Minimalist Journeys

Gaspar Noes Irreversible and Lisa Cholodenkos Laurel Canyon

It has been a century since the violent, fast-moving pulse-pounder The Great Train Robbery left the nickelodeon audience agog. To their credit, motion pictures are still looking for and sometimes even producing new sensations—be they gross or subtle. Gaspar Noé's Irréversible is an art movie with an aggressive "countdown" structure designed to question the nature of film narrative. But it also means to launch a frontal assault on the viewer's cerebellum.

Irréversible begins with the movie's final credits, then proceeds through 12 single-take episodes arranged in reverse chronological order. In the first, the camera corkscrews around an airshaft, peeking in on the beefy butcher (Philippe Nahon) of Noé's I Stand Alone as he sits naked on his bed, before continuing its dying-duck spiral down to the tumultuous street below, where two guys are being dragged into a police van.

What did they do? The second sequence picks up the story pre-arrest, following the frantic pair into the murky sex dungeon amusingly known as Club Rectum; they are searching for a guy they call "Le Ténia" (The Tapeworm) but, in the hellish S&M confusion, wind up using a handy fire extinguisher to bludgeon someone else's skull to a bloody pulp. Continuing, ass-backwards as it were, the third sequence shows Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel), as we now know them to be called, smashing a taxi and abusing the immigrant driver in their unholy hurry to find the Rectum.

What's their rush? The much-hyped, albeit indifferently received, designated scandal of the last Cannes Film Festival, Irréversible's central episode has Marcus' gorgeous girlfriend (Monica Bellucci), appetizingly wrapped in the flimsiest of frocks, waylaid, forcibly buggered and then brutally stomped right on her beautiful kisser by Le Ténia in a fetid, underground passage through which she sought to cross a busy street. Anus mundi, indeed. This intentionally and successfully repellent nastiness lasts eight minutes but feels far longer. Having found its meat at last, Noé's camera stops turning cartwheels and settles down to masticate upon the unsavory spectacle. Mission accomplished.

Irréversible continues slogging back through parties and bedroom scenes—one tryst beneath a poster for 2001—to reward the viewer with a vision of paradise lost. Unlike the indie hit Memento, which employed a similar flashback structure, Irréversible is not predicated on suspense. Nor does it have the internal, amnesiac logic that gave Memento its particular brain-twisting integrity. From the end to the beginning—or is it from the inadvertently ridiculous to the would-be sublime?—Noé's stunt is an exploitation movie with a gimmick, not to mention a vacuous philosophy: "Time destroys everything," Nahon informs us. Bien sûr.And if you need proof, spend 90 minutes with Irréversible. You won't get them back.

* * *

Irréversible is intended to introduce the viewer to his or her own id. Lisa Cholodenko's more conventional Laurel Canyonopens with a conjugal act meant to establish the characters of her protagonists. Sam and Alex (Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale, both playing American) are a recent pair of Harvard med grads. She's a girl who knows what she wants; he's a guy who's amiably . . . confused.

As it turns out, Sam is the superstraight son of a legendary record producer named Jane (Frances McDormand), whose Laurel Canyon pad is placed at his and Alex's disposal when he gets a residency at an LA mental hospital and she needs a place to complete her dissertation on the reproductive life of the common Drosophila melanogaster. The complication is that Jane and a band are there, too, finishing a record—no fruit flies on them. Thus, Laurel Canyon recapitulates Cholodenko's first feature, High Art, with another tale of an innocent young woman swept into the sex-and-drug scene swirling around a charismatic older female artist. Alex is predictably fascinated by Jane's riotous rock & roll lifestyle, which includes an aspiring pop-star lover half her age (Alessandro Nivola playing Brit), and soon abandons her dissertation to groove on the band. For his part, Sam falls under the spell of a witchy hospital colleague (Natascha McElhone playing an Israeli with a Russian accent and inspiring, as always, the question: Jeepers creepers, where did she get those peepers?).

The spectacle of pretty people floating languidly across the screen notwithstanding, Laurel Canyonis short on conviction and long on contrivance. McDormand, however, has a ball. Although it's unclear whether she's the movie's best character or just its best actress, she makes the most of a role that allows her to swim topless, engage in three-ways, and generally obliterate her mortifying turn as the maternal killjoy in Almost Famous.

Irréversible was written and directed by Gaspar Noé; produced by Christophe Rossignon and Richard Grandpierre; and stars Philippe Nahon, Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine;Laurel Canyon was written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko; produced by Jeff Levy-Hinty and Susan Strover; and stars Frances McDormand, Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana.

 
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