Tunnel Visionary: Gaspar Noe’s Brutal “Irreversible”
by Erin Torneo
Wearing a coffee-stained T-shirt that he apologizes for, Franco-Argentine director Gaspar Noe is nothing like you’d expect after seeing his visceral films, which is probably a good thing. The soft but rapidly speaking director arrived on the international film scene with his short “Carne” (1991), followed by his debut feature, “I Stand Alone,” about a working class butcher who may or may not have sexually abused his institutionalized daughter. With “Irreversible,” Noe takes a cue from Kubrick in using a real-life couple’s intimacy onscreen, and he turns his lens to the bourgeoisie. In his emerging oeuvre, Noe explores the antagonism between morality and the all-too-mortal flesh of his protagonists without offering easy answers, or, as with “Irreversible,” easy viewing.
French marquee stars Vincent Cassel (“Read My Lips”) and Monica Bellucci (“Malena”) are Noe’s couple, playing lovers who live in a posh Parisian apartment with park views. Their life is about to be turned upside down. This sonically and visually disturbing film unspools in reverse chronological order, a la “Memento,” violating conventional notions of time, gender identity, and even movie going itself. In a disorienting chaos of testosterone-driven impulses (and camera work), Cassel and his friend (Albert Dupontel) stalk the gutters and bowels of Paris. Cassel is bent on avenging the earlier rape and savage beating of Bellucci in an underground passage; Dupontel is trying to stop him. In their hunt for her would-be attacker, a gay pimp named “Le Tenia” (“the tapeworm”); the two find themselves in an underground gay S&M club bluntly named “Rectum.”
“Irreversible”‘s graphic violence and flinch-inducing rape scene (eight minutes, uncut) made headlines when the film premiered in Cannes last May, with reports of audience members fainting, throwing up, or just plain walking out. But the controversy shouldn’t outshine the technological feat that is “Irreversible” — less for the reverse-narrative conceit and more for the 12 long takes comprising the film. indieWIRE contributor Erin Torneo sat down with a jetlagged Noe at the Sundance Film Festival in January, when they spoke about digital penises, the fatty complacency of the audience, and the decline of American cinema. Lions Gate released the film on Friday.
indieWIRE: In your first feature, “I Stand Alone,” there’s a line, “No act is reversible.” The butcher from that film also appears in the beginning of “Irreversible.” Why did you link the films?
Gaspar Noe: I read a book about Kubrick, and it said that he liked to use something from one film in the beginning of another. I liked the idea of that, as if there was a commercial in between, and then you pick up where you left off. After “I Stand Alone” everyone wanted an answer [to the question] “Did he fuck his daughter?” I was saying yes, but the actor was saying no. So, I provided the answer. And I can have fun by linking — you know the strobe light from this film appears somewhere else or maybe Monica’s face on a poster in another film.
iW: Of course there are aesthetic and thematic reasons for using a reverse narrative. But particularly because you’ve had a problem with people walking out of the film, why put the most difficult scenes to watch in the beginning?
Noe: I think people walk out not because they are bored but because they can’t take it. I also think it makes a difference whether you see it in the afternoon or at night. Usually [walking out] happens more at night because you feel weaker at night. I walked out once during a rape scene in a movie, which came in the middle because I said, “Well if this is the middle of the movie, I don’t want to see what happens next.” I suppose in my movie a lot of people suspect that the end of my movie is going to be worse than the beginning because that’s how the climax of the movie works. The fact is if they stay they will get something that will erase these first images.
iW: I’ve read that you had multiple endings to choose from. How did you select the final version?
Noe: Your instinct is much brighter than your brain cells. One ending was more explicative, one more emotional. And it was the emotional one that made more sense. The end with Monica sleeping under the poster of “2001” and then cut to the park, it really focuses on her own projections for the future, “This is the ultimate trip.”
iW: What was your production process like?
Noe: From the moment I decided to do this movie, when I first had the idea, to the shooting of the movie was seven weeks. The shooting was five to six weeks. I had a three-page treatment, which contained 12-13 scenes of the movie. For each scene, there were 10-20 lines.
iW: Did you write the rape scene in the way it appears?
