hatchet job: Irreversible

Despicable He

Letterboxd is a social network centered around rating films. You keep a diary; you can rate and/or review films, if you wish. Other users can follow you, comment and like your reviews. It’s nauseatingly personality-driven, everyone’s waaaay too nice and fawning. There’s no real debate. You can imagine the mostly unedifying results.

I used to regularly review movies there, with very little response, and also commented on a review here and there. I can be aggressive when I think someone is full of shit, and didn’t hesitate to tell reviewers that. I had actual arguments, so I wasn’t a troll, but of course, there are so many defensive cliques there that when I commented on some bigshot film reviewer’s post, it was like poking a beehive: All his little fanboys came out to sting me. I’d never heard of him before, but he writes/wrote for The AV Club. I followed some links and wasn’t impressed. But apparently he’s been making his living reviewing films for years, and was quick to tell me that.

That just proves that the barriers to entry for an MSM film reviewer are pretty low. (David Ehrlich is another reviewer I can’t stand, as a reviewer. I’m sure he’s a very nice guy.)

I didn’t know who most of the popular people on Letterboxd were, as I read academics or actual film critics, like Jonathan Rosenbaum. Other than Manohla Dargis, some of the time, and A.O. Scott, most of the time, I can’t think of a single MSM film reviewer that’s worth paying attention to. The vast majority of them have nothing to teach me, which is something they have in common with the films they review. That has a lot to do with the fact that writing for the MSM means you have to pay attention to Hollywood releases and pretend they’re important culturally and/or artistically, and in general, I’m not all that interested. It leads to a lot of pretentious writing, that’s for sure.

The reviewers on Letterboxd are even less important, but everyone behaves as if they were. The democratization of film reviewing, at least how it’s played out on Letterboxd, has been counter revolutionary. That is, if expanding our knowledge of film is the main goal. I don’t think that’s the main goal of Letterboxd, or even for most of the people who use it regularly.

However, Alice Bishop is one reviewer I followed and usually enjoyed reading. Until she reviewed Gaspar Noé’s despicable Irreversible. She has a similar review on her website. She’s an intelligent person, but her writing and “analysis” for this particular film are not.

I’ve reproduced below her review and our exchange in the comment section.

Forgive me, I do realize that I come off as a scolding snob at times, particularly that last line, but that doesn’t mean I’m not right about Irreversible. Everyone hated me in this thread.


REVIEW BY
Alice Bishop
Irreversible 2002
★★★★★

Rewatched Jan 19, 2015
Alice Bishop’s review published on Letterboxd :

There isn’t any combination of words that could possibly describe the feeling of watching Irreversible. It never falters and seeing it on a big screen today made for an even more engrossing experience. Gaspar Noé is a craftsman of trippy cinema, making it his mission to pierce through the senses in the harshest way possible. If Enter the Void is cinema on LSD then Irreversible is a concoction of every depressant and hallucinogenic in existence. It’s a dizzying nightmare, making you think about danger and brutality through a refusal to hold back on sex and violence.

The learned sensitivity most people have to taboo subjects is starkly questioned in this film. There is no escape from concepts we don’t want to acknowledge. The film says the unsaid in a way that cinema so often avoids in order to push everyone to their limits. This is not only in a thematic sense but in an aesthetic one too. Nauseating camerawork and sound effects make it almost impossible to move as Noé proposes a staring contest knowing full well that he will win. His refusal to cutaway during the most brutal moments has everyone flinching and squirming before he’s even begun to dig deep into the horrors of the Parisian underworld.

Although it appears to be unbearable on the surface, Irreversible is a highly admirable and important work of art. It makes you think, understand, and appreciate life whilst admiring the boldness of a director. It is a film that has to be seen in full even if it’s a challenge to sit through. Walk out and you will be left sickened by its voyeurism and negative conception of the world. It is only in the finished product that you can find the crucial balance between beauty and revulsion and understand the fine line between two extremes.

Irreversible would be a much lesser film if the events were told in sequence. The backwards narrative makes it more tragic, creating a level of understanding that would be completely different and more unoriginal if presented in chronological order. Bad things happen quickly and Noé has the escalation of violence down to a tee. It’s unsettling just how real this feels even without first-hand experience. I first saw this film when I was far too young and even then I thought it was a masterpiece. As my film knowledge has expanded my appreciation has only grown. It’s one of the great films of the 21st century without a doubt and one I will always defend.

29 COMMENTS

Andrew Liverød
a year ago
Great review Alice. I’ve always wanted to watch this film and you just tipped me over the edge. Ordered!

