Dividing the audience

 

When Gaspar Noé's Irreversible was screened at Cannes, 20 audience members had to be treated with oxygen, so disturbed were they by explicit scenes of rape and murder. Michael Dwyer reports on violent reactions to a violent film by 'the new Pasolini'

The organisers of the 55th Cannes Film Festival were understandably nervous when they selected Gaspar Noé's provocative French drama, Irreversible, as one of the 22 films in competition for this year's festival awards, from an entry of 939 feature films from all over the world. When Noé's film was given its official Cannes screening, buried in a post-midnight slot in the early hours of Saturday audience, its impact on the audience was devastating.

News agency wire reports quoted the local emergency services as having to administer oxygen to 20 people who fainted during the screening, while it is estimated that about one- tenth of the 2,000 viewers in the Festival Palais walked out. Forewarned of the picture's uncompromising portrayal of a brutal murder sequence and a nine-minute rape scene, the Cannes jury requested a private screening, avoiding the reactions of an unsuspecting audience at the late-night screening The word in Cannes was that two of the festival selectors threatened to resign if the film was selected for competition - and that Thierry Fremaux, the festival's recently appointed artistic director, said he would resign if it was not included. In an unprecedented decision which indicates the nervousness of the organisers, the official screening was scheduled for a 12.30 a.m. slot, even though the films in competition have always been shown between 5 p.m. and 10.30 p.m. In another untypical move, the organisers issued a warning in the festival programme that the film may disturb viewers. That it certainly does. I, for one, was physically jolted by several scenes in the film, and left shivering by others.

Like the recent US thriller, Memento, Irreversible is told backwards, its 12 complete scenes shown in reverse order. At the centre of the film is a shockingly brutal rape sequence in which the victim is a middle-class young woman attacked and sodomised in a Paris underground passage by night. It is the only scene in which the camera is in a fixed position throughout.

The consequences are even more violent, shot in unsettling, hand-held camera moves, when her lover and her former partner track down the rapist in a hardcore gay sex club and beat him to death with a fire extinguisher.

The horrific nature of both scenes is heightened by the use of exaggerated sound effects, and a rich, pounding soundtrack that potently blends Beethoven and Mahler with an original score by Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk.

The victim is played by the Italian actress, Monica Bellucci, and her lover by Vincent Cassel, to whom she is married. The brutality of the rape sequence is contrasted with an earlier sequence of their tender love-making, to illustrate how intimate and loving sex can be compared with the degradation of the sexual act in rape. Noé's powerful but numbing film goes to extremes where even this year's Cannes jury president, David Lynch, did not dare to go in Blue Velvet.

The film received no awards from Lynch's jury, which included Basic Instinct star Sharon Stone, at last Sunday's awards ceremony. "That it did not win a single prize probably reflected its jury-dividing content, outweighing Noé's awesome technical prowess and narrative cleverness," commented the London-based Screen International this week. However, in a scathing review in Le Monde, critic Samuel Blumenfeld compared Noé to "a bad philosophy student whose research consists of bar-room conversations", and commented that "the film's gratuitous violence is proportionate to its intellectual laziness". In the New York Times, A. O. Scott dismissed the film as "a violent, empty miso'gyny masquerading as sexual daring".

Irreversible is the second feature film written and directed by Gaspar Noé, a 38-year-old Paris resident who was born in Argentina and whose first film, the 1998 Seul Contre Tous (I Stand Alone), came under fire for its candid depiction of an incestuous relationship between a middle-aged French butcher and his daughter. Vincent Cassel compares Noé to the murdered Italian director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose final film, Salo (120 Days of Sodom), made in 1975, remains arguably the most disturbing arthouse film ever made.

"He is the French Pasolini," Cassel says. "There is that bruteness, that harshness about his work. You're talking about someone who is very close to the ordinary people. Gaspar knows everybody, every layer of Paris."

The packed Cannes press screening of Irreversible was received with stunned silence followed by boos, and there was more booing when Noé, Bellucci and Cassel arrived at their press conference the following afternoon. Cassel responded by picking up a soft drink can and pretending to aim it at the press.

Noé defended himself and his film. "This film is not a crime; it depicts a crime," he said. "These are events which take place in real life, we should be able to see it on film."

He argued that the most violent images he has ever seen are on the TV news. "I see people killing each other with machetes on the 8.30 news. There are lots of films today in which people are killed or raped, but very few really elicit an emotional response."

Addressing attacks from gay critics because the rapist is depicted as homosexual and is killed in a wholly uninhibited gay sex club, Noé said: "It could have been a prison or a military setting. I just wanted it to be a place occupied entirely by men, because I did not want to show any women in that half of the film. It is not a vision of hell because it is a gay club but because it is a masculine environment. We start the film in hell and we end in paradise."

The project originated as a response to the late Stanley Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut, starring the then married Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, which Noé felt was ultimately timid. He wanted to make a more sexually candid drama featuring a real-life couple. However, his ideas for the project shifted to a film dealing with rape and vengeance.

Working from a basic shooting script of five pages, the actors improvised most of the dialogue in the film. "Of course, Vincent and I used aspects of our relationship for inspiration, but the rest was acting," Monica Bellucci told the Cannes press conference. "It was great to work with Vincent because I know him so well."

Preparing for the film, she watched two earlier movies featuring disturbing rape scenes, Deliverance and The Accused. "When I watch the rape scene in our film, it hurts me," she said. "But I don't regard it as a voyeuristic scene. People have a violent reaction to the film. Some detest it, some love it. I think it's a deep and important film. Sexuality is the most primordial thing in life - it's what creates us. This film is not a crime; it's about a crime."

It was significant to observe at the press conference that the most vocal supporters of the film among the press were women. This week in Variety, critic Lisa Nesselson gave it a rave review. The film is "certain to divide audiences as surely as the wall once divided Berlin", she said, adding that "except for the weak of stomach and the closed of mind, there's nothing scandalous here - just sometimes abrasive bravura film-making skilfully applied to subjects that matter".

Noting that the film has just gone on release in France with an over-16 rating, Nesselson added: "Other territories may grapple with ratings boards, but this is an uncompromising combination of sex and violence with which no alleged guardians of morals should be permitted to tamper."

That may be much easier said than done. The film's distribution rights for the UK and Ireland have been acquired by the London-based company, Metro Tartan Films, which faces an uphill struggle with the British censor. The company's owner, Hamish McAlpine, said in Cannes: "There is an absolutely clear line between those who like the film and those who don't. On one side there is the petit bourgeois, the other the creators. On one side there are the cinema owners, on the other the film directors. Irreversible is a very moral film. It shows man as a violent sexual beast - there are some people who don't want that to be the truth."

Metro Tartan has yet to set a release date for the film. In the Republic, it is most likely to be offered to the Irish Film Centre (IFC) in Dublin, which is a membership cinema and exempt from censorship. This month the IFC will screen two other controversial recent French films, The Pornographer, which was cut by 11 seconds in Britain, and Baise-Moi, an anti-male revenge fantasy which features explicit violence and hardcore sex.