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At the AFI Silver Theatre and

Cultural Center to May 1

“Life is a huge void,” says Philippe, the protagonist of writer-director Gaspar Noé’s first feature, I Stand Alone. “It always has been and always will be.” But where to enter this void? I Stand Alone, whose central character is the first person glimpsed in Noé’s new Irreversible, begins in emotionally claustrophobic circumstances, only to venture deeper into isolation and anguish. Irreversible navigates an approximately opposite course, backtracking Memento-style from a series of outrages to the surprisingly gentle moments that preceded them. The point is not that bad things happen to good people, but rather that all human existence is poisoned—if not by the past, then by the future.

The assured and audacious Irreversible has something to offend almost everyone, and it has received disapproving reviews from both mainstream moralists and art-cinema gatekeepers. As has been widely reported, its centerpiece is a brutal rape and beating that sends viewers fleeing the theater. Yet this is no mere exploitation flick. Irreversible has a schema as rigorous as its nihilistic viewpoint, and it uses alienation effects to keep the audience conscious of its artifice. (As in I Stand Alone, Noé flashes warnings on the screen.) The film is more in the spirit of Jean-Luc Godard than Roger Corman, although whereas Godard has more ideas than he can possibly express, Noé has only one.

The experience begins with backward-running credits, which soon twist around in a move that emulates the film’s spiraling handheld camerawork. Irreversible comprises 12 scenes, each shot in a single take by the director himself, and the camera is always in motion—except for those moments when it is frozen with horror. The action opens with Philippe (Philippe Nahon), sitting naked in a small room and confessing the crime that ended I Stand Alone. (That film, in turn, picks up from Carne, a 40-minute Noé affront in which we watch Philippe, a horse-meat butcher, at his bloody work.) Outside the window, cops arrive in force at the Rectum, a shadowy gay-S&M club in northern Paris. One man is being taken away on a stretcher, two others in handcuffs.

The latter are Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel), who seem to be friends. They went to the club to find the man who anally raped and then bludgeoned Marcus’ girlfriend, Alex (Monica Bellucci, Cassel’s real-life spouse). After a quick, savage investigation that includes assaulting an Asian-expat cabdriver and threatening some transvestite hookers, Marcus becomes convinced that the rapist is a man called “La Tenia” (Jo Prestia). The enraged Marcus and the less eager Pierre track La Tenia (“the Tapeworm”) to the Rectum, which looks like the Eighth Circle of Hell shot from a roller coaster (and throbs with music by Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter). Having found a possible culprit, they wreak revenge with more ardor than accuracy.

Then the story slips further back in time to document the rape—an eight-minute provocation that’s as nasty as it means to be—and the events that lead Alex, looking vulnerable in a barely there dress, to leave Marcus at a party and venture into the pedestrian tunnel where she is assaulted. As the clock continues to tick in reverse, Irreversible arrives at moments that play like another sort of French film: talky, erotic, tender, everyday. It’s as if Eric Rohmer had opened one of his tales of young romance with the pitiless violation of his heroine, and only then introduced her earlier life of sophisticated cafe chatter and high-minded flirtation. Along the way, some quiet surprises reveal more about the characters and what they’ve lost.

Adversarial as he is, the Argentinian-born Noé does not stand entirely alone among contemporary French filmmakers. He joins such fellow troublemakers as Bruno Dumont (Humanité), Claire Denis (Trouble Every Day), François Ozon (Criminal Lovers), and Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi (Baise-Moi) in revolt against the bourgeois complacency of both Hollywood and France. (The interior monologues of Noé’s earlier feature suggest a left-wing update of mid-century French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose work oozed contempt for his countrymen.) Handheld camera, explicit sex and violence, and working-class characters and environs are all trademarks of these directors. By comparison to the rawest of their work, in fact, Irreversible seems almost prettified. Its smeary neon cityscape looks great, and Bellucci is a far more glamorous presence than the dour, doughy actresses Noé has previously employed.