Alice Bishop
a year ago
Fantastic. I hope you enjoy it 🙂

Lynchead
a year ago
The scene in The Rectum might be my fav film scene oat
Hell if it wasn’t for the last hour this would be my fav thriller oat

Daniel Webb
a year ago
This is one that always impresses me but I always dread watching. I read somewhere that Noe uses a barely audible tone throughout the movie that is supposed to induce discomfort in listeners. It’s been too long since I’ve seen it, so I can’t remember if I noticed it (well, definitely the discomfort).

CinemaClown
a year ago
Another fab review, Alice! Like you said… it does get much more tragic as the film progresses & wouldn’t have worked in chronological order, and I agree.

Was left badly scarred by this the first time I watched it & I haven’t gone back to it ever since! It’s an extremely painful film to watch & just sitting through it is something in itself.

Aaron
a year ago
Terrific review, Alice! You’re so right about the reverse chronological order serving the tragedy of the story.

Cliff
a year ago
(Spoilers ahead)

It’s a really well made film, but I disagree that the reverse chronology makes the story more tragic. I found it a bit trite in fact, especially when it turns out that she’s pregnant, as Noe seems to be implying that rape is somehow worse when the victim is pregnant.

Alice Bishop
a year ago
@Lynchead I also love that scene. Equal parts disturbing and gripping.

@Daniel Yes I heard that too. I’m sure it adds to the overall effect quite significantly.

@CinemaClown @Aaron Thanks to both of you 🙂

@Cliff I think if it had ended with the scene in the club then the violent imagery would’ve significantly undercut its power. I’ve always felt that Noe understands that in order for it to make a lasting impact he has to make it starkly shocking at first and then relate it back to an almost tranquil setting. It only becomes more brutal when he does this. Also, in most cases I would agree with you about the pregnancy but here I think he uses it to see how far he can push the tragedy. He is all about testing limits after all 🙂

FredM
a year ago
“Nauseating camerawork and sound effects make it almost impossible to move as Noé proposes a staring contest knowing full well that he will win.”
That’s so well said, and and absolutely true.
“alk out and you will be left sickened by its voyeurism and negative conception of the world. It is only in the finished product that you can find the crucial balance between beauty and revulsion and understand the fine line between two extremes.”
That’s even better. I wanted to give up, at a certain point. But I’m ‘happy’ I didn’t. As a film lover, it’s an experience you have to endure.

Rick Powell
11 months ago
I’ve always suspected that at least part of the impact of this film on easily excited cinephiles is Noé’s reputation as an auteur, and that’s usually confirmed by reviews, and not just from amateur critics either, and it’s confirmed here in yours, in which recognizing the “boldness of the director” is somehow a cinematic value in and of itself. It’s not. It has value principally for Noé’s ego and for his press agent.

There’s no point denying that Noé’s stylistic and formal experimentation here dazzles in some spots and dizzies in others, but all your assertions that we’re somehow edified and challenged when Noé shows us “everything” (he doesn’t, just mostly the bad stuff, and the worst in static long takes) basically amount to repetitious tautologies, like throwing a dead fish on a table and declaiming, Don’t it stink?! There’s nothing in your review that explains what we get out of being “challenged” by Noé.

I find this film irredeemably anti-humanist, misanthropic, homophobic, but ultimately adolescent, which means I don’t take it all that seriously.

A good antidote to this piece of garbage (some have called it pornography but I like porn and find it rather innocent, especially in comparison) would be Shoah.

Jonathan Rosenbaum:

“The difference here concerns more than just etiquette. In the terms propounded by Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), it concerns ethics. Lanzmann’s 503-minute documentary about the Holocaust seeks to impart as much physical data about the death camps as it can gather from surviving participants and witnesses, but it doesn’t regard footage of death or torture as data that’s either ethically permissible or ethically useful. Amen., a docudrama rather than a documentary, is clearly guided by Shoah‘s example, asking us to reflect on the Holocaust and what made it possible rather than simply recoil from it.”

LINK

What does Noé give us except as many opportunities as possible to recoil and admire his “boldness”?

PS FredM’s last sentence in his comment is hilarious. We’re supposed to let Gaspar Noé punish us with his art? Talk about dom/sub relationships… No thanks. I don’t owe cinephilia or Noé a damn thing.

