Sunday, May 31, 2015

Spooks, Ghosts, and Things that Go Bump in the Night: 11 Great Period Gothic Films

As regular readers of this blog know, I love period films. While we usually think of period films as primarily romantic, the Gothic narrative has a place in cinema just as it has in literature. This genre is a particularly fun one, as it includes all the delights of a period piece - the costumes and set designs, gorgeous mansions, ball scenes, and witty dialogue - as well as the spooky pleasures of the best Gothic literature, from ghosts, curses, and repressed secrets, to madwomen in the attic. These eleven films are my favorites:

Dragonwyck (1946)
Though its class politics are decidedly simplistic, Dragonwyck is the ultimate Gothic period piece, encompassing everything one comes to expect from the genre: a harpsichord-playing and vengeful ghost, a creepy and neglected daughter, a batty maid who knows too much, a poor and provincial governess, and a tortured, desperate, and yet attractive lord of the gloomy, splendid manor. Gene Tierney stars as the governess opposite Vincent Price as the lord of the manor and their chemistry together has a spice and vitality that brings the superficially suppressed sexuality of their relationship to the fore. Essentially a retelling of the Bluebeard legend, this film is a welcome, and less-known, addition to the Gothic film genre.

Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Ingmar Bergman's final film, an autobiographical opus that explores the deepest undercurrents of his dark world view, follows the sad fortunes of siblings Alexander (Bertil Guve) and Fanny (Pernilla Allwin), beloved children from a well-to-do and cultured Swedish family whose lives are thrown into turmoil when their widowed mother (Ewa Froling) marries a brutally severe Lutheran bishop (Jan Malmsjo). One of the longest cinematic features ever released, Fanny and Alexander is superficially one of the most stunningly beautiful films ever shot by long-time Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist, with its rich pinks, reds, and golds, but on a deeper level, few films dig as deeply into the terrifying world of the child's subconscious, still perilously close to the surface.

Gaslight (1944)
This thriller directed by George Cukor stars Ingrid Bergman as a pampered and wealthy woman who is slowly being manipulated into madness by her husband, played by Charles Boyer, who turns his suave playboy image to his advantage in this hypnotically creepy role. The ending of the film, which I won't spoil, is remarkable in the way it upends our understanding of justice and revenge, chipping away very subtly at gender expectations. Angela Lansbury made her knockout screen debut in this film as a spiteful maid.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) 
The ethereally beautiful Gene Tierney stars opposite Rex Harrison, in one of his greatest performances, in this hauntingly beautiful and very funny film about the ghost of a salty dead sea captain who helps the new tenant of his home write his memoirs and secure her fortunes. Tierney and Harrison have fabulous chemistry and their exchanges run the gamut from heart-breakingly poignant to laugh-out-loud funny, while George Sanders plays an oily philanderer and children's author who publishes under the name "Uncle Neddy." The brilliant composer Bernard Herrmann wrote perhaps his loveliest ever score for this film.

Great Expectations (1946)
Though one can quibble about the altered ending, David Lean's adaptation of the great Dickens novel is both suitably Dickensian and cinematically stream-lined, a rich, witty, creepy whodunit. John Mills stars as Pip, the young innocent in love with the embittered Miss Havisham's (Martita Hunt) ward Estella (Jean Simmons as a child and Valerie Hobson as an adult) who inherits a fortune from a mysterious anonymous benefactor. A young, surprisingly rakish-looking Alec Guiness plays one of my all-time favorite Dickens characters, the delightful Herbert Pocket. Despite alterations to the plot, this film is, in my opinion, the best Dickens adaptation ever made.

The Innocents (1961)
Based on Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw," this film is easily the most frightening film on the list. Deborah Kerr stars as a naive, neurotic governess with little experience, who arrives at the remote estate of Bly to find two disturbed children (Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin). Whether she is losing her mind, being haunted by the sexually abusive ghosts of a former governess and valet, or both, she soon descends into hysteria, possibly exacerbated by her repressed attraction for the children's uncle (Michael Redgrave). The spooky atmosphere was achieved with sound and lighting effects and cinematographer Freddie Francis's use of deep focus. A must-see for horror fans and literature buffs alike.

