“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
“He destroyed my ability to live.”
–Leonard Shelby, Memento
“Paranoiacs need everything explained. Some things can’t be explained.”
Webster’s defines revenge as…okay, okay, I picked the corniest way to start writing about these two movies. Those quotations are appropriate, though. The most obvious thing that the breakthrough sophomore efforts of directors Christopher Nolan and Gaspar Noé have in common also happens to be perhaps the most high concept (if bizarre) gimmick that can possibly be employed in mainstream cinema; namely, their stories proceed in reverse chronological order. Or they almost do. These movies don’t consist of people walking and talking backwards. It’s just that each scene after the first one is a flashback to an earlier point in time. Both films apply this unusual structure to telling stories about brutal sexual assault and the enraged men who seek to avenge it. On the one hand, by placing the ultimate outcome at the beginning, these films deconstruct the idea of revenge and lay it bare. On the other hand, the showy style could be said to sensationalize violence against women as some kind of reality-distorting cataclysm, rather than an everyday horror.
Memento (2000) remains, after eight-plus subsequent efforts, the cleanest and most elegant of Nolan’s experiments with narrative chronology. As plenty have noted in the twenty years since the film’s release, the structural conceit dovetails nicely with the protagonist’s anterograde amnesia (also known, in Finding Nemo for example, as short-term memory loss). When each scene begins, both Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce) and the audience are left wondering how he got here and what he was just doing seconds before. Leonard’s condition began during the rape and murder of his wife (played in a few traditional, albeit subjective, flashbacks by Jorja Fox), when one of the attackers slammed Leonard’s head into a bathroom mirror. Therefore, this traumatic event is the last solid memory Leonard is able to form.
There are many ideas in play here. On an emotional level, Memento envisions grief as a scab that never heals over. In genre terms, the film joins the lineage of film noir and paranoid thrillers, in which the world is out to get the morally gray hero and he can’t really do anything to stop it. As Leonard attempts to investigate the crime when the police come up short, he repeatedly “meets” a handful of people who may or may not be taking advantage of his memory lapses. Most mystery narratives are about retracing one’s steps or reverse-engineering the conditions that led to the crime, so the narrative is always legible, even as each scene is fundamentally about how we arrive at an already-seen outcome. In a larger sense, Memento is one of Christopher Nolan’s many stories about men who try to overcome their failings through discipline and the use of their unique skills. Between Nolan’s fiendishly clever script (adapted from a short story by his brother Jonathan) and Guy Pearce’s wounded but flinty performance in the lead, Memento makes it easy to root for Leonard in the hopes that his nascent system of notes, Polaroids and tattoos will eventually solve, not only the case, but his life in general — even as it’s always clear that he’ll soon run out of time.
Irreversible (2002) trades the puzzles of a Nolan film for a much more gruesome and intimate look at the violent acts it depicts. As such, it’s among the more notorious films released in my lifetime. What’s fascinating about it is how it marries rank exploitation with bold and alienating formal fireworks. Not only is the story told backwards, but unlike Memento, which is shot and edited in typical crime thriller fashion, Irreversible is constructed to present the illusion of a single, unbroken take, à la later Oscar favorites Birdman and 1917. As each scene ends, the camera starts careening, causing the image to spin and blur in such a way that the next scene can begin without an obvious cut, fade or dissolve. The backward leaps in time obviously destroy the illusion of continuity, but the point isn’t realism. The suffocating lack of visual breaks thrusts us into an inexorable nightmare.
Even so, the film is not without humor. The opening set piece sees Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) seeking revenge for the rape and savage beating of Alex (Monica Bellucci). To that end, they arrive at a gay nightclub called The Rectum, into which they proceed to go deeper and deeper. I didn’t say it was classy humor. But the power fantasy is further undermined by the filmmaking. From the perpetually off-kilter handheld camera to the droning electronic score by Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, the scene is as nauseating as can be, all the way to the point when someone’s head gets caved in by a fire extinguisher. Spinning disorientation is a constant motif of the film, with the crucial exception of the central rape scene. For this act of violence, we are never given the comfort of confusion. When Alex is attacked in a pedestrian tunnel with lurid red walls, the camera is essentially stationary for about nine minutes. A little nausea might have been useful here, but instead we are invited to stare coldly, being sure not to miss the brief appearance in the far background of a bystander, who pauses before declining to intervene.
The final movements of each film go even further to subvert our understanding of the nominal heroes, showing definitively that the foundations for their “later” actions are mere sand. As I see it, the fatal flaw in Leonard’s scheme to control his uncontrollable life is the message he writes on Teddy’s (Joe Pantoliano) Polaroid portrait: “DON’T BELIEVE HIS LIES.” For someone with memory problems, this kind of vague advice can only be unhelpful, for the simple reason that even liars don’t lie all the time. In lieu of hard evidence, the only way to get at the truth is to know enough about the alleged liar to know when and why he’ll deceive you. Leonard can never do this with Teddy, so down the paranoid rabbit hole he goes. As for Marcus, it becomes abundantly clear that his neglect of and boorish behavior toward Alex are directly responsible for her decision to head out on her own at night. These final scenes are the best in Irreversible, providing Alex with a much-needed chance to be more than the victim who incites a boyfriend and an ex-boyfriend down a spiral of violence. The closing revelations of each movie are unsettling and bittersweet, easily justifying the creative decision to save them for last. What’s happened before will happen again.