Alice Bishop
11 months ago
@RickPowell Speaking only for myself, I wouldn’t say Noe’s status as an auteur is the sole reason for my embracing of the film. I first saw Irreversible with a much more limited knowledge of Noe and cinema in general and yet still enjoyed it immensely.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion of course but I think it’s unreasonable to imply that your rejection of the film gives you some sort of privileged perspective. Noe wanted to divide audiences and he clearly did his job well.

Rick Powell
5 months ago
@Alice Bishop Well, I still haven’t heard any explanations as to how precisely I’m challenged, or a convincing case as to why “dividing audiences” is a value unto itself. There are numerous examples throughout history, not just film history, when scoundrels and charlatans have done the same. Big deal. How is Noé doing anything more than being a shallow and self-promoting provocateur?

I don’t think it’s challenging for any humanist to see nihilism and misanthropy dressed up in pretty clothes and to reject it outright. If that’s a privileged position, then I thank my mom for raising me right.

Alice Bishop
5 months ago
Dividing audiences isn’t a value, it’s merely an explanation as to why a conversation like this would ever occur. It can create something of value by making people talk about the film and question their own stance on what filmmaking is and should be.

You rejecf nihilism and misanthropy which is of course perfectly reasonable but your angered questioning of others who choose to embrace a film which is meant to make you think about both achieves nothing.

I don’t really know what sort of response you would like but everything I like and value about the film is written in the review. I don’t need to explain myself.

Cliff
5 months ago
Rick – I’m guessing you don’t like Lars von Trier’s films either…?

Rick Powell
5 months ago
I’m sorry Alice but I don’t know why “thinking” about “danger” and “brutality” is valuable in this context. If you can explain precisely why watching a 10-minute rape scene is valuable, then you’ll have my attention. Until then…

But really, the most important part of that rape-scene is the few seconds that most commentaries leave out — when a person at the far end of the passage enters, witnesses what’s happening and then leaves abruptly. But that has no impact whatsoever on what is happening and what happens later. What does that mean, in context? Who knows? I’m not sure Noé knows.

I would also like someone to explain the value of this film’s obvious homophobia, which no one mentions, apparently because Noé is an auteur? I don’t know really. I would like to know, but no one has explained it. Because cinematography, I guess.

You haven’t explained why any of it is valuable, but you’re in good company because so far no one who likes this film has been able to do so, either, which leads me to say these are tautologies, which are just as invalid in aesthetics as in reasoning.

Rick Powell
5 months ago
@cliff Antichrist is the only film of his I can say I enjoyed watching, more or less because von Trier consents to be the submissive in that particular dom/sub relationship.

There are elements of Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves that I admire, if not like.

So far, I’ve yet to bring myself to endure Nymphomaniac, although a few friends have suggested I might like some, um, parts.

There are some directors who are just far too blatantly heterosexual for me to understand where they’re coming from.

Rick Powell
5 months ago
And finally, this line, but not the only one — “you can find the crucial balance between beauty and revulsion” — is one I unapologetically repudiate, and not just because I think it’s nonsensical sophistry and a sophomoric equivalency, but because I think if you took even 10 minutes to ponder what it means, especially in the wildly misanthropic fantasies this thoughtless film presents, you’d repudiate it, too. Not today, I bet.

Alice Bishop
5 months ago
I won’t be taking the time to explain myself further to someone who says my words are problematic and then makes ridiculous statements like ‘there are some directors who are just far too blatantly heterosexual for me to understand where they’re coming from.’

Daniel Webb
5 months ago
The hilarious thing is that the manner in which Rick Powell discusses film with Alice reflects all the aspects of Gaspar Noé’s films that he says he detests. There’s engaging in respectful and rewarding film discussion on the one hand and belligerent browbeating on the other. Please do the former or I will report you.

Cliff
3 days ago
You say that like being a homosexual sex maniac is a bad thing.

Rick’s note: Someone posted a comment about “homosexual sex maniacs” which eventually got deleted.

Alice Bishop
3 days ago
Well said, Cliff.

ginmillcowboy
3 days ago
well if you’re a normal God fearing person like myself then it is..sorry. Also could you please reccomend me some good Horror movies Cliff?

Cliff
3 days ago
For you? Blue is the Warmest Colour might count.

Chris Purdie
3 days ago
Cliff wins the ‘savage put-down of the day’ competition.

Rick Powell
3 days ago
Dear Daniel: It’s within normal discourse to disagree vehemently with someone’s opinions. Anyone who thinks otherwise should study French film criticism in the 60s, when being a cinephile was about something other than making your online friends like you and your reviews. Nobody then was “nice” to each other when they disagreed, and nobody should be. If you, or Letterboxd’s admins, think otherwise, block/ban/excommunicate me. Please.