Noe: The rape scene was she comes out from this building and the prostitute who is working on the sidewalk tells her to watch for the trucks on the avenue and Monica can’t get a taxi so she advises her to go through the tunnel and there you have this pimp smashing another prostitute and Monica says something about it. But there were no dialogues written at all. I could not describe the rape. She gets raped and when the man finishes she tries to escape and then he starts beating her and kicking her face. That’s the way it was written. I would say that scene was more directed by Monica than by me. When you let people improvise, they decide the timing. She had been watching a lot of movies that afternoon, like “I Spit on Your Grave” and “Deliverance,” and so we just did one mechanical rehearsal, especially for her getting hit on the face so she wouldn’t get hurt. And then we shot it six times. We shot the whole movie in chronological order. It really helped Dupontel and Vincent get crazy, because before we shot the revenge part of the movie I would show them the rape scene.
iW: So the vicious verbal assault that takes place during the rape was improvised?
Noe: It was not written but before we would shoot a scene, I would discuss with the actors what they were going to say. A lot of the people who were in the movie were not actors at all, for example the two guys who say, “revenge is a human right.” Those were the guys doing security for my movie. It’s funny, you start talking with people and they find their own words, their own ideas. In the case of the rapist (Jo Prestia), he’s an international kickboxing champion, very well known. When we began to discuss the rape scene, I asked him to say, “Call me daddy.” I don’t know why but it’s an instinctive thing because maybe the viewer wonders if he’s been raped himself, or someone in his family, or just because he wants to do evil and he thought he would destroy her mind more by saying that.
iW: There are many shades of gender roles in the film. Monica is the idealized female; Vincent, the alpha male, or “tough” guy who gets the girl; Dupontel as is the emasculated, “sensitive” guy; and you’ve got a gay pimp to tranny hookers. Can you comment on the two anal rapes?
Noe: It was not written in the script but the day before shooting the scene I asked her if it would be alright if it was suggested that she was raped anally instead of vaginally. In the rape scene, between takes, his zipper is closed and they would talk about their kids they were really sweet to each other. And then when the filming started, it became horror.
When we were looking at the footage on the editing table I noticed his penis [wasn’t visible] when he came out, so I asked the guy doing the special effects on my movie — “Do you think we can do a digital penis?” And we did it in post, [and added] blood. And I had to show Monica to get her approval. It’s there in the movie, and a lot of people think she did something really explicit. But everyone was in agreement about the movie and said, “let’s make it shocking when it has to be shocking and sweet when it should be sweet.”
iW: It would be a horrific scene no matter who was cast. But did you intentionally cast someone so beautiful to make the beating more shocking?
Noe: It’s more about male dominance and the desire for destruction. You have that in “Raging Bull” and “Fight Club.” In “Raging Bull” you have this guy who wants to destroy the face of someone he thinks has dated his girlfriend. In “Fight Club,” Jared Leto gets his face smashed because he’s a pretty guy and he has to pay for his pretty face.
iW: Are you surprised by the reaction to the film?
Noe: I often get the question “Are you gay or a homophobe?” [laughs] For the record, I’m straight. Because a man can be anally raped, a woman can be anally raped, and you are more in the head of Monica [the victim] that the head of the rapist, most of the people who walk out of the theater then are men. The gay audience liked the movie much more than the straight male audience. Maybe because they have already experienced passive anal sex and so they have felt feminized.
iW: Why did you put yourself in the film?
Noe: Some people said to me, “You are going to get accused of being homophobic with the gay background.” So I decided to pretend I was part of the club. I wanted to appear in the movie and it was easy to go back and match those shots. Also because I wanted an actor to appear with an erection and he didn’t want to so I said I’d do it. And so I started off with an erection and I was masturbating but then all of my crew — my cinematographer and assistant director — started laughing and so I couldn’t have an erection. It’s just there for the pleasure of being on the screen.
iW: European audiences traditionally have a higher tolerance for “art” films than the U.S. audience. How do you think the film is going to be received here?
Noe: Seventies cinema — “Taxi Driver,” “Deliverance” — that was the best period of American cinema. For the moment, it switches into popcorn movies — cheap sci-fi movies or movies that are not very far from reality, or when reality is portrayed it’s so sentimental and cheaply humanist that you are disgusted, like a cake with too much sugar. But I think the audience is more mature than what they are eating now.