A dozen or so years ago, my now-wife-and-then-girlfriend’s roommate, a young woman who worked as a community organizer, told me that she had recently seen Gaspar Noé‘s recently released Irréversible. She really liked it: it was a disturbing movie, hard to watch because of that notorious eight-minute rape scene and all the other violence, but I, a supposedly serious fan of the movies, should still see it. It was good, challenging movie–well-made and cleverly constructed, an innovative deployment of the cinematic medium. I listened carefully to her descriptions of the movie and said I would check it out. A little while later, once I got my Netflix account, I placed it on my DVD queue, and then later, my ‘Watch Instantly’ list.
I have still not seen Irréversible. It sits there on my queue, waiting to be selected.
I asked my wife whether she was interested in watching Irréversible. She admitted she was not terribly enthusiastic about the prospect of sitting through an extended violent rape scene. So I waited for a suitable opportunity to watch the movie by myself.
I kept waiting. Irréversible is still on my queue, but whenever the opportunity to watch it arises, I blow past it and pick some other movie.
I know my reactions are not unique; Irreversible evoked similar responses from many who saw the movie and critiqued it. Its violence, directed against gay men and women, was easily accused of being gratuitous, misogynistic and homophobic, of pandering to those who sought titillation in violence.
But I was not making a straightforwardly political statement of disapproval by not hitting ‘play.’ Rather, I was simply owning up to an intense emotional and aesthetic discomfort. Some kinds of violence have simply become too hard to watch on the screen. (The torture porn of modern horror movies is another example.) Perhaps I have gone old, perhaps I have gone ‘soft.’
Modern cinema revels in the ‘unflinching look’ – all the better to rip of the mask off previously sanitized examinations of mankind’s cruelty to itself. These perspectives–the protracted sequences of beating someone’s face to pulp, the close-ups of missing limbs, the lingering over terrifying torture and disfigurement–are supposed to work by persuading us that we condone the presence of violence when we refuse to reckon with its grim reality.
But I am long persuaded. I am disgusted and appalled; I am left nauseated and sleepless. I do not need to be told anymore that there is nothing remotely sexual in rape, that it is an act of violence, brutal and unsparing in the damage it inflicts on its victims. My movie-watching over the years has not made me numb to cinematic depictions of violence; instead, I have been broken down. My stomach is not as strong as it used to be–if it ever was. Another eight minutes of persuasion will do me no good. Their rhetorical pressure will be unbearable.
Irréversible still sits on my queue; I leave it there as a reminder that my tastes in cinema have changed.