The Morality of Spectacle in Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible

*trigger warning: rape, strong violence. Spoilers also ahead*

The first time I tried to watch Gaspar Noé’s ultraviolent thriller Irréversible (2002), I couldn’t bear to watch any more after the film’s second scene. When I bought the DVD I was warned by the man on the till: “You do know there’s a nine minute rape scene in this, don’t you?” I did not make it to the rape scene, for two reasons: the first is that the film takes place in reverse chronological order, and the orgiastic violence and homophobic abuse of the second scene, devoid of context, lead me to describe the film as “depraved”. Secondly, having heard that this film by a male director featured an infamously controversial rape scene I expected the worst. It wasn’t until later that I discovered I had not decided what “the worst” was: I was expecting it to be misogynistic and incredibly violent. It turns out it was the latter, but certainly not the former.

Here’s what I saw on my first viewing. Two men storm into a gay S&M club called La Rectum, searching for a man known as “Le Tenia” (Jo Prestia). Marcus (Vincent Cassel) accosts the patrons with increasing violence and verbal homophobic abuse in his attempts to find Le Tenia, while Pierre (Albert Dupontel) pleads with him to stop before things get worse. Marcus appears to find Le Tenia, and another brawl breaks out; Le Tenia overpowers him, forces him to the floor, snaps his arm, and attempts to rape him. Pierre grabs a fire extinguisher and repeatedly smashes it into the Le Tenia’s head, continuing long after his skull has caved in, the camera perversely leering in. But the tipping point was when the shot pans to a bystander’s face (below); to me, the look of awe on this man’s face suggested a shallow kind of wantonness on the filmmakers’ part, senseless nihilism, a desire to shock for the sake of shocking. It isn’t until later in the film that you realise: this bystander is Le Tenia, and the man who was beaten to death was merely his unidentified acquaintance.

1Noé films this entire scene, and every other scene in the film, in one unbroken shot (with some digital assistance), the camera erratically tracking the men, and veering voyeuristically around the lurid scenarios within the club. It is supposed to seem needlessly extreme, and the head-bashing only happens twenty minutes into the film. The film’s reverse chronology (comparable to Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000)) makes it seem even more lurid, and yet this narrative device is absolutely crucial; it never feels like a gimmick. Therefore, this is our introduction to the characters Marcus and Pierre; in this scene the reasons for their actions are unknown, but we know from the point that Pierre picks up the fire extinguisher that he is capable of extreme violence in the name of vengeance. This is not presented as the culmination of their actions, or as the story’s climactic visual payoff, but as a glimpse of their unavoidable futures.

We follow Marcus and Pierre (in reverse) as two gangsters help in a frenzied search for a man named Le Tenia, who they learn is in La Rectum, ending with them leaving a party and finding a crowd and police vans and an ambulance. Someone tells them that “a whore got raped”; Marcus just wants to get past to catch a cab. When he sees the stretcher, he breaks down, realising that it is his girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci), who is now utterly disfigured and in a coma, after having left the party alone. The next scene will show us exactly what happened to Alex in extreme detail: but first, more context.

The frequent accusations of Irréversible being a homophobic film make little sense to me because what we see is not a sex scene. By making the rapist an ostensibly gay man, Noé is cleverly underlining something crucial about why rape happens, rather than depicting it as the result of sexual urges. This is an important point about the politics of sexual violence; rape has little to do with attraction, and everything to do with sexual power. It is a totally random act of aggression and Noé admirably explicates that Le Tenia’s desires are driven entirely by hatred rather than by sexual attraction.

5Furthermore, Noé explains that the setting of the revenge scene in “a space that was entirely male”, with the aim that: “having the male lead almost raped at the beginning, feminises the male audience to a degree that they find challenging”. That Alex is raped anally further suggests that this could have happened to a cis male. Indeed, Noé could have replaced Alex’s part with a male, but that he implicitly links the fantasy of revenge to heterosexual male stereotypes and narratives. There are strong overtones of homosociality in the relationship between Marcus and Pierre: when Marcus sees Alex’s comatose body, he repeatedly exclaims “She’s my girl!”, although Alex has chastised him later in the film for using this type of possessive language; at the party, Marcus’ promiscuity and his attempts to get Pierre to hook up with one of the women at the party has a homoerotic undercurrent (see above image). It is worth noting that although Le Tenia goes unpunished in the revenge scene, Pierre successfully saves Marcus from being raped. Noé’s aim is a radical one: to make the (heterosexual) cis male part of his audience empathise with rape by torturously presenting a chaotic masculine sexuality.

