for someone trying not to give away the ending (beginning?). So here's the essentials in chronological order, spoiling the film.
Alex, her boyfriend Marcus, and her ex-lover Pierre are at a party.
Alex leaves and is brutally raped and battered by The Tenia in an agonizing 9-minute single camera scene.
Marcus seeks revenge, while Pierre acts as the voice of reason.
The pair make their way to a gay SM nightclub to confront The Tenia. Marcus mistakenly fights with another man, who breaks his arm and attempts to rape him.
Pierre steps in to defend Marcus, literally reducing the man's face to its constituent elements with a fire extinguisher while the club's patrons watch.
Pierre is arrested, and Marcus is taken to the hospital.
The above describes the first half of the film. The reverse chronology continues back to the hours before the party, giving insight into the relationship between Marcus and Alex, and her past relationship with Pierre.
Who is The Tenia?
The Tenia is remarkable in that his sexuality is not categorizable. He is described as a pimp and seen in the company of a transgendered prostitute. In the club, he appears to be a patron, but commands the respect of the others, and is shown sniffing amyl nitrates casually at the edges of the larger crowd.
That he rapes Alex presents a paradox. By all indications, he is a homosexual, and even comments during the assault "I don't usually like this." His preference for anal intercourse could indicate an underlying aversion to the female body.
It is my contention, however, that The Tenia does not have a sexuality, homosexual, bisexual, or otherwise. Instead, he is attracted to and satisfied by the infliction of pain and the exercise of his own power over others. His sexual preferences are tied to narcissim and sociopathy. The gender of his target is irrelevant. He displays the same violence towards all with an apparent erotic satisfaction as he asserts himself.
Marcus vs. The Tenia
The Tenia is the most obvious clue to the greater scheme of the film. He is a caricature of beastly instinct, the bare bones of the erotic drive stripped of all empathy. He is the obvious villain, and Marcus is his counterpart.
If The Tenia is the embodiment of pure, cruel instinct, Marcus is only one short step better. He has been socialized into morality, but still lacks inhibition. At the chronological beginning of the film, Marcus' relationship to Alex is shown to be primarily a carnal one. Marcus may be incapable of contributing any other kind of emotional satisfaction besides his playful goodnaturedness. He is bad with money, prone to blurting his sexual desires out of context, and resentful of Alex's continued friendship with Pierre. At the party, he casually uses hard drugs, lies about it, kisses random women, completely disregards Pierre's personal boundaries, and patently ignores all attempts to reign him in. His behavior at the party, bouncing around chaotically, is telling of his larger role: he lacks self-control and introspection, and though his disposition is benign if not amusing, he still has the potential to cause harm.
What separates Marcus and The Tenia is a veneer of civility. The unreigned freespiritedness that attracts Alex to Marcus is akin to the charismatic brutality that makes The Tenia a respected figure among his crowd.
Alex and Pierre
Alex represents the ideal balance between instinct and restraint. She exercises her instinct in the proper venue, relaxing her inhibitions and dancing at the party without giving in to Dionysian debauchery. She has a healthy sex life that gives her satisfaction and enables her to satisfy her partner, and is able to reflect articulately about that aspect of herself.
On the continuum of instinct/restraint, Pierre falls too far into the side of restraint. He is a philosophy professor, and his academic background isolates him from the other characters, who dismiss his attempts to bring rationality to the events of the evening. It is revealed that his relationship with Alex failed in part because he was unable to satisfy her sexually, which is attributed to his overthinking the process and never letting his instinct take over. Though he tries to hide it, he shows himself to be the lonely ex-boyfriend. His friendship with Alex is slightly overbearing, but he attempts serve her best interests, thinking that to be the right thing to do, rather than give in to jealousy, and tries to control the unpredictable Marcus.
Pierre's self-control is a form of repression, and his instinctual side boils below the surface. His participation in the quest for revenge overtly appears to be an attempt to protect Marcus, but it is likely that he could not turn away from the increasingly outrageous circumstances because he subconsciously desired revenge.
Finally, his repression fails when he is called to protect Marcus in the club, and he strikes Marcus' attacker. The necessity of protecting Marcus having passed, the fully rational man should be able to walk away. But in erroneously believing this man to be the rapist, his repressed love for Alex explodes forth, and in a stomach-turning, soul-killing triumph of film technique, he continues to beat the prone man long past the point of actually killing him. His efforts to continue doing so are labored, much like Pitt's finale performance in Se7en, with the rage in him barely trumping his better judgment. The violence spills out of Pierre at irregular intervals, like great physical sobs coming from a man who can no longer maintain his composure.
Irréversible is remarkable in that it is fundamentally an examination of humanity that does not shy away from anything. Though the camerawork is highly creative, the subject matter is honest and unstylized. It captures the prolonged agony of violence without editing it down to something palatable. The film received great scorn for its depiction of violence against women, but I find it more ethically responsible to fully express the cruelty rather than edit it down into the bare minimum excuse for the exercise of revenge-narrative machismo. By telling the story in reverse, the film insures itself against becoming Straw Dogs or The Last House on the Left.
If Antichrist is the exploration of the violent fundamentals of human eroticism through psychology, Irréversible is its anthropological counterpart. In Antichrist, the self-psychologizing of the characters lays the groundwork for future violence. In Irréversible, the violence is shown first, and its explanation is given through studying the behavior of the characters.