I’ve yet to see Irreversible attacked as homophobic, although the scenes in the Rectum are as lurid as anything in the once-controversial Cruising. Of course, Noé could hardly resist anal sex as a metaphor, having previously established his milieu as “the bowels of [Philippe’s] nation.” The director doesn’t care if Alex’s rape makes sense narratively, so long as it advances the subterranean motif. Much of the film transpires in cellars, tunnels, and other tight spaces, and the vagina and the uterus—although neither is the top-billed conduit—are not ignored.

Still, there are many grounds for objection to Irreversible. Any film that depicts rape, however harrowingly, can be charged with pandering. (Conversely, the movie can be seen as a dismayingly abstract treatment of atrocity, more akin to Ararat than The Accused.) Formally, though, Irreversible is a triumph: Its breathless, partially improvised flow and enveloping atmosphere represent major advances over its predecessor, which relied heavily on voice-over to set the mood. Yet even the director’s fans may question whether his bleak vision is any truer than the happy-talk cinema it opposes. Noé confuses unpleasantness with profundity, and he ends his film with a dictum that seems glibly off the mark. Irreversible is a startling piece of art, but a jejune bit of philosophizing.

“All men are guilty,” announces the police chief who sits in judgment of the characters in Jean-Pierre Melville’s penultimate film, Le Cercle Rouge. Yet Melville, who died in 1973, is not Noé’s spiritual godfather. After fighting World War II in both French and British uniforms, Melville was fascinated not by human malignancy but by codes of honor and the society of men. Three of his movies are set during the German occupation, but most of them unfold in a stylized representation of the Paris/Marseilles underworld partly inspired by the American tough-guy genre. (In addition to the novelist whose surname he borrowed, the former Jean-Pierre Grumbach was devoted to William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Huston, and Howard Hawks.)

In the latter part of his career, Melville’s films turned more austere and elegant—more “Asian,” as he underscored by titling one of them Le Samourai and opening Le Cercle Rouge with a bogus Buddhist epigraph about men inevitably meeting inside the red circle. Yet his first gangster movie has a lighter tone. After losing the chance to direct Rififi, the classic 1954 heist flick, he conceived Bob le Flambeur as a “comedy of manners.” Bob is a classy but small-time Parisian gambler, Pigalle’s self-appointed protector of young hotheads and beautiful teenage runaways. Hurting for cash, he agrees to plot the robbery of a Deauville casino, but his meticulous plan fails to allow for all eventualities.

One thing that Melville surely didn’t anticipate was that his suave, cool, shadowy film might be remade as a brash, colorful, nearly impenetrable English-language romp. Arriving just two years too soon for Bob’s 50th anniversary, Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief alters remarkably little about the original—except the vibe, which is entirely transformed. It wasn’t Jordan’s idea to remake Melville’s film, and he’s obviously not paralyzed by admiration for the original. Yet what the wildly erratic director has made is quite similar to Jonathan Demme’s The Truth About Charlie, which was besotted with both its primary source, Stanley Donen’s Charade, and Gallic cinematic insouciance.

Jordan’s script relocates Bob (Nick Nolte) to Nice and the casino to Monte Carlo. It also makes Bob a math whiz and heroin addict, and adds another level to the heist plot. Finally—echoing The Truth About Charlie—it flaunts contemporary France’s multicultiness. Not only is Bob an American, but his protégé, Paulo (Saïd Taghmaoui), is Franco-Algerian, and security-system hacker Vladimir (director Emir Kusturica) and Anne (Nutsa Kukhianidze), the 17-year-old semi-innocent Bob rescues from a pimp, are both Slavs. There’s even an unbilled cameo by a noted British actor, playing a seedy art-world fence.

