> Volume 5 > Number 24

Volume 5, Number 24

This Week's Reviews:  Irréversible.

This Week's Omissions:  Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, The Rugrats Go Wild!

Repertory Reviews:  The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Poison.

Gaspar Noé

Vincent Cassel
Albert Dupontel
Monica Bellucci
Jo Prestia

Release: 7 Mar. 03



Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible is the ugliest, most disturbing film of the year. It is form fitted to create tension, furor, hatred, pain, and agony in the audience. And, believe it or not, it is one of the best films of 2003.

That said, I recommend Irréversible to no one. There is no absolutely positive reaction to the film and, most certainly, it is the film most likely to turn off people from ever entering a movie theatre again. I go through countless films a year, many on multiple occasions for edification, socializing, and pleasure. I have no problem watching them in multiples, often from different genres, and have the keen ability to go into the next feature without the previous one, good or bad, weighing on me. That was not the case with Irréversible, which, upon its closing, saw me walk back to my car and drive home. The intended next screening of the evening, Patrice Leconte’s The Man on the Train, would have to wait.

And I respect Noé for the very anguish that he gave me. Unlike Funny Games, a Michael Haneke film that reached levels of sadistic fury that even I couldn’t stomach, I almost feel like Noé has earned the raspberries I want to throw at him. I find it fascinating that he was able to provoke such a guttural emotion out of me. I have seen the film three times to ensure the consolation of those attending it in its general release, and no time has the film lessened in its impact. I certainly don’t think I can do it again, but I doubt a fourth viewing would change the absurd reaction I still feel from the film.

I have chosen to open my review with these words of grave warning to anyone interested in seeing the film because I don’t want to tack on an “analysis review” warning at the beginning that will ultimately leave someone going to the theatre without hearing my pleadings that they refrain from doing so. I’m certain that there is an audience for the film -- damn, I’m of it, although I find it hard to imagine anyone enjoying the film in the least -- but I’d wager that the vast majority of the populace, including those art-minded individuals reading this review, would not be among them. I’ve tried to make it clear that there are redeeming facets to the film, but sitting through it to experience these facets isn’t necessarily a balanced option.

I am hereby instituting my second warning of the review, that in which I recognize that the duration of it will be spent analyzing the film from beginning to end in an attempt, however futile it may be, to understand what it is about the film that works and why it has such a horrible reaction to share with those watching it. It is recommended that anyone still willing to see the film should stop reading.

First off, one must speak of the technical novelty that is used in Irréversible, without which much of the film would have, admittedly, been more heinous to experience and make even less narrative sense. Like Memento, the overrated indie charmer of 2001, Noé tells the entire film backwards, although this time it is for a philosophical meaning -- more on that later -- than for a parallel confusion between the audience and the protagonist.

The film’s 12 scenes are seemingly uncut (I’m not certain if digital alterations have been made in certain moments to give the scenes the look of an uninterrupted shot or if in fact the film is choreographed so well that it was in fact shot that way), each one showing the events that transpired preceding the previous scene. The first half of the first scene is useless unless one has seen Noé previous film, I Stand Alone. I haven’t and, although I recognize that Noé wanted to give something to finish off what he began in his previous film (and a short), it felt unnecessary and, if the film actually ended with it, as it would have if the film were told chronologically, would have destroyed the flow of the entire work (though, coming off of the film’s dizzying closing/opening credits and the incessant noise that it features -- to great effect I might add -- it does but an unfortunate bit of confusion in the audience at this early moment. This scene is followed by a man arrested and another gurneyed into an ambulance outside a club as men shout threats at them.

