Thanks to Andrew
Irreversible is causing a real storm over here in Oz; had blanket coverage in the papers and on TV lately. It has been passed UNCUT with an R Rating but will have very limted release.
When screened at last year's French Film Festival, the rape scene in Irreversible sent people running from the cinema. Some complained that the warnings about the film's content were not sufficiently strong.
Personally, the film left me breathless and disturbed. It contained both the most violent act I'd ever seen in a film, and the most brutal portrayal of a rape, even outdoing the gang rape in the 1988 Jonathan Kaplan film The Accused
. It also struck me as a mature, adult film with a serious theme about that eternally topical question: what drives ordinary people to commit unspeakable acts of violence?
Impressed by the power of the film - written, directed, shot and edited by Gaspar Noe - I enthused about it to friends and colleagues but was convinced the film was going to have a great deal of trouble getting passed by the Office of Film and Literature
Classification (OFLC) and the Classification Review Board. Recent controversies over certain films made it hard to predict what would happen.
In 2000, Catherine Breillat's Romance was initially Refused Classification before the Review Board overturned the decision and gave it an R. Adrian Lyne's Lolita received an R rating and the call to have it banned was rejected in review.
Last year, Larry Clark's confronting Ken Park was Refused Classification because it had a bit too much real sex in it. The decision was appealed but upheld by the Classification Review Board.
The most controversial recent judgement, however, came in 2002 with the French film Baise Moi . This low-budget, hardcore retelling of Thelma and Louise first earned an R. At the prompting of the then Attorney-General, Daryl Williams, the
film was sent to the Classification Review Board. Two weeks after the film's release, the R rating was rescinded and the film was taken off screens.
At that point, about 50,000 people had seen the film.
Given all this, it was hard to make a call on the fate of a film as confronting and disturbing as Irreversible . I frankly didn't hold out much hope, given the extreme violence and the brutality of the rape. When the OFLC assesses a film, they use
the measures of "low", "medium" and "high" to determine the degree of violence, sex, drug use and coarse language. It is, of course, subjective. What one person regards as high-level violence in a film, another may deem
medium. The intensity of Irreversible seemed destined for a rating of too high.
However, the film was passed without incident before Christmas, getting an R rating. Considering the recent classification controversies, one may be tempted to promptly interpret this as a shifting of the sands regarding film classification.
Yet the director of the OFLC, Des Clark, says the Irreversible rating was the result of applying standard guidelines to the film. He adds that narrative and dramatic context is important with such extreme content, especially in the portrayal of
sexual violence, which is strictly forbidden in porn films. This film is very confronting and we look at the context and the impact of the film, so we do look at the drama of it. But in evaluating Irreversible , there were three elements that
were of concern to the board. One was the sexual violence; two was the violence; and three was the (real) sexual activity in the film.
The sexual violence was very confronting in the rape scene with the knife and then the bashing after that. You don't see any detail in any of that. The detail that you see is, in fact, when she is taken to the hospital and you see the consequences of
the bashing. As much as it's a very dramatic scene, it is simulated. You don't see a lot but you do have a very realistic sense of threat and menace. Within the impact test for an R-rating, it's very high.
In a daring move, director Gaspar Noe digitally painted in an erect penis immediately after the rape to heighten the horror. Too much of that kind of detail is the type of thing that could have pushed Irreversible over the line but the fact that
the director focused on creating a graphic impression instead of dwelling on graphic detail made a big difference.
So much for the sexual violence of Irreversible. Clark also addresses the violence of that shocking opening sequence. The board said in relation to that: 'In the board's view, the impact of this scene is high, due to the graphic visual nature of the
violence together with realistic sound effects. Despite the darkened surrounds, the act of crushing the man's face is depicted in medium shot and is the main focus of the scene.
The general rule regarding sexual activity in film is that simulated is fine but actual sex is not. However, Clark admits after some pressing of the point, there has been some loosening up. The passing of Romance , which featured real sex, seems
to represent a modest watershed in this regard. I suppose that did represent a shift, and there have been a few films since then which, in terms of impact and context, would have had small amounts of actual sexual activity in them. But it's not a huge
ground shift. So yes, there has been a few films where this has happened but the board generally takes a fairly conservative view on actual sexual content and violence."
Baise Moi also featured real sexual activity and Irreversible does feature glimpses of men masturbating in the gay club. Those scenes, Clark explains, were acceptable because they constituted peripheral sexual activity but that was
really background to the main action. There is a very, very small amount of peripheral, actual sexual activity. It's very small, nothing like that in Romance or Ken Park .
Given that the OFLC classifies hundreds upon hundreds of publications, video games and films each year without drawing any attention, it is decisions over films such as Irreversible that put the OFLC and its processes under intense scrutiny. Clark openly
welcomes it. We just seek to be consistent in our decision making, so there's no ground shift or anything particularly special about this film. It's just another decision that the board has made.