Unlike Ocean’s 11, which it sometimes recalls, The Good Thief is a remake with a concept. Because Jordan is making a copy of Melville’s film, he fills his own movie with replicas, fakes, and doubles: He furnishes the casino with phony old masters, drops the name of British art forger Paul Keating, and enlists sibling filmmakers Mark and Michael Polish to play twin members of Bob’s team. Jordan also riffs on his own work, casting a female bodybuilder as a transsexual thug to suggest The Crying Game and having Bob tell his cop pal Roger (Tchéky Karyo) the story of the good thief crucified with Christ—a faithless moment from a director whose work is full of Catholic imagery.

It can be hard to catch the in-jokes amid all the stylistic tics, however. Jordan and cinematographer Chris Menges use every device ever employed by the Nouvelle Vague, Madison Avenue, or MTV, including handheld camera, jump cuts, freeze frames, and slo-mo. The soundtrack is equally busy, with lots of Franco-Algerian rai, Bono aping Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s once-notorious coital duet “Je T’aime Moi Non Plus,” French Elvis Johnny Hallyday’s version of “Black Is Black,” and Leonard Cohen croaking Bob’s ready-made theme song: “The ponies run/The girls are young/The odds are there to beat.”

The songs vie with the dialogue, which would be none too understandable even without the musical clutter. Many of the players speak heavily accented English, and Nolte alternately whispers and swallows his lines. (The easiest actor to understand is Kukhianidze, who was born in the Georgia that borders Russia but later moved to the one that’s next to Alabama.) The effect may be an intentional assault on the notion of an English-language European co-production, although viewers acquainted with Bob le Flambeur should be able to follow the mostly familiar story. But for those who’ve never seen the precursor, watching The Good Thief may feel like wandering into a raucous nightclub in a country where you don’t understand the language—an experience that could be either invigorating or irksome, depending on your appetite for flashy bewilderment.

Perhaps the best antidote for The Good Thief’s self-conscious bustle is the newly restored Le Cercle Rouge, the latest reissue from Rialto Pictures, the company that revived Rififi in 2000 and Bob le Flambeur in 2001. There’s not an extraneous move or superfluous remark in this 1970 film, a stoic tragedy of manners previously seen in the United States only in a dubbed version that was 40 minutes shorter than the original.

The movie begins by intercutting between two men who are about to get their liberty by different means: Although handcuffed to the top bunk of a sleeping-car compartment, prisoner Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) manages to free himself and smash through a window. Eluding Inspector Mattei (André Bourvil), the cop who was accompanying him, Vogel slips into the trunk of a car at a roadside cafe. Of course, the car’s driver is another wanted man, Corey (Melville regular Alain Delon), who’s just been released from prison in Marseilles and has already tangled with Rico (André Ekyan), the crime boss who stole his girlfriend. The two fugitives make it to Paris, where they decide to attempt a jewelry-store robbery proposed to Corey by a guard at the prison. For a purpose that eventually becomes clear, they recruit marksman Jansen (Yves Montand), an alcoholic ex-cop. With Rico and Mattei after them, though, Corey and Vogel are not likely to beat the odds.

Le Cercle Rouge shapes the film noir to Melville’s distinctive sensibility while demonstrating his mastery of its motifs. The movie’s centerpiece is the nearly silent jewelry-store heist, which is an homage to the celebrated (and also hushed) Rififi burglary, as well as a bid to surpass it. With its muted colors and classic noir themes—the director described the film as a “digest” of classic underworld situations—the movie looks timeless. When Mattei pressures club owner Jacques Santi (François Perier) to betray the robbers by threatening to jail his teenage son for dealing pot, it’s a surprising reminder that the action occurs in the Me Decade.

If Melville always preferred fedoras and dark suits to tie-dye, he wasn’t entirely out of sync with the younger generation. Bob le Flambeur was a widely acknowledged influence on Godard and his peers, and Melville’s gangster movies can be seen as examinations of that ever-so-’60s malady of alienation. (Note that none of Le Cercle Rouge’s major characters have French-sounding names.) Mattei’s boss reappears at the end of Le Cercle Rouge to reiterate his maxim, yet the characters in Melville’s later films are linked not by evil but by estrangement. Contrary to what the director might have believed, his men are always outside the circle. CP