Backwards Brutal: All’s Ill That Begins Well

Disturbing, uncompromising and destined to be one of the most controversial films of the year, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible is also powerful and profound. When I first saw it at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, there were many walkouts, and the critical opinion was divided among disgust, outrage and rapture. I was so confused by the style of the film that I paid more attention to the controversy than the content. Now that I have seen it a second time, with a more blasé and analytical New York audience (two walkouts and much applause), every aspect that left me scratching my head is rationally and coherently clear. Irreversible cannot be fully absorbed in one visit. Ah, said Mr. Shakespeare, there’s the rub. How do you encourage filmgoers to see a movie this blatantly sexual and brutally violent two times, when most of them won’t want to see it once? Still, this is electroshock therapy for the soul. It is not a film for chuckleheads.

With a graphic, 10-minute rape scene unlike anything I have ever witnessed on a motion-picture screen, it’s also not a film for the squeamish or faint-hearted. Without destroying its shock value, I guess I should cut to the chase. Mr. Noé, a native of Argentina who works in Paris and whose first feature film, Seul Contre Tous , established him as one of the freshest and most imaginative directors in modern French cinema, has created a troubling but very original film about fate, the wrong choices made by three decent people during a single night of partying that plunge them into a nightmare, and the tragic consequences of those detours from normal routine that will change their lives forever. Marcus (France’s quirky Vincent Cassel) and Alex (Italy’s gorgeous new superstar, Monica Bellucci) are a middle-class couple who have just discovered they’re going to have a baby. On their way to celebrate this special night, they are so spirited and carefree that they even drag along Alex’s ex-boyfriend Pierre (Albert Dupontel). The party gets out of hand, Pierre declares the love he still feels for Alex, Marcus gets stoned, and Alex walks out on them both to head home alone. In a subway tunnel, Alex comes upon a pimp bashing one of his whores, but before she can run away, the brute turns on her. In one of the most horrifying scenes ever filmed, Alex is viciously raped, sodomized and left for dead. When her two friends find out, they set out in hot pursuit, searching the after-hours sewers and illicit underground bars for the rapist, turning into savages themselves. In the end, the comatose Alex is in critical condition, the otherwise gentle, reasonable, well-balanced and soft-spoken Pierre has become a savage murderer himself, clumsily killing the wrong man, and both guys are on their way to a life in prison. Mr. Noé shows how lives can change in an instant, and how the ripple effects of one fateful error in judgment can be irreversible.

Despite what any poor attempt at a brief synopsis may lead you to expect, the ghastly scenes depicted in Irreversible are never exploitative. They occur within a carefully constructed narrative that builds, by layers and contrasts, a riveting story. The problem is that Mr. Noé has chosen to tell the story backwards. Even the credits are backwards. (Think Memento , only better.) Pulling out the stops, he strips the viewer of all prepared responses, renders us defenseless against the horrors to come, and slam-dunks us into relentless chaos from the very first frame. Two men covered with blood, eyes glazed with madness, are loaded into police vans from a sordid hole called the Rectum. Next we’re inside a gay bathhouse, where the camera jerks and shimmies around in total darkness, sliced occasionally by infrared light. We are in a tunnel. Glimpses of naked men moaning and torturing each other. The two men on the police stretchers in the opening scene are wild with rage, shouting obscenities, searching for a man they call “El Tenia.” In the ensuing violence, a man’s skull is crushed with a heavy metal object like an oil drum or a fire extinguisher. In the noise and smoke of this Parisian hell, you can’t see much. Cut to the men, who are called Pierre and Marcus, their frenzy accelerating. It is earlier the same night. They are on a mission to find the maniac who did something grim to a friend named Alex. Who is Alex? What happened? They terrorize an innocent Chinese cab driver and smash up his taxi. A shemale in an alley of whores tells them the man they want is a pimp called El Tenia, who hangs out at a dangerous S&M dungeon called the Rectum.

At this point, you don’t know what’s going on yet, but Mr. Noé peels away clues in the puzzle like layers of wood in an orgone box designed by Wilhelm Reich. Suddenly we’re in bed with Marcus and Alex, bathed in twilight. Mr. Noé’s camera invades their privacy, full frontal nudity and all, but with more sweetness than prurience. The intimacy is unbearable. The perspiration of the sleep that follows their lovemaking is palpable. Pierre is on the way, without his car. They will have to take the subway. Thought transfers begin: Now we know why Alex was forced to leave the party on foot and head for the subway entrance. As the movie moves closer to the way this special day began, the cinematography gets clearer, sharper, more vivid. Irreversible ends at the beginning-with a beautiful, placid, pristine morning. Alex is sunning on a beach towel in the park, surrounded by the laughter of children and the lush green grass. It’s the kind of day that started out cloudless and hopeful, a beatific beginning to the same kind of perfect day the film should end on-if things were different. If they were not … irreversible.