From my perspective as a cis male, the reading I offer cannot claim to be impartial; readings that women might offer of this film in particular would, I am sure, often be exceptionally different to mine. It is not only that Noé scrutinises the gender dynamics of his characters, but that the entire film is structured such that it transitions from the masculine to the feminine, from all-male environments and brutal physical violence to Alex alone, contemplating her possible pregnancy, then surrounded by children in the daytime (below); it is saturated with images suggestive of gender roles and is remarkably critical of masculinity. This is why La Rectum is depicted so hellishly; it is as a masculine space that it is threatening rather than as an exemplar of homosexual culture, Le Tenia’s lair rather than representative of gay men broadly (although these images are problematic): Robin Wood’s reading (in my opinion, misreading) states that the film’s homophobic message is “Sex is for procreation! Those who disagree will go to Hell!” – but the film incorporates criticisms of the desires of every male character, and the desires of Le Tenia are apparently unrelated to his sexuality. Wood’s notion that the film “promulgat[es] a whole new myth of gayness” is misleading; it is because Noé tends to avoid perpetuating stereotypes that the film is not dangerous in that respect – notwithstanding the emphasis of gay sexual deviance and the straight-male paranoia of gay men as sexually threatening. The film includes homosexual characters partly as a device for presenting a physical sexual threat to the straight male characters – not great in terms of homosexual representation, but for interesting ends nonetheless.

6The rape scene lasts for nine minutes, about as long as it possibly could. The audience isn’t spared a single detail other than that Noé does not explicitly depict penetration. The audience already knows there is no escape for Alex, having seen her brutalised body. Noé demands Bellucci to push herself to the absolute limits of what an actor can convey, but insists that Bellucci “directed herself” in the scene, setting every physical limit. Again, there are no cuts: the camera remains conspicuously motionless (for the only time in the film), on the floor in front of Bellucci’s face. At one point, a figure enters the other end of the tunnel, realise what is happening, and turns back, unnoticed. We can only ask why we are being shown all of this, what purpose could it serve, what kind of cultural conditions do we live in for a director to deem such cruel film-making necessary?

2In Ancient Greek theatre, the most violent parts of the plays’ stories took place offstage; for instance, in Euripedes’ Medea, the news of Medea’s purely spiteful murders is recounted by a messenger rather than being directly represented; when she murders her and Jason’s children, the action takes place offstage, witnessed and confirmed by the Chorus. The Greeks’ tendency to avoid representing violence should not be misconstrued as some kind of cultural norm of censorship; in an age of public corporal punishments, staged violence would not have been seen as shocking. Rather, I think that by refusing to display fictionalised murder as a kind of spectacle, Ancient Greek theatre focused on the emotional repercussions of violence, reinforcing the themes of the plays and their broader significance as a means of structuring intersubjective experiences by means of grand narratives.

The story which we generally uncritically accept is something like this: that at some point in the early 19th century Western art was under a state of repression, and nothing sexual could be depicted in art. After the bawdiness and violence of Shakespeare, there were certain cultural conditions which lead to a repression of sex from art, under the threat of censorship. There are certain landmarks which certainly do represent shifts in what could be represented: the illicit publication of Ulysses, the Lady Chatterley trial, etc. I would argue, however, that it is not this incremental widening of the boundaries of what is allowed to be staged and filmed in the West; it is more interesting to think about how these shifts are a product of what is, culturally, deemed ethical as a means of representation. The fact that Noé chooses to show us a complete, uninterrupted rape scene in a film that would be completely coherent were the scene omitted, then, suggests that Noé believes that it is more ethical to represent the full horror of the rape in as much detail as he can get away with, than to leave it to his audience’s imaginations. This is in direct opposition to the codes of Ancient Greek theatre, where the stories preceded representation of evil. It is the central argument of Jean-François Lyotard’s book The Postmodern Condition (1979) that postmodernism is defined by “incredulity towards metanarratives”: perhaps, then, this is one reason why filmmakers deem it more moral to represent the violence that was once omitted from these Ancient Greek plays. But what we have to ask, indeed, what Noé bullies the audience into asking, is – why do I need to see this? What could I possibly be learning from witnessing a hyperrealistic depiction of a woman being senselessly raped?


