25 Most Disturbing Movies #1: Irreversible

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Finishing Simon Augustine's countdown of the Most Disturbing Movies (Read Part 1 for the first 13). [<< #2]

1. Irreversible (2002) 10/10

The undisputed king - no doubt about it. Bar none. No holds barred. Hold everything. Hide the kids, lock the door, be prepared to white knuckle it and hold on tight. L'enfant terrible and talented sonafabitch Gaspar Noé used some of the most prodigious command of sight, sound, and atmosphere since Kubrick to completely envelop you, rendering you helpless and utterly aghast.

Irreversible, still banned in several countries, is an all-out assault on the senses: the camera swirling and dipping like a drunk sailor getting sea-sick; the grinding, insisting, dread-soaked musical score; the flashing effect that can cause seizures; the backward titles; the backward chronology; the backwardness of the characters who get caught up in a maelstrom of violence; the foreboding bell of horror tolling, that signals the beginning of the film.

Noé traces in reverse time the lives and fates of a couple, Alex and Marcus (real life husband and wife Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel) who seem to have a reasonably secure relationship, until they go to a party one night with a friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel). Alex leaves the party alone after an argument with her husband, and, caught in a long underground passageway, is cornered by an ugly, inhumanly vicious pimp and raped. When Marcus finds out what has happened, he sets out to find the culprit (with friend in toe), maniacal with bloodthirst, primed for revenge as he chases clues through the Paris night. The pair wind up entering the gay sado-masochistic club “The Rectum,” which - with its series of winding darkened passageways obscuring men burning their nipples, moaning, and demanding Marcus fellate them -is a hellish, cavernous variation on Hell. Marcus (Cassel maintains an almost inconceivable level of hysteria) is looking for The Tenia (the “tapeworm”), the supposed rapist, and when he accuses a group of men in the club, they break his arm and a huge man hunches over him, preparing to rape him.

That's when Pierre jumps in and literally disintegrates the would-be attacker's face with several fierce blows of a fire extinguisher. Noe uses the superimposition of three pieces of film, of the actor, a dummy and CGI animation, to make this the most shattering murder I've ever seen. You see a Man reduced to a Thing, an unrecognizably pulsating mess of flesh, before your eyes, hands twitching and gripping like a cockroach's legs and antennae quiver after you have crushed it. The camera bounces and turns upside down and lunges wildly around the action.

If I had to term Noé's aesthetic, I would call it “hyper-realism;” you get the feeling that somehow he has made this scene appear worse than it could even in real life. After the violence, Noe pans to the group of men in the club watching it happen; the look on their faces (including the spared Tenia himself) is a combination of awe, wonder, and admiration.

Hyper-realism also rules the rape scene, a nine-minute, unedited, real-time wunderkind that is the single most horrific act I have ever seen onscreen. Bellucci goes beyond being a trooper in sustaining realistic emotion and torment as she is beaten and anally violated in a tirade of hatred and brutality. It is simply an incredible piece of acting. The scene is absolutely convincing, unrelenting, a technical and artistic masterwork that brings home with finality the oft-repeated belief that rape is primarily an act of violence, not sex.

Watching this scene in the movie theatre, I had a sudden impulse to get up and leave half way through, which hadn't happened since I somehow convinced my poor grandmother to take me to An American Werewolf In London in 1981. Had I listened to the healthy and natural impulse, I might have lost all my Disturbing credentials in one fell swoop. I would have chickened out at the only film I ever went to for which the theatre management had found it necessary to display a sign in the lobby promising the moviegoer his or her money back if they so desired after seeing the first 20 minutes.

Well, I stayed and, lucky for me, managed to get through it. To make matters worse, I was by myself in an almost empty house in a small cinema in Cambridge, MA, excepting a group of large gentleman wearing Boston Red Sox caps and muscle shirts in the row directly in front of me, who had decided to come out on a hot summer eve to take in some French theatre. In the only fit of moral consternation I ever experienced in a theatre, as the murder and rape scenes occurred (and my face turned from the wide-eyed look one has as a rollercoaster ascends, to the slightly mortified, sick look during the descent), and my fellow theatergoers laughed raucously and shared racial and sexist epithets, I felt it necessary to lean forward and tell what appeared to be the alpha male of the group to “just shut up, turn around, and watch the movie.” The Missing Link eating his popcorn and enjoying the show reacted as any man would when another, much slighter gentleman invites him to the modern movie-going version of a duel; he politely turned his head and called me a “cocksucker.”

Great, I thought, not only am I going to be miserable after this whole deal, but I'm going to get the crap beaten out of me after the show, too.

I did not endure a real-world beating that night, but did get one from Gaspar Noé.

After the two shock scenes, I pretty much spent the rest of the movie just recovering. But Noé wasn't finished; he moves progressively back in time, to reveal that Alex was pregnant before the rape…and keeps going backward, all the way to the beginning of the universe, to account for the entire unfolding of history, ending the most Disturbing Film Ever Made with a suitable maxim about that history: “time destroys everything.” Which, in a sense, it does, and functions as a good summary of the problem we go to the movies to forget about in the first place.

I walked home afterwards in the chilly air, feeling palpably worse about the world, and wondering if I would ever want to go to France now. Irreversible is the only film that I can say fully and viscerally disturbed me, and thus made me question the whole point of being a Disturbist at all; and so it must occupy the Number One slot until something else - and I shiver to think what it could be - knocks down the king of the mountain.


And finally: Simon's lengthy addendum + (dis)honorable mention list >>

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