Hostility and aversion typically greet the designs of the contemporary French cinéma du corps/cinema of the body, of which Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002) is a flagship example. This cinéma du corps in hindsight was a profound catalyst in French cinema of the late 1990s, inspiring many filmmakers in Europe and beyond. Moving from a prevailing realist aesthetic, and the ‘official’ culture of heritage films embodied by the likes of Germinal (1993), La Reine Margot (1994), Le Hussard sur le toit (1995), and Ridicule (1996), the cinéma du corps took a decisively antagonistic course — versus these beguiling screen norms, versus the enduringly romantic treatment of Paris, and versus, ultimately, the apprehending film viewer expecting a coherent diegetic world. From Don’t Let Me Die on a Sunday (1998) to Romance (1999), from Trouble Every Day (2001) to In My Skin (2002), continuing onwards today with Des filles en noir (2010) and Flesh of My Flesh (2013), this cinéma du corps drastically revises the contract between filmmaker and audience. Instead of stable classical unities we are immersed in lyrically challenging image- and soundscapes, instead of coherent goal-oriented protagonists we study impassive or atavistic humans, instead of sex conscripted into psychologically-motivated unions, corporeal behaviors are represented as rash, destructive and violent.
Irreversible might seem initially to typify this confrontational approach to cinema: in its inverted narrative of revenge-rape, its highly attenuated super-16mm-derived cinematography, its cacophonous sound designs, and its radical subversions of its principal star trio, Vincent Cassel, Monica Bellucci, and Albert Dupontel, all of whom in different ways are desecrated on-screen. But alongside this hostile side of the cinematic continuum is another, neglected side of Irreversible. This is its climactic course towards idyll, beauty, and transcendence, and, in the form of Alex (Bellucci), a feminine utopia of sorts, culminating in a lyrical avant-garde perceptual deluge. Hence Noé leaves us in conditions of physical exhilaration: Alex lying beside a child flying a pink kite around a gushing park sprinkler, then onwards, up into the sky, and apparently out past even that. For its closing minute Irreversible, in fact, stylistically disperses: from string music into raw noise, legible images into flickers of animated light, bodies into atoms, composite materials dissolving and erupting into a slew of their constituting elements. The film’s final figuration, then, is of humanity reduced to, and yet also inflated by, the sum of its precious parts; the materials of cinema itself scattering and disassembling into nothingness, pure aesthetics. This is Noé’s profound poise, begun with Bellucci’s body: from horrible confinement in an underground space to this accelerating flight into and through the sky, from rape to reverence, from violent physical specificity to ineffable perceptual rapture.