Jane Eyre (2011)
Charlotte Bronte's much beloved and much adapted novel is the basis for Cary Fukunaga's film, with a screenplay by Moira Buffini and starring Mia Wasikowska, looking remarkably "poor, obscure, plain and little," and Michael Fassbender, wearing some wonderful sideburns. This is my favorite adaptation of the novel precisely because it emphasizes the Gothic elements over the Romantic elements, transforming it into an examination of tortured souls in thrall to past traumas and present suffering. This version doesn't shy away from the supernatural or from some of the more brutal plot elements, both often softened in adaptations. The costumes by Michael O'Connor are historically accurate and very lovely.

The Phantom Carriage (1921)
This seminal Swedish film, directed by Victor Sjostrom, has dated poorly in terms of its moralizing and melodramatic plot, an operatically highstrung story about an alcoholic (Sjostrom) who must repent of his wickedness or be doomed to serve Death as collector of the souls, driving his carriage for a year. But, the real reason to watch this film is to see the extraordinary use of double exposures, which in 1921 had to be achieved with hand-cranked cameras; the special effects work in this film is truly stunning, both technically and artistically, and the phantom carriage of the title is one of the most striking images of early cinema.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Australian director Peter Weir's masterpiece escapes easy definition: is it a murder mystery? a fantasy? a horror movie? Whatever it is, this gorgeous and ambiguous film is about a group of schoolgirls who disappear on Hanging Rock on Valentine's Day 1900. Russell Boyd's sun-drenched yet ghostly cinematography, achieved by stretching a bridal veil across the camera lens, evokes the mysterious Dream Time, while Romanian panflute player Gheorghe Zamfir provides a haunting, lyrical theme and the beautiful historic Martindale Hall, a mansion in Georgian style designed by Ebenezer Gregg, stands in for Appleyard Hall.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
Director Albert Lewin's highly idiosyncratic interpretation of Oscar Wilde's novel travels far afield from its source material with marvelously cinematic results. The immensely strange-looking Hurd Hatfield stars as Dorian, nothing like Wilde's character, but a fascinating re-imagining of a man obsessed with youth, beauty, and immortality, while George Sanders, Angela Lansbury, and Donna Reed costar. The shocking interjection of color in an otherwise black and white film highlights the extraordinary paintings by Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, at least one of which is a genuine artistic masterwork.

Wuthering Heights (1939)
Surely one of the greatest Gothic films of all time, Wuthering Heights, based on the brilliant classic novel by Emily Bronte, stars Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Cathy, both of whom are marvelous. Olivier in particular is the veritable embodiment of the tortured, masochistic lover, who retains a seedy glamor even as he descends into ever more convoluted evil. A sweeping romantic score by Alfred Newman and rich, shadowy cinematography by Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) give this film a haunting atmosphere and keep it fixed in the mind long after the screen has gone dark.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The 12 Best Films of 1960

1960 was a spectacularly great year for cinema, with masterpieces being produced in Italy, France, Sweden, the United States, and the former Czechoslovakia. The American Production Code, as well as censorship codes elsewhere, were slowly starting to come apart at the seams, as filmmakers increasingly began to push the envelope and show films about sex and sexual violence, childbirth, (still repressed) alternative sexual identities, adultery, and increasingly graphic violence. Here are the twelve best films of the year:

The Apartment
Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray give career best performances in this blackly bitter comedy co-written and directed by the legendary Billy Wilder. Lemmon plays a miserable paper pusher at an insurance company in a factory-like New York high-rise, who caters to his superiors by lending his apartment for their extra-marital liaisons. He finally takes a stand when his smarmy boss, played by the wickedly good MacMurray, leads on the girl of his dreams - the original pixie dream girl, MacLaine - and leaves Lemmon to clean up the mess when she attempts suicide. In this portrait of the smiling, sunny American dream's sordid underside, Wilder created one of the greatest American films of the decade.

Though I'm not a great fan of Michelangelo Antonioni, his first film with Monica Vitti, whose extraordinary blonde beauty immediately evokes the chill, industrialized Italy of the director's vision, is my favorite. The film's plot is slim - the boyfriend (Gabriele Ferzetti) and best friend (Vitti) of a girl who disappears (Lea Massari) on a boating trip continue searching for her as they fall in love - and all but inconsequential. An atmosphere of existential dread hangs over the film's sun-drenched cinematography by Aldo Scavarda, while each carefully composed frame wouldn't look out of place in a Milanese art gallery.

Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage)
This chilling and poetic French horror film is one of the greatest of the genre. Pierre Brasseur stars as a brilliant surgeon determined to perform a successful face transplant on his brutally disfigured daughter (Edith Scob), whether the donors are willing or not. The extraordinary Italian actress Alida Valli, famous for her performances in masterpieces such as Senso and The Third Man, plays a supporting role as the surgeon's slavish, sexually repressed assistant. Director Georges Franju forever altered the scope of horror cinema with this film; neither monsters nor murder are abandoned, but deeper, braver subtexts about love, sexuality, and cruelty elevate Eyes Without a Face above its contemporaries.

The Magnificent Seven
The Magnificent Seven holds a special place in my heart because it's the film that introduced me to westerns, now a favorite genre. Yul Brynner, ruggedly handsome and magnetic onscreen, stars as Chris Adams, a gunslinger who recognizes that he's one of a dying breed in the increasingly settled West. When a Mexican village begs for his help battling Eli Wallach's band of banditti, he assembles a posse of gunmen, including Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, and James Coburn. Though the battle scenes are less spectacular than in the film's source material, Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece The Seven Samurai, the fun is to be had in watching these prickly, trigger-happy personalities spar against and compete with each other.

Peeping Tom
Another game-changing horror film, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom scandalized and sickened audiences at its release and it's held up remarkably well as a study of repressed sexual perversion, the fetishization of fear and power-seeking, and voyeurism. Carl Boehm stars as Mark Lewis, an aspring filmmaker making a buck on the side photographing soft pornography, whose rather unusual and clandestine artistic and sexual hobbies make him one of the most frightening head cases of 60s horror. Powell, always a cinematic innovator, uses hand-held cameras and virtuosic point-of-view shooting to impress upon the audience that, as people who watch films, we are all complicit voyeurs.

The greatest live action film ever produced by the Disney studio, Pollyanna is based on the treacly novel by Eleanor H. Porter, but in writer-director David Swift's hands, the unbearably sentimental story of the irrepressibly cheerful orphan girl who teaches a town to play the glad game becomes a rosy, but decidedly more complex examination of small town politics and class conflicts. The huge, star-studded cast is without exception excellent, including Agnes Moorehead as the cranky hypochondriac Mrs. Snow, Karl Malden as the fire-and-brimstone minister enthralled by class ambitions, Jane Wyman as the chilly pseudo-aristocratic who essentially rules from her mansion, and, of course, Hayley Mills as the pert heroine.

A film this iconic hardly needs further accolades; all I can add is that Psycho is worthy of its reputation. Anthony Perkins's career-defining performance as Norman Bates, the hotel manager with a doozy of a mother complex, the screeching, pounding score by Bernard Herrmann, the virtuosic editing, especially in that famous shower scene, by George Tomasini, and of course Alfred Hitchcock's trademark wit are merely a few of the elements that make this film one of the greatest of all horror films, if not the absolute greatest. This film proved the turning point for the genre in the United States.

Rocco and His Brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli)
Recently screened at Cannes with two tiny clips that Italian censors insisted on removing, Luchino Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers marries neorealist style and politics with an operatic grandiosity to produce one of the defining Italian films of all time. The impoverished Parondi family transfers from Lucania in the south of Italy to industrialized Milan, where the long-suffering mother (Katina Paxinou) hopes her five sons will find better lives. Few American viewers are aware of the prejudices migrants from the south experienced (and frankly, sometimes still experience) in the north and this film retains the ability to shock. The cast includes Alain Delon, Annie Girardot, and Renato Salvatori.

Romeo, Juliet, and Darkness (Romeo, Julie a tma)
Though it requires a significant effort to track down a copy of this obscure Czech film, it's a worthwhile endeavor. Filmmaker Jiri Weiss modernizes Shakespeare's iconic play, setting it in Prague under the Nazi occupation. In this version, Romeo, renamed Pavel, (Ivan Mistrik) hides his Jewish lover Hanka (Daniela Smutna) in his tiny apartment, hoping to elude the Gestapo. Weiss, himself of Jewish descent, escaped to England before the occupation and was a fighter pilot in a Czechoslovak RAF unit; thus, his sensitive and heart-breaking treatment of love under oppression has a rare personal quality.

Spartacus is the very finest sword-and-sandals epic ever produced by a Hollywood studio. Starring Kirk Douglas as the gladiatorial slave who leads a revolution against imperial Rome, Peter Ustinov as his oily master, Laurence Olivier as a Roman general who hankers after his slave played by Tony Curtis, and Jean Simmons as the beautiful slave who bears Spartacus his child, the film was written by black-listed writer Dalton Trumbo and directed by Stanley Kubrick, while composer Alex North's love theme for this film is one of the loveliest pieces he ever wrote. This film is in many ways the ultimate protest against McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia with its rallying cry, "I'm Spartacus!"