I still don’t see any arguments in Alice’s review, or anyone else’s, in defense of this piece of garbage, other than slavish, reactionary and routinely circular appeals to auteurism and sophomoric ideas about transgression and “high art.”

The only reason I’m responding now is the irony in ginmillcowboy’s comment about “homosexual sex maniacs,” and I have been one at various times in my life. I would think that unapologetic homosexual sex maniacs would despise this movie, as I do, or laugh at it as camp, which I couldn’t bring myself to do, perhaps because of the drooling syncophancy Noe inspires in folks who should know better.

But rapists? There aren’t any in this movie, and that’s just one of its many, many problems.

Cliff
2 days ago
Rick – I’m genuinely confused by your last sentence there. Could you explain what you mean, given that there clearly is a rapist in this movie. I mean, you can hardly miss him; the rape scene goes on for ages.

Chris Purdie
2 days ago
And there is clearly an attempted rape in the first ten minutes, stopped short by a fire extinguisher bludgening.

I recall seeing this movie in Sheffield on release (I was working in the cinema at the time) and I was surprised to see so many couples watching the movie. Few of them remained by the end.
It was (and probably still is) the most horribly powerful and disorientating film I’ve ever seen in a cinema.

I completely agree with the sentiments in this review.

matthew the sjw feminazi
9 hours ago
The irony of somebody bleating on about sophistry *rolls eyes super hard*

Great review, Alice

Rick Powell
7 minutes ago Edit Delete
@Cliff To agree that there was a rapist in this film, I would first have to affirm that there are actual people, or characters resembling people. There aren’t. The degree that any viewer accepts that they are, and responds to them and the horrific but nonsensical acts they commit as if they were, determines how seriously he/she takes what we see as actually meaning something.

So, far no one here has explained that last bit, and I read nothing in Alice’s review that explains what we’re supposed to take away from a ten-minute rape scene and the subsequent mistaken-identity murder that takes place in the “gay bar.”

It seems we’re supposed to identify with a detached viewpoint, more than anything, which raises ethical questions, obviously. Noe thinks those questions are about the viewer, and I think, and Jonathan Rosenbaum thinks, and he writes about this film about more convincingly than I ever could, that any moral questions raised are about the filmmakers, at least if we aren’t distracted by Noe’s exquisite mise en scene and cinematographic stunts. That makes him a bad boy and an auteur in some people’s eyes, certainly in his. Among other things, I think it makes him a pretentious, anti-humanist jerk.

Finally, most of what Alice says about the film can be boiled down to: This is good because it’s art, which is a bit like saying her review is good because it uses words.

@Alice I mis-typed. I should have wrote: heterosexist, rather than heterosexual, though in the case of Noe and von Trier, the difference can hardly be noticed.

Matthew
None of these points you’ve raised, Rick, really “repudiates” or “rebuts” anything in the review. Calling Noe an “anti-humanist jerk” doesn’t present a qualitative judgement of the film but rather a judgement of the filmmaker, which, first of all, is a shitty empty claim without any possibility of verification, and secondly, irrelevant to the quality of the film.

Next, claiming that there are no human beings in the film is, just as you’ve complained about, empty sophistry. Obviously the film isn’t presenting a simulcrum of reality so what is the argumentative benefit of splitting hairs about realism? Everybody who thinks critically about art realizes that realism is a smokescreen, a genre based on artifice as much as any other genre. Rhetorically speaking, complaining that there is “no rapist” because they are “no people” is a deadend.

Alice is within her rights to say that the film is good because it’s art. Art is transformative, subjective, and personal. She found an emotional reaction within herself in relation to the film: that’s as good a review as needed. She’s under no obligation to defend her affective reaction to you or anybody else. She’s under no obligation to convince you that the film you so desperately want to hate is good. It is a tautology that “this is good art and thus it is good” but we should remind ourselves that rhetorical tautologies are not intrinsically fallacious.

I would also like someone to explain the value of this film’s obvious homophobia, which no one mentions, apparently because Noé is an auteur? I don’t know really

For somebody who is obviously intelligent and well-read, you certainly are struggling to articulate a cogent argument about the film. This is a classic strawman. Nobody is dismissing the problematic aspects of the film because of auteurism, and if they are, that’s in another thread and outside of Alice’s purview.

it’s confirmed here in yours, in which recognizing the “boldness of the director” is somehow a cinematic value in and of itself. It’s not.