What I took away was this: we live in a culture where forcing oneself to view a depiction of extreme trauma is deemed more ethical than to think about extreme trauma. In Guy Debord’s infamous critical development of Marxist theory, The Society of the Spectacle (1967), Debord picks up on Marx’s claim that “the economy’s domination of social life brought about an evident downgrading of being into having” (§17) and finds that commodity fetishism has developed to the point that there has been a second shift, “from having to appearing” (§17), to the point that “everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation” (§1). Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism was a type of social relation which entailed a mythic attachment to commodities (what Marx describes as being borne of a “religious reflex” in Das Kapital, i.e., a mythic simplification). Fetishism of commodities compensates for the abstraction of labour: “the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom”. Essentially, then, commodity fetishism is a collective strategy for understanding the world under the alienated social conditions of capitalism, which is in turn suspect to manipulation by advertisement.

Debord extrapolates that our relationship to commodities has mutated such that this abstraction has become unavoidably spectacular: “It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production” (§6). Debord refers to more than the influx of advertisements, television, film, etc. during the mid-20th century: “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images” (§4). These technologies, like the technologies of computers and cameraphones which would follow, are symptom rather than cause (albeit, a symptom which perpetuates the cause).

I get the impression that Debord’s work often isn’t taken seriously; he shamelessly lacks scholarly rigour, but argues that he was merely articulating premises that have become so socially ingrained that to talk about them critically seems almost too obvious. I’m sure that you, like me, have heard countless people complain about how crowds do not naturally experience big events any more (gigs, firework displays, ceremonies, school plays), but record them on their camera phones. And it’s true: the fact that people do this is absurd. What is going on is more than a fetishisation of consumer products which enable this kind of capturing of images (it’s partly that too), but a very profound shift in the way we collectively experience events. Think about the way these technologies are advertised: this advert for a Nokia Lumia camera phone (below) seems to parody spectacular society to make the Debordian point that this abstraction of experience makes us enjoy things less – and then it uses the parody to sell you exactly what’s being parodied. We accept the dominance of the spectacle, ironically reference it, do nothing to break out from it. That is the extent of the pervasion of our dependence upon images: the development from Debord is that digital technology allows us to assert ownership over our own images (“experiences”) more than ever, and democratises them, dissipating the authority of images.

The Society of the Spectacle is almost fifty years old, yet grows ever more pertinent, the logic of “spectacle” constantly bolstered with its rapid technological modifications. This might seem like a long digression, but I think it is necessary for the context of a film like Irréversible and the reasons for it to depict trauma so graphically, especially to support my contentious claim that the logic of the morality of this kind of extreme film-making is connected to the logic of capitalism. I am using Debord’s work to explore this continual pushing of boundaries, making the point that it is to do with specifically visual taboos: it’s deeper than simply the limits of censorship being pushed and pushed; film gets more visually extreme because we live in a society that is getting increasingly dependent upon the power of the image to shape experience. Noé is necessarily complicit in these conditions; in fact he is using the conditions of a human experience mediated by images to make his moral point.

I have very ambivalent feelings about whether it is justified to depict rape so graphically, or if it might be more moral to fight against this type of reification, to say no, we should not have to be presented with extreme images to comprehend this. I don’t have an answer, instead here are the two sides of the argument.

Firstly: Noé was wrong to show us these things. After I finished the film, I browsed the Tumblr tag for the film, and found several posts with eroticised .gif files of the rape scene, which had gained thousands of notes; one post links to a clip of the scene posted on pornography website, where at the time of writing it has been given a rating of 94.20% positive by 3645 users. To extrapolate rather bluntly: tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people are masturbating over a scene intended by its creators to be the most repugnant thing it could be possible to film, about which Robin Wood writes: “anyone who is ‘turned on’ by the rape scene in Irreversible could only be an advanced psychopath”.

While sadists sexually fetishise images of rape, the viewer who experiences no desire to view such images still experiences viewing these images with a form of fetishisation. The way I have been writing about this scene, emphasising its intense repulsiveness, attests to the way I have attached unto it a type of myth to help construct its meaning. According to the principles of the spectacle and its mythic function, Noé presents us with aestheticised images of a brutal rape which viewers are perversely intended to fetishise as a means of reifying the horror of rape. But perhaps that process of consuming these images is problematic, even “desensitising” (a concept I’m not sure I believe in), at the point where the images become fetishised, even if it is a horrific and perhaps moral experience for the viewer.

