It’s 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. Abbas Kiarostami‘s Ten and Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible are both art movies with aggressive “countdown” structures designed to question the nature of film narrative. But while the former is something of a cerebral cool breeze, the latter means to launch a frontal assault on the viewer’s cerebellum.
Like Kiarostami’s first-person documentary ABC Africa, Ten is a movie made possible by new digital video technologies. This is the Iranian director’s most form-minded experiment since his hall-of-mirrors staged doc Close-Up. A small digicam planted on the dashboard of a moving automobile records either the vehicle’s driver or its passenger. The first of 10 numbered sequences begins when a boy of 12 or so (Amin Maher) climbs into the car and immediately begins browbeating the unseen motorist—who, it soon becomes apparent, is his mother.
Their family quarrel escalates as they navigate Tehran. The mother has divorced the boy’s father and remarried; the child is upset. He dislikes her new husband even more than her feminist rationale for ending her marriage. Plus, he feels that his father’s honor has been besmirched. (In order to get a divorce, his mother had to testify that her husband took drugs—a swipe at Iran’s clerical laws.) Ignoring her placating offer of ice cream, the boy petulantly hectors his mother while loudly complaining that she lectures him. He is, in every sense, a little man, elaborately refusing to listen to what she says and then—when she raises her disembodied voice—grandly informing her that “a woman doesn’t shout in the street.”
The sequence, which lasts around 10 minutes and feels like a single take (it isn’t), ends with the kid dismissing his mother as an idiot and disembarking for soccer practice. Only then does Kiarostami cut to the driver as she waits for a space and parks her car. The mother (Mania Akbari, who may or may not be a professional actress) proves unexpectedly glamorous in lipstick, shades, and a fashionable white chador. For the rest of the movie, which extends over several days, this unusually independent Iranian woman serves as our Virgil, driving through Tehran in the company of various other females, as well as her never less than irate offspring. Subsequent passengers include her sister, an old woman on her way to pray, a hooker who jumps into her car (reasonably assuming it to be driven by a man), a recently deserted wife, and a younger woman who is having difficulties with an unwilling fiancé.
Every ride is a conversation—although the somewhat stilted trip with the unseen, disconcertingly snickering prostitute—is more of an interview. (She too calls the driver an idiot, although not for the same reasons that her son did.) These sometimes banal discussions of men and women or God and fate take on an unexpected poetry for unfolding in the street—all manner of traffic glimpsed outside the moving car—and yet on such an intimate scale. The only time the camera leaves the automobile is to show the hooker getting into another. The movie’s forward velocity is so constant that there’s a narrative jolt at one point when the car stops so that the driver can turn around and look at her passenger.
Ten is conceptually rigorous, splendidly economical, and radically Bazinian. Despite certain intimations of allegory and several ongoing storylines, the movie has no dramatic ending—or, rather, it ends as it begins, with the child shouting at his mother as they journey through the midst of life. From a perceptual point of view, the movie is extremely modern. Ten is suffused in urban overstimulation and filled with the stuff of the photographic unconscious: fugitive expressions, haphazard compositions, and chance occurrences. Neither fiction nor documentary, it operates in the gap between the two—even as it prompts a certain fascination as to just how it was produced. (Among other things, Kiarostami features the most stridently obnoxious performance by a pre-adolescent boy since little Andrew Giuliani disrupted his father’s first inauguration.)
Auditioning a number of non-actors, Kiarostami evidently determined what they would talk about in a given scene, and then removed himself when the movie was lensed—at a most generous shooting ratio of 15:1. Thus, one of the few filmmakers since Andy Warhol to rethink the nature of on-screen acting, Kiarostami has called Ten a movie made without a director. In fact, the notion of “director” is redefined as the one who plots the course and sets the vehicle in motion. Paradoxically, Kiarostami’s own absence serves to push his style to its limit. The more minimal the movie, the more it is recognizably his.
The far showier Gaspar Noé begins Irréversible 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’s 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 Canyon opens 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 super-straight 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 L.A. 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 ‘n’ roll lifestyle, which includes an aspiring pop-star lover half her age (Alessandro Nivola, playing Brit), and soon abandons her dis 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 Canyon is 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.
“Ten and Under the Skin of the City: Two Iranian Films Put Women in the Driver’s Seat” by Jessica Winter