French filmmaker Gaspar Noe was in a sweat in March at the Miami International Film Festival. He told me that someone anonymous had threatened to kill him because of his transgressive film, Irreversible. He'd been looking over his shoulder, anticipating an attack. Earlier, he and his leads - Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel - were greeted with jeers and boos (and also applause) when they appeared for the press conference following Irreversible's premiere at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.
At Cannes, Noe couldn't have been surprised that some journalists were jolted by Irreversible's most incendiary scenes: a guy being pummeled to death by a fire extinguisher in the bowels of a Paris gay bar, Rectum, and a seemingly endless, no-escape brutal rape in the corridors of a Paris metro station. He's asked: why trap an audience to watch?
"There are days you don't want to see such things," Noe conceded. "As for trapping people: when there are aggressions on the street, including rape, people come up to see. There's a visual fascination. On television, such things are on all the time. I saw something recently at 8:30 of people killing each other with machetes. In movies, you have killings without emotions. But rape? It's almost taboo in the cinema.
"I wanted to make a film I like. When I see Bunuel films, I like them. People talk about the scandal of Irreversible! A few people left the press screening, but there was no scandal. I can understand this movie can shock some American distributors, who are more and more politically correct, because of the multiplexes. This film will be R-rated, or NC-17. Maybe in the 1970s, it would have just passed by."
Actor Cassel:" "Why does a filmmaker have to justify his film? If everyone liked Irreversible, it would be strange. People I really love, I told them not to go. That's the best advice I can give them."
Actress Bellucci, the rape victim: "I have friends who say they didn't like it, but we were on the phone talking for hours. I said, 'Are you sure you didn't like it?' A lot of people detest the film, but some love it. There's a reason to make it: it's an important, deep film."
Noe explained the rape scene: "My idea was to use Jo Prestia, who had been a rapist in an Eric Zonca movie. He was perfect. He used to be a boxer, a world champion of Thai kick boxing. He's very, very nice. I introduced him to Monica, and she was scared not of the rape but that he would hit her. That wouldn't happen. He knew how to box, to control himself.
"It's a totally artificial rape. Everything is simulated. Although it seems a continuous shot, actually sixty little bits were put together from 20-minute continuous shots. There were nine months of post-production, many sleepless nights, putting the scenes together. Now the rape scene is credible, it wasn't originally. The rapist's penis wasn't there originally, or blood on her face. Special effects technology allowed us to add all that."
Bellucci: "How did we prepare? I looked at various films concerning rape in the day, like Deliverance and The Accused. Gaspar only asked me to be strong and truthful. I did my best. The first day, we shot my love scene with Vincent. The rape scene in the metro, we shot four times, and then we chose the good version. It's true, when I see the rape scene now, it hurts. But as Gaspar said, 'The film is not a crime. It's a film about a crime.'"
Noe: "Compare it to real revenge movies like Mad Max and Death Wish. Irreversible isn't a revenge movie. The guy seeks revenge on the rapist-killer, but I don't believe in that. We need to see the beast within us, and then refuse it."
(Boston Phoenix, April, 2003)