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
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 Two weeks after the film's release, the R rating was rescinded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
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
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
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.