(Cineplex Store Streaming, November 2018) Somehow, I expected much worse. Few movies deserve the tile of “infamous” but Irréversible is one of them. From the off-kilter opening credits onward, it famously “features” an exceptionally gory death as an opening statement (fire extinguisher plus face; not a good mix and I won’t add more) and revolves around a nine-minute-long rape sequence that’s filmed as one uninterrupted shot that leaves no detail to the imagination nor any place for the viewer to hide. I knew all of this before watching the film and it did take me a while to bring myself to watch it, only spurred to it by an unfortunate need to cross movies from a to-see list. Irréversible is not a fun movie to watch. In fact, it’s about as far away from fun as possible—call it an ordeal, maybe. It doesn’t mince details in portraying a hopelessly nihilistic view of the world. But experiencing the film somehow isn’t as vicious as I was expecting. For one thing, there is an exceptionally clever conceit at play here in showing a traditional revenge movie in ante-chronological order: We see the revenge first, then the hunt for the suspect, then the rape, then the happy first act introducing the characters. The impact is significant: The opening salvo of violence establishes a tone that carries through the hunt, while the rape throws the happy-moment conclusion of the film is disturbing ironic territory knowing what will happen to those characters later on. As repulsive as the film can be in its excesses (did we need to see such graphic gore? Did we need to see the entire rape sequence?), there is a deliberate attempt here to go beyond conventions. You could take the script, rearrange it chronologically, remove the philosophical element, elide the rape, soften the gore and it would be an unremarkable film in-line with much of what cheap exploitative filmmakers create without anyone batting an eye. It would still be conceptually ugly. It would still be an unacceptable celebration of revenge. And it wouldn’t be the same film. I did not like Irréversible and have no plans to ever watch it again. (Hence streaming the film rather than purchasing a physical copy—I don’t want it in my house.) But I have to recognize that it’s a film with conscious intent. It’s disturbing for valid reasons—Monica Bellucci ranks highly in my personal pantheon of sex symbols, and I was honestly distressed to see her (not the character; the actress) be subjected to what she goes through in the movie. I like Vincent Cassel a lot and didn’t like the character he became in the film. (For added mind-bending, consider that Cassel and Bellucci were married while shooting Irréversible.) Screenwriter/director Gaspar Noé has since become just as infamous for equally uncompromising movies (I still have Enter the Void on my shelf of DVDs to watch, and I’m still making excuses not to watch it). Irréversible is a bold movie and I almost hate that it exists. But somehow, it’s not quite the empty exploitation vehicle I was half-expecting. I’m still recommending that you do not watch it.
(In French, On TV, November 2016) For a French-Canadian cinephile, there’s something both familiar and slightly exotic to La Haine, given how similar it is to American ghetto movies … while taking place entirely in French, or at least a lowbrow European version of it (thanks for subtitles!) An early film from Matthieu Kassowitz featuring Vincent Cassel, La Haine is a no-budget cry from the heart detailing a fateful day in the life of three disaffected Parisian teenagers as racial tensions surround them. Things go ugly quickly, as they are wont to do in this kind of film. Shot in stark black-and-white and featuring an even harsher punk soundtrack, La Haine is about urban alienation and it is not meant to be pretty. (There’s even a scene in which our three uncouth protagonist crash a sophisticated art show … and it doesn’t turn out well.) It’s not meant to be a pleasant or enjoyable film—more akin to a mirror showing back imperfections without comforting lies. Intriguingly seen paired with similar American inner-ghetto films, La Haine remains a striking document of a French social problem that has never quite gone away since then.
(On Cable TV, June 2014) The moment any modern thriller brings in hypnosis as a plot device, it’s time to sit down and expect a tortured maze of plot twists. Trance is no exception: if the title wasn’t enough, it’s clear that we’re in for a warped psychological thriller as soon as our lead character is coerced into seeing a hypnotherapist in order to recall what he has done with a precious stolen painting. At that point, forget about notions of protagonist, antagonist, aggressor or victim, because the script seems determined to twist everything in sight. In the apt hands of director Danny Boyle, this turns into a visually trippy wringer in which nothing is as it seems. As you can expect, this is as far away from a comforting experience as can be, and Trance becomes a film best appreciated by jaded thriller fans who don’t mind massive incoherencies as long as the usual conventions are upended. In this film, the human mind can be infinitely re-programmed, identities shed at the touch of a voice and grudges extended over years of dormancy. It’s strictly genre fare (although there is a good monologue about the nature of ourselves as the sum of our memories), executed professionally and wrapped up with an unsettling bow. As the conflicted lead character, James McAvoy continues to become more and more interesting as an actor. Meanwhile, though, Rosario Dawson eventually steals the entire show with a showy role, while Vincent Cassel unexpectedly comes to play against type by the end of the film. Trance isn’t particularly pleasant, but it holds attention until the end… which isn’t too bad for a heist thriller.
(In theaters, December 2010) The difference between genre horror and “psychological drama” is often that in the latter case, much of the monsters can be explained away by the narrator being completely crazy. That’s certainly one plausible interpretation for Black Swan: In this high-class horror film, a ballerina driven mad by the pressures of performing the lead role in Swan Lake gradually lets themes of repression, doppelgangers and mirror images get the better of her. It doesn’t end well… or does it? This murky conclusion is only one of the ways in which Black Swan acts as a companion to director Darren Aronofsky’s previous The Wrestler: Same grainy flat cinematography, same fascination for the psychological impact of intense passion, same look at a performance-driven sub-culture. Visually, Black Swan looks ugly (with exceptions whenever the performers are on-stage), but it constantly reinforces the visual themes of opposite doubles: the grainy super-16mm cinematography has enough depth to sustain a film-school paper. It also strips all glossy moviemaking glamour away from Nathalie Portman’s mesmerizing lead performance, instantly credible as a ballerina with enough issues to sustain a film’s worth of delusions. Mila Kunis also acquits herself honourably in her third significant role of 2010, whereas Vincent Cassel is as deliciously slimy as ever. But the star here remains Portman, and if Black Swan works, it’s largely because of her dedication to her craft. As for the ending, well, it grows with time: If, initially, it seems as if the film stops about thirty seconds and a coroner’s report too soon, it also fully commits itself to its unreliable narrator, and eventually lends itself to about three interpretations spanning the entire length of the genre horror / psychological drama spectrum. Aronofsky may never direct a comedy, but his dramas are growing ever-more finely tuned to their subject, and viewers may as well endure the ride.