Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002) is a film which is polarising, difficult, and in my opinion utterly brilliant. One of the many aspects of the film is is shifting moral and ethical viewpoints. So how do I start identifying and describing the universe in which Irreversible resides? To do this first I will need to address the reverse chronological narrative of the film, and then cause and effect in determinism and how this effects the viewers experience. The events in the film then need to be examined in terms of moral responsibility, relating this to hard determinism. The film will then be examined as a ‘whole’ as to what ethical values it has. Then finally the aesthetics of how director Gaspar Noé presents the film, and how this effects the ethical position Irreversible takes. There will be reference to Mary Litch and her work on determinism, Robert Sinnerbrink and his discussion on cinematic ethics, and finally aesthetics and morality posited by Elisabeth Schellekens. Each section will attempt to understand the ethical and moral world of Irreversible, and the acts of the characters therein.
The narrative in Irreversible is presented chronologically in reverse; a scene takes place and then the viewer witnesses the scene preceding. What this does is change the audiences perception of the narrative. A film narrative is traditionally a sequence of cause-and-effect scenes plotted together to form a coherent structure. This is also what defines human determinism, as posited by Mary Litch. She states that the “…thesis of human determinism states that all human actions are fully determined by preceding events – some of those events are internal to the human, some are external.” (Litch, p. 123) According to Litch then, each characters actions in a film are predetermined by the events preceding, whether they be factors that are outside their control, or factors that are internal.
With the reverse chronology narrative structure of Irreversible, the audience sees the horrific act of violence at the start of the film, without any context as to why. The film opens with the omniscient camera swirling and rotating, there is no grounding and no centre. As it enters a building and then a room with a naked man and his companion, we hear the naked man say that “Time destroys all things.” In his mind he is referring to his recent incarceration and reason for it, however this is the main theme of the film. The audience witnesses the event of Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) entering a gay nightclub, the siren of the music thumping, with the omniscient camera witnessing glimpses of sexual gratification in the darkness. Marcus and Pierre are looking for someone called ‘La Tenia’ (Jo Prestia), Pierre tells Marcus that “Even animals don’t seek revenge.” The viewer is trying to piece together this event with no context. We do not know why they are looking for this man, but a confrontation later in the scene shows that Marcus is angry with this person, seeking revenge. Marcus confronts a man, whom is stood next to ‘La Tenia’ although we at the time do not realise this, and attempts to fight him but gets his arm broken. Before being raped, the assailant has his head attacked with a fire extinguisher. The camera thuds and shudders with each blow as Pierre repeatedly hits the man in the head, long after he is dead. This is shown in full graphic detail. The viewer sees the graphic violence with the full force of impact.
With human determinism, as Litch says, “the reason for my action is merely the set of causal factors that resulted in my doing it.” (p. 123) Therefore with the viewer having no context as to why this brutal violent act has taken place, the viewer is merely getting the ‘effect’ and not the ‘cause’. Robbing the viewer of this, Noé shocks the viewer into seeing a world in which this piece of violence can happen.
But as Litch states, “every event has a cause that fully determines it” (p. 121) The event in question that causes this, is the rape and assault of Alex (Monica Bellucci) underneath a Parisian underpass. This is the cause to the effect, the reason for Marcus seeking revenge, and for Pierre to attack the assailant. This does not justify the violence; it merely gives a reason for it happen. The reverse chronology of the narrative in Irreversible, means that the mid-point scene of the sexual assault of Alex, shows the viewer the cause long after they have seen the effect. The violence of the human actor at the start of the film means that the viewer is horrified and repulsed, and confused as to why this happened. The sexual assault of Alex gives a reason, and depending on the viewer can justify it or not. Going back to predetermined factors, Marcus and Pierre seeking revenge is an external factor and therefore could be more understandable than the internal factor that causes ‘La Tenia’ to rape and assault Alex. The world of Irreversible is one of violence, and morally reprehensible actions.
If these set of actions then are pre-determined, meaning that humans lack free-will, then the sequences in Irreversible show that it didn’t matter what Marcus, Pierre, or Alex would have done, they were always going to end as it was. In hard determinism, free will is not a factor. Litch states the following, “To give up on the notion of moral responsibility, both moral praise and moral blame, is to give up on a large part of the picture of who we are as humans.” (p. 135) This is a bleak view on human nature, one can condemn the behaviour, but the responsibility and the action cannot have any blame, it was always going to happen. That means that the moral universe of Irreversible goes back to the initial quote at the start, “Time destroys all things” (which is later echoed at the end of the film). Time is an external factor that us humans have no control over, the events that take place have been pre-determined. Meaning that Marcus was always going to get his arm broken, Pierre was always going to undertake an abhorrent act of violence, and Alex was always going to be sexually assaulted and left in a coma.