Then comes “The Rectum,” the Paris gay S&M club that is patronized by Le Tenia (Prestia) and now entered (feel free to come up with the symbols in that sentence) by Marcus (Cassel) and Pierre (Dupontel). Inside, the film features what is probably its clearest misstep in my opinion, a setting that comes off as homophobic (Noé counters that such a reading is unintended) and uses camera movement that is too dizzying for too long. What it works down to, though, is quite possibly the most violently ugly show I’ve ever seen in fictional film. As an innocent man is mistaken for Le Tenia and his head bashed in with a fire hydrant by Pierre, the camera films it all. The skull collapses, the brain matter flies -- although we know nothing of the context, it is so violent that we cannot help but be moved to disgust. The computer editing Noé uses is so seamless (it’s odd how things look so much more real from Gallic and New Zealander graphics houses instead of the U.S. standard of Industrial Light and Magic) that the altercation looks real and thus more painful to digest.

The series of scenes that follow for the next 15 minutes -- Marcus looking for The Rectum, his racist outbursts at a Chinese cab driver, his conversation with prostitutes to find get information about Le Tenia, and Pierre’s police interrogation -- begin to flesh out the reasons why the altercation in The Rectum occurred. Scene #7, though, marks the change in the film, allowing us to momentarily see a rambunctious, playful Marcus directly before he sees Alex (Bellucci), battered, bloody on a gurney (notably, our introduction to her, giving us a further understanding of (a) why all this has happened, and (b) what horrible things are coming next).

And then there’s the rape, which has been the dividing point, if one can be pinpointed, between those who herald the film and those who hate it. The rape, which I believe is the most realistic, violent thing I’ve ever seen (beating the attack in The Rectum, only 30 minutes after it took that title), seems to last forever. Nine minutes, to be exact, pass as the audience must stare down Alex as she is brutally raped by Le Tenia. It is a visually abhorrent image, but one that took guts from both Noé and Bellucci. She is, after all, the Jennifer Aniston of France (her husband, costar Cassell would definitely be the Brad Pitt; in an odd coincidence, both Pitt and Bellucci give their voices to the animated Sinbad film, though for different language track versions of the film), and seeing her lying there in anguish, pleading for the moment to stop is excruciating. It is a very long nine minutes.

The camera is completely stationary during this rape, sitting on the ground while the two actors are in long shot. Before long, the audience is forced to think of something else, anything to get away from the rape. And yet it comes full circle -- my mind thought of a paper a college friend of mine wrote arguing that rape was a partially victimless crime, a statement that brought great discord from me. I cannot comprehend anyone thinking indifferently of rape after seeing this scene. And, as Noé would like for us to consider, Vincent’s rampage begins to seem acceptable considering the crime that has been committed. It is amazing that the Supreme Court once told Georgia that its list of offenses punishable by the death penalty could include airline hijacking and armed robbery but not rape.

I don’t think that Noé particularly exploits Bellucci here because there is a technical, philosophical, and narrative purpose to his exposure of the audience to this. Although it is nothing I want to see again, its impact cannot be understated. Those who see it as pornographic are missing the point: only someone deeply troubled, ŕ Le Tenia, would get their kicks watching this. Instead, the scene has a reaction of horror to such an act, not adoration. Although Bellucci is gorgeous in the Yves Saint Laurent dress as she walks into the underground tunnel where she will be raped, the actual action has none of the erotic attraction that one might want from a sex scene that has a partially nude Monica Bellucci. When we do see here in the sensual arms of her lover later in the film, before any of this happened, the image isn’t even erotic then, because her body, and its cosmetic identification with lustfulness and physical perfection, have been forever tarnished by what is to happen to that body later.

For that very reason, I recognize that Irréversible isn’t a dime-a-dozen revenge film or merely a novelty trick. It is a film that focuses on the temporal value of past, present, and future. Knowing what we know, nothing in the film’s final half, which is fairly happy, energetic, even lovely, has the impact of its surface. Knowing the future for these people is horrible, as much for what it is as for how happy they are before it. The characters continue to get more and more complex, and their reasons for later actions become clearer.