Swiss Family Robinson
A thrill-packed adventure film on the old Hollywood model, this live action Disney feature stars John Mills, Dorothy McGuire, James MacArthur, Tommy Kirk, and Kevin "Moochie" Corcoran as the shipwrecked Swiss family who create a tropical paradise. The ingenuity of the film is reflected in the extraordinary production design, which includes a tree house with running water and a DIY cooler, a veritable zoo of exotic animals, and a cheerful willingness to toss out the stern Calvinist gloom of Wyss's original moralizing novel in favor of a jaunty, fast-paced, and suspenseful narrative of survival in the wilderness and resistance against a villainous pirate.

The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukallan)
This heart-breaking religious fable set in Medieval Sweden by director Ingmar Bergman starts as a darkly tinged pastoral idyll and gives way to a brutally unsettling depiction of rape, only to end in a transcendently inexplicable miracle. Spoiled young Karin (Birgitta Petterssen) is raped and murdered on her way to light candles to the Virgin Mary. When her family discovers what has happened, her father (Max von Sydow) exacts a cruel revenge, only to be awed by a miracle. Like The Seventh Seal, this film is deeply religious, exploring the rich visual Christian and Pagan subtexts of both divine power and beauty and demonic trickery, but Bergman doesn't shy from a forthright portrayal of existential doubt and despair.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

8 Books for People Who Love Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are at their core the most primal expression of human stories, our fears, desires, and beliefs, and how they manifest in metaphor. They continue to fascinate us across time because they connect so deeply to the inexpressible emotional and psychological forces at work within us. The mirthfully grotesque violence and fatalism of the Brothers Grimm, the ethereal and sexually disturbing aestheticism of Perrault, the picturesque tragedies of the already-doomed of Andersen, the Baroque earthiness of Basile - these qualities infuse these eight great books, certain to please any lover of fairy tales.

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
Emily Bronte's strange story of star-crossed and hell-bound lovers Cathy and Heathcliff defies easy categorization. In Wuthering Heights, love is a demonic force, a desire to possess and exploit, to manipulate and vanquish. Its destructive power twists the souls it conquers, driving rebellious, headstrong Cathy and impetuous, embittered Heathcliff into a vortex of maniacal suffering that claims everyone who dares to try to care for them. Few novels plunge so deeply into the murky waters of the subconscious, the Faerie of the human psyche.

Collected Stories - Roald Dahl
Best known for his brilliant and gleefully grotesque children's fiction, Dahl is also the author of some of the most wickedly lurid and perverse adult stories I've ever read. Shocking twists, pornographic sex, queasily uncanny acts that could be supernatural or just sadistically criminal - these are just some of the smutty delights to be found in these stories. Imagine Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches in a steroid-fueled, libidinous rage and that will give you an idea of what to expect. Everyman's Library has published a single volume edition with the complete published stories, which I highly recommend.

Hell - Kathryn Davis
Kathryn Davis's fiction dwells in the liminal spaces of biological existence; space, time, and psyche have porous boundaries and her novels are, in a large sense, a mapping of these overlapping realities and worlds. Because of this, her books are particularly resistant to description. Hell is, at the simplest level, a multi-layered narrative in which a nineteenth century housewife goes mad and is haunted by the spirit of the Napoleonic culinary wunderkind Antonin Careme, a troubled household in the 1950s falls to pieces as one of the daughters succumbs to tuberculosis and loses a friend in a possible homicide, and the crumbling denizens of a dollhouse suffer an existential crisis, but this is a book that has to be read to be believed.

The Third Eye - Mollie Hunter
Though well-known in her native Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, Mollie Hunter has become undeservedly obscure in the United States. The Third Eye is a coming-of-age tale that is richly imagined and shot through with a sense of possibilities, supernatural and otherwise. Jinty is a young girl possessed of a strange power, which she calls her third eye, that propels her to the center of the drama at the Earl of Ballinford's death, victim of the legendary Ballinford doom. Other wonderful novels by Hunter include The Kelpie's Pearls, The Mermaid Summer, and A Stranger Came Ashore.

The Fifth Child - Doris Lessing
Whether you love children or can't stand to be in the same room with them, The Fifth Child will give you nightmares. This slim novella by the brilliant feminist author of The Golden Notebook is about Harriet and David Lovett, a young couple whose desire for the perfect domestic haven spurs them on to have more and more children. Their fifth child, Ben, voraciously and constantly hungry, violent and physically rugged, is the embodiment of everything we fear our children could be, seemingly both sub- and super-human. Lessing never simplifies the horror of the dilemma: Ben is what he is - evil by nature, but no goblin.