Therefore, it is the actions of ‘La Tenia’, i.e. the rape and assault of Alex, that should be examined as it is his actions that set off the ‘revenge’ section of the story. We can condemn and rightfully call for justice for his actions, but we have to ask if ‘La Tenia’ is morally responsible. We are taking a hard determinist view on this event, which Litch formalises in the following argument shown in Fig. 1, Fig. 1. (Litch, p. 135)
According to this, ‘La Tenia’ is not morally responsible in his actions. Alex chooses to walk under the underpass in order to get to the other side of the road, ‘La Tenia’ chooses to walk underneath there also with Concha (Jaramillo). This action is free for them to undertake, when Alex walks past the two fighting, his attention focusses now on Alex. According to Litch in Fig. 1., “It is never possible for an actor to have done something other than what she in fact did.” Alex could have kept walking in the brief second ‘La Tenia’ hits Concha, but instead she stops in shock, a human reaction, her reaction. The moment to get away is gone, as ‘La Tenia’ blocks her path to escape. This isn’t blaming Alex for stopping, her character as revealed later on in the film to be financially well-off and an independently, strong woman. She is not defined by her relationship with Marcus or Pierre. Her own character has gone through these experiences, meaning that it is her individual reaction to stop in shock at the violence in front of her. Litch states that, “All determinism says is that my mental and physical states – my beliefs, desires, emotions, physical abilities, and current physical state – determine what I will do. There is only one course of action I choose.” (p. 138) Again, this means that Alex is not morally responsible for stopping, which seals her fate. ‘La Tenia’ as well is not morally responsible for what follows, all of his actions as a character have led up to this point, his character will sexually assault Alex. That is the position the film takes. This is then underlined when during the rape, a figure walks into frame out of focus. The figure could stop this action, but instead turns around and walks away. According to Litch’s argument, the character was always going to walk away from this event, as that is where all the experiences have led up to this point.
According to Robert Sinnerbrink, there are three ways in which one can describe ethical approaches to cinema. These are “ethics in cinema”, “the ethics (politics) of cinematic representation”, and “the ethics of cinema as a cultural medium expressing moral beliefs, social values, or ideology” (p. 10). For the world of Irreversible, we need to look at the “ethics in cinema” which he describes as “focusing on narrative content including dramatic scenarios involving morally charged situations, conflicts, decisions, or action” (p. 10).
Ethics is the economy in which actions that we undertake can be judged by others as morally right or wrong. This ethical structure is the rule, but each decision that one undertakes is a question of morality, but each ethical structure is different based on the individual’s background. In the world of Irreversible it is shown that that the act of violence undertaken by Pierre at the start of the film, is morally right for the character, but in the world of the film is ethically wrong, as he is arrested. This then means that the actions of ‘La Tenia’ are both ethically and morally wrong in the world of the film. Because the viewer witnesses the consequences of the actions at the start, the rape and assault are then understood to be a morally wrong action in the world of the film.
But the ideology of the film as presented by Noé should be examined. As Sinnerbrink states “the ethics of cinema as a cultural medium” are those that express “…moral beliefs, social values, or ideology” (p. 10) The theme as told by the film at the start and end is that, “Time destroys all things”, but we have to question if it is ethically correct to present it the way he does. As stated before, the reverse chronology of Irreversible, changes the nature of the cause-and-effect relationship the viewer sees. The viewer sees the initial violence, with the intended effect of being repulsed and horrified, this is why Noé chooses to show each blow with a shudder of the camera and seeing the skull of the assailant being caved in. The viewer knows that this is ethically wrong, again with the rape and assault of Alex at the mid-point in the film, the viewer knows that this is ethically wrong, even outside the world of the film. What Noé shows after this in the second half of the film is show Alex’s relationship with Marcus and Pierre. The viewer comes to know and understand each central character better. The penultimate scene shows Alex stating that she is “late” to Marcus, and then taking a pregnancy test. Her action of holding her stomach and smiling implies that she is in fact pregnant. The viewer is then asked to re-contemplate the actions at the start, ignoring the fact that the wrong man was killed in the act of revenge, does this change the moral choice of Pierre.