The film’s ending, which focuses on Alex and she takes a pregnancy test and then (or earlier) relaxes in a park with children surrounding her, is the most horrible of all of Noé tricks. Not only is he insinuating that the worst action, the propagation of the human race into an ugly, violent world, is part of this vicious circle, but also that in these moments of joy are memories of their future, and a recognition for the audience that this happy ending couldn’t be more of a lie.

©2003, David Perry,, 13 June 2003

John Cassavetes

Ben Gazzara
Timothy Carey
Seymour Cassel
Robert Phillips
Morgan Woodward
John Red Kullers
Meade Roberts

Release: 15 Feb. 76

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie


[NOTE: Since this is more an analysis than a review of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, major plot points including the end are given away.  It is recommended that it only be read after watching the film.]

"An autobiography is an obituary in serial form with the last installment missing."
                        -Quentin Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant

Like Yang-Yang in Edward Yang's Yi Yi (A One and a Two...) and Gilbert Valence in Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home, Cosmo Vitelli in John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie could be seen as a director unleashing all his personal feelings into a character to the point that he has created a proxy. None of these characters is a true impersonation of his filmmaker, but all seem to come from the personal desires and fears of their creators.

Cosmo Vitelli, as played by Ben Gazzara, is the director of his own artistic form, though some could say his peek show musical programs aren't that far from Cassavetes' emotionally bare productions. One lives off showing the human body, the other showing the human soul, and both in the most garish manner.

The reluctance that Cosmo shows for the mob killing of the title seems to be a clear representation of Cassavetes' own reluctance to conform to the Hollywood moguls controlling the film industry. Even in the preparations -- as the Mafioso brings out paperwork for Cosmo to sign -- the killing seems like business as usual, a selling out of both a person's soul and his integrity. Cassavetes only made two mainstream films (1962's Too Late Blues and 1963's A Child is Waiting) and chose to never return. Cosmo only commits two mob killings (Hugh Soto's Chinese bookie and Seymour Cassel's Mort Weil) and will probably not live to commit another.

In his chapter on The Killing of the Chinese Bookie from The Films of John Cassavetes. Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies, author Ray Carney disseminates the way Cassavetes made the film. He sees Cassavetes as a filmmaker trying so hard to grasp reality that his film is made with a "truly unresolved, uncertain style" that does not ever remain on any preordained path. Cassavetes is not looking at the film as a prepared story to be told but as a spontaneous tale that must be recorded as it unfolds.

Cosmo, meanwhile, comes across as a man trying to make sense of his plans. He has not yet understood what Cassavetes has decided: life cannot be built around trying to get something to happen but instead must be a series of involuntary occurrences. He seems to be punishing Cosmo for not knowing this -- the character's possibly lethal wound at the end of the film serves as a creator smiting his creation for disobeying his own laws. Like the Garden of Eden, this dirty little world is a breeding ground for one man's life decisions and mistakes. California's Cosmo and Eden's Adam have both disobeyed their lofty creators -- who, of course, created these beings in their own image -- and must be eternally punished for it.

This does not mean that Cosmo is without Cassavetes' reluctance towards keeping on the preordained trail. At one point, Cosmo even shows Cassavetes' own fear to continue with anything planned when he continually puts off a mob plan by instead piddling his time away at a restaurant and movie theatre. Even as his common sense tells him to do exactly what has been planned for him, Cosmo's personal (and the director's) reserve does not allow him to do the deed.

One of the most striking aspects of the film is its evocations of beauty. Here's Cosmo, trying his best to create this glamorous world of bright lights, enjoyable stage numbers, and beautiful women. He's blinded by this, thinking that he has, in fact, created that beautiful little world even though everyone else seems to see the place as a chance to watch nude girls cavort around the stage.

Meanwhile, John Cassavetes is doing the opposite, trying his best to show the ugly, amoral side to his story. This is a film that does not aim to entertain (though there are the occasions of slight levity) but to provoke. "This is the world we live in!" he seems to want us to say. And yet, in the process of creating his scummy little world, he has created a piece of beauty out of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The film is a commanding feature that has the subtle harangues of a man worrying over his own life. It's the autobiographical elegy to a dirt monger and, like all good smut, is impossible to look away from.