Among the Shadows - L. M. Montgomery
Montgomery, a favorite on this blog, is best known for Anne of Green Gables and most of her work is similarly optimistic in tone, focusing on the domestic lives of girls and young women, usually in the beautiful setting of Prince Edward Island. She was, however, fascinated by ghost stories (as are many of her characters, particularly Anne and Emily Byrd Starr). This collection of short stories contains a wide selection of work in a darker, more somber tone, including several stories about encounters with the supernatural, as well as alcoholism, guilt and absolution, murder, and pre-marital sex. 

The Garden Behind the Moon - Howard Pyle
This lovely fantastic novel weaves numerous familiar fairy stories into its delicate and surprisingly complex tale, at its simplest level the story of David, a young boy who follows the Moon-Angel's voice along the path to the garden behind the moon. Intensely preoccupied with death, the book, first published in 1895, owes much to the Victorian cult around children, itself a product of high child mortality rates and a morbid fascination with the clashing of Christian doctrine and Darwin's theory of evolution.

The Enchantress of Florence - Salman Rushdie
An intricate labyrinth of stories within stories within stories, this exquisitely written novel has the scope and breadth of The Arabian Nights and the post-modern complexities of a novel by Umberto Eco. Set in the Mughal and Ottoman Empires and in Renaissance Florence, The Enchantress of Florence follows a young Italian who claims to be descended from the emperor Akbar, the son of an exiled Indian princess. Rushdie's sensual prose evokes a richly erotic phantasmagoria of exotic beauty, the stuff of decadent dreams.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Is Gaspar Noé's "Irréversible" Homophobic?

There's no question that Irréversible is a brutally provocative and painful film. Critical reaction to the film when it was released in 2002 was deeply ambivalent, and audience reactions were notoriously negative, to the point that the premiere's mass walk-out garnered as much press as the film's controversial subject matter. The film's nine-minute, uncut anal rape scene is without question among the most unpleasant, nasty, harrowing scenes in any film ever. Even so, as long as you have a strong stomach and a certain degree of emotional resilience, it's a film I've recommended that feminists should see, precisely because the film is agonizingly revolting - it's one of the only films that exists that unflinchingly depicts rape as the hideously ugly crime that is. While it's rare for a month to go by without anxious debate on whether a given "sex scene" in a film or television show actually "counts" as rape, Irréversible presents rape without any veneer of sexiness, without the slightest possibility that what's happening could be okay. If you can take it, I don't think that's a bad thing. We laud war films for showing us the most foul, heinous, nasty things that happen in wars and we debate the morality of trivialized violence in films, television, and video games. Yet, honest portrayals of rape do not receive the same level of praise for unflinching honesty, or for righteous protest via a revelation of the true nature of rape, and our debates center on whether rape actually occurred, rather than how representations of rape effect and could better effect our society.

A lot of the controversy surrounding the film centered on whether such graphic crudity was justifiable, and many critics expressed an unusually strong emotional reaction of pure horror, but film critic David Edelstein introduced a new twist in adverse reactions to the film when he wrote for Slate magazine in a viciously negative review that the film "might be the most homophobic movie ever made" - but is it? I'm not convinced.

His argument centers around the fact that the rapist is a gay man and the victim is a woman, while the limited depiction of gay culture is sordid. He writes, "With all the heterosexual rapists of women in the world, Noé has chosen to make this one a homosexual who can't help himself from wanting to sully and finally obliterate such beauty, even if it's female." There are several major problems with Edelstein's argument.

First of all, Edelstein buys into the same narrative that makes rape cases so difficult to prosecute: he confuses rape with sex. Rape is rarely (if ever) motivated by desire; it's motivated by power. And Le Tenia, the rapist in the movie, is going on a power trip. As difficult to watch as the rape scene is, it's worth trying to listen to what Le Tenia viciously growls in her ear. He's not talking about gender and he's not talking about desirability - he's talking about class. He, impoverished, criminal, and uneducated, is asserting power over a woman who has more money than he does, specifically talking about her expensive dress and how easy she's always had it. The fact that Le Tenia is gay is beside the point. Class domination is the source of anger and the rape is an expression of a violent reversal in class power dynamics. It doesn't matter whether Le Tenia finds his victim sexually attractive because sexual attractiveness isn't part of the equation.