The ideas are thrilling. The mood shifts in the camera work are exciting. The acting is incomparable. I cannot say enough about Vincent Cassel, who can be loutish and charming at the same time, or Albert Dupontel, whose transformation from buttoned-down to berserk is both believable and sad. After what Monica Bellucci goes through for her art, I am surprised she is still alive. Everything about Irreversible is a challenge. Whether you love it or hate it-the reactions are already divisive-you will be powerless to shrug it off. It’s a film of such extremes that indifference is not an option. That’s why you cannot walk out on this one. It only makes sense if you stick with it to the very end. Even then, you will not get every remarkable nuance. I discovered things the second time around that eluded me completely the first time. Still, the key role Mr. Noé forces the audience to play is an important factor in unraveling the narrative. You cannot escape the impact. Even in the context of a jaded post-9/11 world, there are many who will draw the line at that dehumanizing rape scene. But if you absorb this extraordinary film from start to finish, you will be rewarded by the knowledge that you have experienced one of the most electrifying, daunting and original motion pictures in years.

Hot Mama

I’ve never entertained erotic thoughts of Los Angeles before; its endless stream of taco stands and automotive repair shops connected by freeways has the carnal lure of an urban-development fund. But there are so many throbbing libidos gone rampant in Laurel Canyon that maybe it’s time for a re-think. The second film by Lisa Cholodenko, the talented director of the surprise sleeper High Art , is a smart, neatly observed and delicately balanced mood piece about displaced characters in a landscape with no character at all. It has power above and below the waist, and proves that not all the navels in L.A. are in the oranges.

Recent Harvard Medical School graduates Sam (Christian Bale) and his fiancée Alex (the second Alex this week-this one played by Kate Beckinsale, who seems to have survived Pearl Harbor without a bruise) move West for graduate studies. While he does his psychiatric residency at a mental hospital, she plans to work on her dissertation, on the reproductive behavior of fruit flies. Sam’s mother, Jane (Frances McDormand), a record producer, has loaned them her house in Laurel Canyon and promised never to darken the doorway. But there she is, surrounded by hot and cold running bohemians in search of the Zeitgeist . Suddenly, this beautiful, straight-laced, conservative Ivy League couple from Cambridge is headed for a head-on collision with a counterculture that rocks them right out of their Calvins.

Jane’s house comes equipped with a recording studio, a revolving flotilla of rock musicians who are lagging behind on their new CD, and a sexy new lover half her age-a decadent British rock star named Ian (Alessandro Nivola), who takes one look at Alex and gets a permanent erection. Sam has grown up with his hippie mom’s affairs with both men and women, and he’s done everything to distance himself from her disastrous parental influence-but to his horror, Alex has no trouble at all fitting into Jane’s lifestyle. While Sam slaves away at the hospital with addicts and lunatics, Alex roams the house perusing his mother’s walls of platinum albums and her intimate portraits with Joni Mitchell, David Bowie and Sting. Distracted from analyzing data for her Ph.D. by the cacophonous lure of thumping rock ‘n’ roll, she falls easily into the California lifestyle, smoking joints, skinny-dipping, drinking whiskey sours in the pool and reading Spin .

Mortified and embarrassed, Sam searches for an escape in the real-estate ads and finds the compassion he’s missing with Alex in a second-year resident from Israel named Sara (Natascha McElhone). The mounting tension finally comes to a head at-natch-the penthouse suite at the Chateau Marmont, that citadel of free love and easy scores where celebrity junkies take the cab to headline heaven. When the frustrated Sam finds Alex in bed with the oversexed rock star and his own mother, the crap hits the fan with Hollywood-sized sound effects. It’s better than it reads. Ms. Cholodenko is a clever writer and director who works miracles with actors, knows when to pull in the reins and avoids the merest hint of a cliché at every turn.

The cast is uniformly fascinating to watch as they grow and change with the story’s trajectory. Mr. Bale, usually limited by roles that require him to do nothing but strip, is especially good as a tightass who must accept his mother’s peculiar definition of love if he’s ever going to learn how to give unconditional love to someone else. Another organic performance by the always surprising Frances McDormand finds her tough and funny and touching, with floppy, chain-smoking, loose-lipped mannerisms that hide a heart as big as her bank account. She means well, but she’s the kind of mother you don’t want to introduce to your lovers. She might iron the sheets, then jump in. Thanks for sharing, Mom.

The best thing about Laurel Canyon is the honest, intelligent and almost charming way its conflicted characters deal with the mess they make for themselves, resist pat resolutions and move on to the next chapter in their lives. Meeting calamity with a sunny disposition just might be another form of affirmative action. An earthquake or a mud slide may be waiting at dawn, but these guys will hang tough, like Los Angeles itself. Somebody should introduce Sam, Alex, Jane and Ian to the folks on Six Feet Under .

Backwards Brutal: All’s Ill That Begins Well