Moral relativism states that “moral judgments arise from the contexts (historical, social, and individual) in which they are made.” (Shaw, p. 52). For the characters in the film, the moral judgement to seek revenge is based on Marcus and Pierre’s own relationship with Alex. For the viewer making their own moral judgment, the reverse chronological approach that Noé presents means that this can shift depending on the individual. Noé is aware that viewers will have an individual unique reaction, he uses the narrative construction to exploit this. The revenge narrative takes on a different form when presented in reverse, no longer is it a fantasy of rightful justice like in Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy (2018). In Irreversible the viewer is left tackling the moral judgments that the characters and they themselves are facing. Because of the uncentered, omniscient camera at the start, and the violent repulsive action it is easy to miss that the person killed with the fire extinguisher is not ‘La Tenia’; meaning that Noé fully intends on repeated viewings for the viewer to see this and understand the theme of “Time destroys everything”.
The credits of Irreversible at the start of the film, have a strobing effect. The viewer is disorientated by this presentation, this is further exaggerated by the omniscient camera, which swirls and acts independent away from any action. The film is aesthetically different from the start, Noé’s directorial style challenges the viewer even before the violence and actions within the narrative. Elisabeth Schellekens states that, “Aesthetic experiences are particularly rich and diverse mental events.” (p. 23). The viewer is undertaking a different aesthetical experience from what usually presented in a conventional manner.
The events within the film can have differing effects on the viewer in terms of aesthetic response. Schellekens goes on to say that, “Artistic value thus encapsulates aesthetic and moral value under the condition that they participate in the work’s overall value when considered as art. It is, in other words, always and necessarily the case that aesthetic or moral value is part of a work’s intrinsic value.” (p. 41) In the case of Irreversible, Noé wants the viewer to engage with the film on an aesthetic level, to understand not only its themes but its value as a piece of art.
However, as stated before Irreversible contains scenes of an extremely distressing nature, with a narrative that reveals upsetting consequences. Schellekens argues that in Moderate Moralism can still be considered art, despite containing a character as morally reprehensible as ‘La Tenia’, “It is then possible […] for an artwork to have a morally reprehensible character without this necessarily being relevant to its value as art.” (p. 69). Therefore, sometimes a morally reprehensible character can have an effect on the films own aesthetic value. Meaning that despite his intentions, Noé harms his own work by including the sequence of ‘La Tenia’ sexually assaulting Alex in one full unbroken take.
But Schellekens gives an alternate view when quoting Noël Carroll; with him stating that in reference to Moderate Moralism, “This opposes the view of moderate autonomism which admits that artworks can be morally defective and morally bad for that reason, but then goes on to say that the moral badness of a work can never count as an aesthetic defect.” (p. 68) Therefore Gaspar Noé, in presenting morally defective characters in Irreversible, is not harming the overall aesthetic effect. The viewer can still take ‘pleasure’ in the omniscience of the camera, of the stylised visuals and the music within the film.
In fact, this is a position which is viewed as immoralist. Schellekens gives a definition, stating that “obscene artworks may solicit responses that, even though morally reprehensible, can nonetheless be considered attractive by its audience when expressed or treated in a particular manner, and should therefore, or so it has been held, be regarded as good artworks.” (p. 78-79) This implies that despite the elements within Irreversible the film can be considered a “good artwork”, that can present these ethical and moral issues in an aesthetically pleasing way.
Irreversible is a film which contains morally reprehensible actions, and characters in a world which has defined ethical structures. The viewer can have differing responses to the narrative depending on ones own ethical background. This in turn effects their interpretation of the cause-and-effect narrative which Noé presents in reverse. Whether a viewer sees this as aesthetically pleasing, again depends on their own moral standing; however, it is possible to consider the film as good art regardless of the morally reprehensible actions therein. The characters of the film, can be viewed as morally responsible for their actions, but only when one considers if they have free will. In Noé’s presentation this is not possible, as the reverse chronological narrative forces the viewer to consider that the events therein were inevitable. The moral and ethical universe of Irreversible is one which questions the meaning of being morally or ethically responsible, either from a viewer’s perspective of from the perspective of the characters in the film.
Litch, Mary, & Karofsky, Amy. (2015). Philosophy through Film. London: Routledge.
Schellekens, E. (2007). Aesthetics and Morality. London and New York: Continuum.
Shaw, D. (2012). Morality and the Movies: Reading ethics through film. London: Continuum.
Sinnerbrink, R. (2016). Cinematic Ethics: Exploring ethical experience through film. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.