One of the single biggest issues in how we interpret cinema is the poverty of roles representing diverse visions of both women and members of the LGBTQ community (as well as, anyone who isn't white or able-bodied). Monica Bellucci, as Alex, represents in our minds all women - and she is an alluring, desirable woman who becomes a victim. By the same token, Jo Prestia, as Le Tenia, represents all gay men - and in this film he rapes a woman. When Le Tenia is taken as a representative of all gay men, then, yes, it is deeply problematic that he's a gay character. But, this also means that all characters who are not white, straight, able-bodied men have to be held to a higher moral standard than those characters - the majority - who are white, straight, able-bodied men. Resisting this automatic elevation of minority characters into representative characters means refusing to require minority characters to be endowed with near saintly attributes, expressive of an ideology meant to advance activism but that in practice severely limits moral complexity, and allowing them to be human. As a feminist, I think this is something that any of us who write about the social impact of films need to be more aware of and more willing to address. We desperately need more alternative narratives and this is an alternative narrative, ugly, revolting, nasty, but not typical. Le Tenia isn't a typical gay man and he shouldn't have to be. Deviations from that white, straight, able-bodied male model shouldn't subsume and define characters. If all minority characters have to be "positive" representations, then moral complexity is relegated solely to those in power, that is, white, straight, able-bodied men. I reject that premise, and so, I cannot find Irréversible homophobic on the grounds that Le Tenia is a negative depiction of a gay man.

Edelstein takes issue with the fact that Le Tenia is gay "with all the heterosexual rapists of women in the world." What disturbs me about this gibe is that there's a stubborn insistence on a particular narrative that restricts our understanding of rape. It's deeply harmful to insist that a depiction of rape follow what we assume to be the "typical" sequence of events. Culturally, victims of rape are forced to prove that they were, in fact, raped and any deviation from that narrow "typical" sequence of events is usually used to discredit their story and vindicate the rapist. Thus, it doesn't actually have any bearing that the narrative that we're accustomed to seeing, and that Edelstein tacitly deems more appropriate or at least more typical, is not the one we see in Irréversible. This kind of argumentation is the same sort of specious assumption that prevents men who are raped by women from receiving both the sympathy and justice that any rape victim deserves. Films are not required, and should not be required, to follow only the narratives that we expect.

The most convincing part of Edelstein's charge of homophobia is his objection to the way gay culture (or rather, gay S&M male culture) is depicted. The Rectum, the S&M club frequented by Le Tenia and the place where brutal retribution is exacted on the wrong man, is beyond what Rush Limbaugh could begin to imagine in his ugliest, most paranoically homophobic nightmares. Strobe lights flash
as men in skimpy or hyper-macho clothing get high and screw each other, one in particular trolling for someone to screw him while he pretends to be a baby. Much of the sexual activity at the Rectum hangs queasily on the edge of non-consensual, and, indeed, the specter of rape haunts the dark, dizzy corridors. It's a house of horrors and those horrors are reflecting a thoroughly nauseating interpretation of both S&M and homosexuality. I find this depiction of gay culture to be homophobic because it's general and applicable to every gay character on screen. In contrast to the Rectum, the party that Alex and her boyfriends go to is tame - there's drinking, dancing, and music, friends talk and argue, couples flirt and hook up. The sexual activity at the party is, unless I missed something in the background, heterosexual. That's where the problem comes in. Heterosexuality, whether generally at the party or specifically in Alex and her boyfriend's relationship, is consensual, fun, and positive. Homosexuality, as depicted in the scenes at the Rectum, is anonymous, dangerous, and freakish.

The fact that Le Tenia, a gay man, rapes a woman is not in and of itself homophobic, but the generalized depiction of gay sexuality is, at the very least, troubling for its lack of nuance and uniform leeriness and hostility towards a subsection of gay culture that is rarely depicted in film. The rape scene should trouble us and so should the brutal assaults that occur in the Rectum, but while the first is a specific instance of violence motivated by a specific character's resentments and attempt to wrest power away from someone of a higher class, and the second are equally troubling expressions on the part of specific characters of revenge fantasies nightmarishly made real and similarly motivated by classist and possibly homophobic anger, these instances of violence are rooted in specific people. Specificity is the key here. I don't think Irréversible is irretrievably homophobic, but the film's value as a condemnation of sexual violence is mitigated by the prejudicial generalized depiction of gay culture at the Rectum.