Boldness can extend to aesthetics and aesthetics can be expressed in form and content. You yourself praise Noe for his “exquisite mise en scene” etc. Again, appealing to Noe’s ego to bolster your argument is bad rhetoric. Again, you can’t prove it and secondly it matters little in aesthetic judgments of the film.

Rick Powell

@matthew I’m having a hard time following much of what you said. So I’m not going to bother figuring out what the “rhetorical tautologies” paragraph means, or explain my use of irony that you quote in your “aesthetic boldness” paragraph. But of course I do know an insult (pretentious, anti-humanist jerk) is not an argument, but if you claim I haven’t made any arguments then you either haven’t read everything I’ve written here, or you’re not prepared or able to consider them as arguments at all.

I’ll grant, however, that most of us in this thread may be speaking different languages. For just one example, Alice’s penultimate evaluation of Irreversible — “It is only in the finished product that you can find the crucial balance between beauty and revulsion and understand the fine line between two extremes” — strikes me as meaningless drivel and just the kind of writing that drove Orwell to pen Politics and the English Language.

But more to the point, I don’t think it’s going to persuade anyone of the importance of Irreversible as a great work of art. At least it shouldn’t, since we could randomly choose any film on Letterboxd in which terrible things were filmed beautifully and say exactly the same thing. Big deal. Why is that valuable and laudable in and of itself? It certainly doesn’t come any closer to explain why Noe made the choices he did.

But if you’re still reading, here’s my brief and incomplete explanation as to why I hate Irreversible, and why you should, too. (Sorrynotsorry for the clickbait language.)

For all its formal and stylistic kicks and tricks, Irreversible fits more neatly as an exploitation film than any other genre. Sex, violence, murder, more violence and sex, enacted via simple characters in, at the very least, unlikely situations, all meant to shock us, with no apparent reason. In contrast to most exploitation films that I admire, however, there’s no social or political satire or comedy. The intent with the ten-minute takes is to rub our noses in the filth for as long as possible, with no perceivable take-away.

The film’s formal structure, the reverse order of its sequence of long takes, acts as a kind of deception. If the film were presented in conventional temporal order, its inexorable anti-humanist logic would be made even more clear. As it is, we have to work to figure that out, making Noe appear clever, instead of just dishonest.

Within this framework, the hot sex scene exists so that we are even more shocked by the rape scene, and the rape scene exists so that a brutal murder can be shown. Revenge killings are always big crowd-pleasers and I’m immediately suspicious of any film that relies so heavily on these dynamics, and thus on our worst impulses, to create its effects. (Talking about what’s indulged in the rape scene goes way beyond what I can or want to cover here.)

The revenge-murder is placed in a “gay sex club” with the patrons cheering on the brutality, so that both the homophobes and pro-gay crowds can have something to get worked up about. Two buttons pushed for the price of one, with the film leaving it open as to which point of identification should make us the angriest, or the most stimulated. Noe, I’m sure, is laughing behind his hand and congratulating himself on his pomo bonafides.

What baffles me the most about anyone defending this film, and who calls himself a feminist, is how brutally the narrative mechanics objectify, use, and dispense with the female character, who is there to have sex, get raped, and become the catalyst for a murder. If she has any other purpose, or existence outside those scenarios, and the thrills and gasps they induce, please enlighten me. The way she’s depicted and the uses her body is put to go far beyond “problematic,” a euphemism in context if I’ve ever heard one.

Tangent: Rosenbaum claims that the film critic’s first job is to distinguish her writing from ad copy and marketing. The second job, it seems to me, is to ask questions about how the film produces meaning. What’s the film’s relationship to “the real,” to film history, to ideological, political and historical contexts, to institutions and economies? Academics may stop there, but essayists go on and ask why. That’s the meat in good criticism, but I’m starving to death on Letterboxd.

Alice Bishop
Rick, I’m intrigued to know why you are so set on changing everyone’s opinion about this film. It’s just a film. It’s not real. Why bother?


Why bother indeed?

Bishop simply surrenders disingenuously here, ignoring the emphatic nature of her own review, and her consistent and committed participation on Letterboxd. Both of which prove my point that neither she nor the vast majority of people on Letterboxd are particularly interested in film per se, but rather in how their reviews can increase their social capital.

P.S. After Bishop saw a comment I made on Twitter about trolling fans of Irreversible, she stopped following me there, and blocked from commenting further on Letterboxd. I probably deserved that.

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Irreversible
Author Rating
21star1stargraygraygray