Venice Film Festival 2019: The reverse chronology in Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, which gets an Out of Competition screening

Baradwaj Rangan

Aug 16, 2019 09:45:45 IST

Talking about Memento (2000) in a Creative Screenwriting interview, Christopher Nolan said that he and his brother Jonathan (who came up with the story) felt that the most interesting approach was to tell the story from the first person point of view, putting the audience right in the mind of the protagonist. But how? “How do I tell a first person story through the eyes of someone who, when he meets someone, does not know when or how they’ve met (before) or whether that person should be trusted? The answer was to put the audience in that position.” Nolan’s solution was to tell the story backwards, so that it denied the audience the information that the protagonist is denied. It works. We are exactly in the protagonist’s position when he says, for instance (see clip below), “I lie here not knowing how long I’ve been alone… How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?”

Time is at the centre of Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002), too. The film opens and closes with the line “Time destroys all things,” and this story, too, is narrated in a reverse chronological order. Why this peculiar choice for a film about a pregnant woman who ends up brutally raped? We first see her boyfriend bashing up the assailant, then see him search for this assailant, then see him realise his girlfriend has been assaulted, then see the assault, then see the couple at a party, then see them in bed (in a wonderfully romantic stretch), and then see the woman use a pregnancy test and watch it turn positive. Would we not (emotionally) respond to the rape better if we know this woman, know that she is pregnant, rather than meet her, first, as an unknown female who is assaulted?

Of course, it’s inevitable that we respond to the assault itself, which is sickening. It plays for a full 10 minutes, which begin with this woman being threatened at knifepoint by a man in a subway. Prior to Irreversible, conversation about a horrifying rape scene may have brought to mind the one in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The woman is gagged and slapped. Her dress is slowly snipped off with a pair of scissors, beginning with holes in the breast area. She’s soon fully naked, but the camera focuses only on her struggle, her writhing, her plight. We don’t see the rape itself. We merely sense it. But in Irreversible, there is no cutaway – the camera watches every single aspect of the rape and battery (her animal cries escaping through his fingers pressing down on her mouth, her face being bashed in by his feet and later against the cement floor) in stupefied silence. 

As repulsive as all of this is (and some might argue that that is precisely the point, to make us experience, in graphic detail, what a woman undergoes when she is raped), if we had to sit through this stretch, wouldn’t it help to know the victim better? Crime is crime, whether it happens to a stranger (that we learn about from a newspaper) or to someone we personally know, but our involvement in the latter case in certainly more. Why didn’t Noé want this involvement? At least one explanation is present in Roger Ebert’s review. He wrote, “The film doesn’t build up to violence and sex as its payoff, as pornography would. It begins with its two violent scenes, showing us the very worst immediately… the reverse chronology makes [this] a film that structurally argues against rape and violence, while ordinary chronology would lead us down a seductive narrative path toward a shocking, exploitative payoff.”

“By placing the ugliness at the beginning, Gaspar Noé forces us to think seriously about the sexual violence involved. The movie does not end with rape as its climax… It starts with it, and asks us to sit there for another hour and process our thoughts. It is therefore moral – at a structural level.” In an IndieWire interview, Noé simply addressed the issue from a structural viewpoint. “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.” Even in a video interview, later, he kept referring to films like Touch of Evil, with long shots – there’s little about the “moral” angle Ebert talks about. Either way, the post-#MeToo discussions around this film are going to be fascinating.

I want to end with a third stab at the reverse-chronology technique, the stage (1978) and screen (1983) versions of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. The play was reportedly inspired by Pinter’s affair with (the married) television presenter Joan Bakewell, while he was still married to actress Vivien Merchant. Scene 1 begins in 1977, with “Emma” and “Jerry” meeting two years after the end of their affair. Scene 9, the last one, ends in 1968, with Jerry declaring his love for Emma. As with Noé, it’s the structure that seems to have interested Pinter. He said, “The shape of the whole thing was what interested me primarily – starting in the present and ending at the beginning. I wanted to explore how it would feel, for myself as well as for the audience, to observe a love affair in which, at every moment, we all knew more than the participants.” Funny how Nolan used the same technique, but for exactly the opposite reason.

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).

Updated Date: Aug 16, 2019 09:45:45 IST