©2003, David Perry,, 13 June 2003

Todd Haynes

Scott Renderer
James Lyons
John R. Lombardi
Larry Maxwell
Susan Norman
Edith Meeks
Millie White
Buck Smith

Release: 5 Apr. 91



[NOTE: Since this is more an analysis than a review of Poison, major plot points including the end are given away.  It is recommended that it only be read after watching the film.]

"I recognize in thieves, traitors and murderers, in the ruthless and the cunning, a deep beauty -- a sunken beauty."
                        -Jean Genet, The Thief's Journal

Conceived as a tribute to Jean Genet, himself outcast by his parents and the French government, Todd Haynes' Poison looks at the world of social outcasts. As simply an anthology film, Poison has no discernable relationship covering all three stories, both in style and narrative -- only the theme of exile remains to connect his three stories, "Hero," "Horror," and "Homo."

Haynes' films also have this divide, with each film looking different from his other works (case in point, the glam '70s of Velvet Goldmine and the serene '50s of Far from Heaven), but remaining thematically connected through the idea of self-ostracism and society's conventions on the evils of a homosexual lifestyle. His films commonly show people hating themselves and their existences, usually enveloped in a shrouded gay and/or AIDS undertone. This is true of all three stories within Poison: "Hero" and its quasi-sexual fetishism, "Horror" and its AIDS-inspired repulsion, and "Homo" with its gay obsession.

Like Genet, though, Haynes is confronting people not with the expected exclusionary stance they would take on such characters, but with the fact that they put little reasoning behind it. All three of the main subjects are placed in the fringe of society and their banishment is not necessarily shown as a mistake -- instead of preaching, Haynes simply lets the audience understand these characters and the reasoning behind their actions. If social mores say these are monstrous individuals, why are they suffering the same problems that everyone suffers? The misfit kid, the pariah researcher, and the obsessed lover -- none of these characters are hideous people and yet they are treated that way: one is regularly beaten, one is pushed to his death, and one is left to a life of isolation. Haynes seems to find a parallel between the terms 'poison' and 'passion.'

Haynes tries to examine the conventions of society by questioning the audience's belief in cinematic conventions. The film even begins by deceiving the audience into accepting the three edited openings as that of a single story (Haynes also creates a hint of unity by occasionally bleeding one story's dialogue or ideas into another). They have been taught to read films in one unified way -- to have three seemingly related incidents act independently of one another immediately establishes that the film is not three but, aside from the styles and stories, thematically one. As Justin Wyatt wrote in his book on Poison, "the viewer must therefore construct meaning across the development of all three stories, rather than considering each story individually." Poison is a juncture of three stories that seemingly reside in their own worlds (a vérité reality, a noir '50s cinematic science fiction, and a ponderous European existentialist doom) but exist under a thematic and textual commonality. It's the audience's task to "construct the text."

Poison ends with a statement by Genet that deals directly with the subjugation of the individual and the suppression of the self: "A man must dream a long time to act with grandeur, and dreaming is nursed in darkness." Richie Beacon of "Hero," Dr. Graves (Maxwell) of "Horror," and John Broom (Renderer) of "Homo" are all outsiders with dreams that are destroyed by their surroundings (the infidelity of a home, the panic of a community, and the machismo of a prison). All three characters are treated as diseases on society, much the same way fetishists, AIDS patients, and gays are treated.

They are not, as Haynes makes clear, unique deviants to a picture perfect world they inhabit -- they are dreamers pushed to the fringes by the ugliness of their milieu. Their lives are not meant to be allegories for the downtrodden romantics, but as fearful reminders of society's attempts to spoon feed dreams: if a person cannot aspire to their goals, even the ones that are seemingly offensive to the rest of the public, how free is the society?

©2003, David Perry,, 13 June 2003

Reviews by:
David Perry