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. 


  1. You're so spot on... Presenting a gay raping a woman is not homophobic since rape can be a domination thing, absolutely. I'm gald you caught what I see many people missing with the fact the "BDSM gay club" chosen as a set by Gaspar Noé is actually like a snuff movie fans reunion. Despite that screenmedia critics have the nerve to tell us there's nothing homophobic about the movie.

  2. After watching some of his works from before and after this one, I am 100% certain that he hates gay men... What's yr take on Gaspar Noé?

    1. That's interesting - I haven't seen any of his other films, so perhaps that would impact how I view this one. I certainly didn't like this movie, but I also think it's good to have directors out there making films that ruffle feathers, it pushes other filmmakers to be less safe and conventional. Also, I think it forces confrontation with things that we would be more comfortable just not thinking about - I'm thinking for example of Catherine Breillat's work.

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Interestingly, the sexual identity of La Tenia is never officially confirmed in the movie, which leaves it open to the viewers interpretation. Could La Tenia have been a gay male exerting power over a woman from a higher socioeconomic status? Well, yes, this is possible considering the verbal context depicted in the rape scene. On the other hand, La Tenia could have been a bisexual pimp who has a desire for both male and female sexual partners. Clearly, the transgendered female prostitute was did not have sexual reassignment surgery (another scene confirms this) and was La Tenia’s initial victim. Also, Alex unknowingly witnessed the start of a violent act, which put her in the position of an eyewitness. There is no question that a rapist wants to render their victims powerless. However, La Tenia was looking for aggressive sex and the transgendered female prostitute did not want to provide it to him because she was saying no while she was attempting to flee. I believe that La Tenia’s anger was projected onto Alex because the transgendered female prostitute refused service and escaped. Also, Alex was startled by what she witnessed and obviously cared about the prostitute in distress because she did not run away from the scene. It almost looked like Alex wanted to help her but panicked and did not know how to proceed because La Tenia was holding a knife.
    Now, I do agree with the homophobic elements in the movie concerning the gay BDSM night club and homosexuality in general. Nothing in club Rectum provokes a sense of consent, respect or love of any kind and even the name of the club is unpleasant. The sequences in club Rectum are nauseating and sex is depicted as brutally savage and dangerous. On the contrary, the final scenes of the movie depict Alex and Marcus engaging in heterosexual intimacy as natural, loving, safe and consenting with the revelation and joy of a baby soon to be. This type of depiction is clear in the sense that homosexuality is evil which renders harmful acts of violence as opposed to heterosexuality which is good and produces the possibility of new life. Such a narrative does perpetuate a harmful stereotype towards the LGBTQ community, comes from a place of fear and that fear is depicted in Noé’s interpretation of Gay BDSM nightlife.

    1. That is a great point about the transgender woman who runs away at the beginning! I hadn't considered that. Love your nuanced interpretation of that scene - I think you've added to my understanding of the movie.