It is not just a psychological fetishism of these images, but a commodity fetishism too. It is the logic of capitalism that commodities must continuously claim to offer a more gratifying experience than their antecedents, even though the quality of your camera phone doesn’t improve the quality of your life: this is the logic of fetishism; similarly, certain types of cinema must continually offer something more extreme and more spectacular, even though the quality of cinema does not improve. Irréversible totally plays up to these commodified expectations of extremity, with its violence as well as its cinematic techniques designed to induce nausea (including a low-pitched 28-Hz frequency played throughout the first half an hour of the film, which caused audience members to faint). The film was commodified by the suggestion that it offered something more extreme than films which had come before, i.e., fetishising itself, even for viewers like me who claim to experience no desiring pleasure from the images in this film.

Arguments about the morality of Irréversible tend to focus on its reverse-chronological structure, for instance: “By frontloading the film with protracted violence, Noé structurally extinguishes the spectator’s desire. He does not seem to want to punish the viewer so much as reorient their relationship to screen violence, replacing pleasure with revulsion”. This is true, but this ignores its capacity to be decontextualised in the manner of these gifs and pornographic websites, despite Noé’s best efforts to make the scene as un-pornographic as possible, to unequivocally focus empathy with the victim rather than offer any kind of sexualisation.

BlastedThis is not necessarily an issue of Noé’s film in particular, but any film which depicts sexual violence – is this a problem of form? I will consider a play which shares themes and ideas with IrréversibleBlasted (1995) by Sarah Kane. Its first act is pure realism; the power Ian uses against Cate is a horrific thing to endure, culminating in him raping her. But this scenario is literally blasted apart in a surreal infraction; a distant war (non-specified but usually interpreted as the Bosnian war) explodes into the Leeds hotel room; a soldier begins terrorising Ian, ultimately raping him and gauging out his eyes, leaving him helpless. But whereas Irréversible is a means of making brutality starkly visible, Blasted is a staged version of events Kane viewed on television:

At some point during the first couple of weeks of writing I switched on the television. Srebrenica was under siege. An old woman was looking into the camera, crying. She said, “please, please, somebody help us. Somebody do something.” I knew nobody was going to do a thing. Suddenly, I was completely uninterested in the play I was writing. What I wanted to write about was what I’d just seen on television. So, my dilemma was: Do I abandon my play (even though I’d written one scene I thought was really good) in order to move onto a subject I thought was more pressing? Slowly, it occurred to me that the play I was writing was about this. It was about violence, about rape, and it was about these things happening between people who know each other and ostensibly love each other.*

So Blasted could never be a film; its plot is a means of making extreme televised images more palpable. The experience of it as fiction employs a kind of transient reality that doesn’t obey the fetishisation which is part of the moral fabric of Irréversible, or any other film containing strong sexual violence. It is experience above images (I have never seen a production, so I’m missing that dimension). This impossible formal device of forcing the audience to confront real-world violence entails a different type of encounter with that violence, a different type of shock as a political force. Thinking about Blasted in comparison to Irréversible, whose images become fetishised and decontextualised, it is possible to argue that making plays to depict violence is more moral than making films, might present a more effective political force.

A final criticism of the tactics and structure of Irréversible: It is discomforting to watch the subsequent (chronologically antecedent) scenes knowing how preventable it was for Alex to go through the underpass. The effect of Noé’s reversal of chronological events is that we know what will happen to the characters before we are introduced to them, overhauling the audience’s expectations of where to place blame, whereas a linear narrative might have emphasised the senselessness of the narrative. Alex is a conventionally gorgeous woman dressed very revealingly, taking a shady underpass rather than crossing the street. In the subsequent (i.e. chronologically preceding) scene, she is repeatedly told that it would be dangerous to leave the party alone (below). As Roger Ebert notes: “The party scenes, and the revealing dress, are seen in hindsight as a risk that should not have been taken. Instead of making Alex look sexy and attractive, they make her look vulnerable and in danger. While it is true that a woman should be able to dress as she pleases, it is not always wise”. Perhaps the film’s morals would have been easier to stomach if Alex’s appearance were not connoted with her vulnerability in this way, even if, as Ebert also points out, the reverse chronology means that the film does not present sexual violence as an “exploitative payoff”. This should not be the message you get from the film, but then, there is little to divert the viewer who opines that women who dress revealingly and walk alone through dangerous underpasses are tempting fate, although her rapist clearly targets her reasons other than sexual attraction.

4Secondly: Noé was right to show us these images. Debord would argue that such atrocities are impossible to comprehend otherwise without experience of these images, such is the extent of spectacular logic: if social relations are mediated by images, it takes extreme images to convey extreme violence, rather than simply discussion. Think of rape joke controversies: people who leap to the defence of Family Guy or Daniel Tosh or Cards Against Humanity; the people who argue that anything can be funny or that the people who object to rape jokes are pro-censorship are, obviously, mostly men who do not recognise their privilege, who do not comprehend this violence or the rape culture which enables and sometimes excuses it. Noé claims that the majority of people who objected to or walked out of Irréversible were men, which he attributes to them being unwilling to empathise with a woman who is being raped. To this portion of the audience, a violent visual exposure to the reality of the things they are joking about might be a moral experience, a fight against the normalisation of the word “rape” in conversation and humour.

In Lacanian terms, the scene is as close as possible to a staging of the Real. It does not merely represent trauma; it goes on much longer than would be necessary to merely do that: it simulates trauma (the Real). Noé ensures that the scene goes on for so long that the act of representation is entirely used up; it transgresses into the unsignifyable abyss of the Real. Timothy Nicomendo finds that the film’s haptic techniques, (to simplify wildly: techniques which emphasise the materiality and the physical experience of what is being filmed), work so that: “Noé erases the representational power of the image and privileges its material presence instead”. The rape scene does not, however, use these haptic techniques, as the camera is still and the soundtrack is silent: in fact, the camera’s stillness, its refusal to assert its presence, emphasises its trauma. It refuses the kinds of techniques which might distract us, might remind us of the scopophilic quality of cinema, eliminating the audience’s awareness of its construction as much as possible.

To revisit my point about how these images are fetishised, and to rephrase this in Lacanian terms: Seeing a scene like this which presents such a rupture in our capabilities to process extreme imagery also produces a kind of jouissance, Lacan’s ambivalent concept of a type of unfulfillable pleasure/pain. Noé also suggests that men have a “closeted” fear of rape, and that “maybe the movie brings back those kinds of fears to the male audience” – i.e., that the film forces men to confront the repressed trauma of the Real, something that has been effectively banished from this portion of the audience’s symbolic order, to produce jouissance and trouble that repressed fear. The unsolved question: is that in itself a moral goal? Or is it better to leave trauma as a domain untouched by fictions?

3Irréversible was a unique viewing experience insofar as it is brutally realist at the same time as being deftly experimental. It is perhaps problematic that we are being shown violence with the additional manipulations of his experimental qualities, including the low-pitched noise, the dizzying camera angles, the disorientating flashing imagery. I mention this because sometimes Noé uses formal tricks to elicit a physical response, and this borderline charlatanry might be confused with affective narrative; he uses such devices with more respect to form in his psychedelic DMT trip Enter the Void (2009). On the other hand, the film has been praised for its experimentation in “haptic cinema”, the way it goes to experimental lengths to create a sense of “in-the-body-ness”: that “It is not enough to simply convey the feelings of disorientation and violence as experienced by the characters: there must also be a direct link established between character and spectator for the fullest extent of verisimilitude”. But Noé is wise to present the rape scene with zero distractions; a more physical approach to this scene could only have made the scene’s aims more ambiguous. There is nothing at all pornographic about the violence. In mainstream Hollywood there are highly irresponsible and morally bankrupt rape scenes; for instance, in The Evil Dead (1981) a woman is raped by trees, in a scene where the camera keeps cutting rapidly, voyeuristically zooming in on her body as the branches remove her clothes and slide up her legs. Here, sexual assault is trivialised by being presented as blackly humorous and even titillating, as the woman begins to moan with what sounds like sexual pleasure.

The Irréversible DVD’s ‘film notes’ by Hannah McGill criticises the controversial and ambiguous rape scene in Straw Dogs (1971), in which the victim appears to experience pleasure, on the grounds that “you feel you’re watching light, consensual S&M rather than a violent attack”. The violence and terror of Irréversible is more explicit and relentless, but ultimately much more moral – if rape is to be represented in film at all, it should look something like this. To quote McGill again: “This is a rape scene that makes a mockery of anyone who’s ever opined that women say no when they mean yes, or that skimpy clothes constitute ‘asking for it’. Yes, it’s brutal and punishing beyond belief: but what should it be?”

*  Sarah Kane qtd. in Stephenson, Heidi, and Natasha Langridge (1997). Rage and Reason: Women Playwrights on Playwriting. London: Methuen Drama, p. 130.

About decemberembers

I've noticed that all of my music-obsessed friends have completely different approaches to music in the digital age, and I'm writing this blog as an attempt to raise questions about what you experience when listening to music. It's also partly a response to a majority of music journalism which, stylistically and ethically, I find problematic. I'm trying to avoid being prescriptive and will encourage open-mindedness. :)
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