In the romantic thriller L'Appartement, Vincent Cassel's character Max describes the girl he has fallen for to a friend. "She's dark, very dark ... something special about her. I don't know, a sort of sadness, a tragic aspect ... " Actress Monica Bellucci plays the object of Cassel's affections and I can't think of a more perfect way to describe her. Her stunning visage is widely admired (she was once exclusively a fashion model), but the Italian actress shouldn't be desired solely for her sex appeal. She's also a talented performer.
Belluci's had a strange career. She's more recognized in Europe, where she's been nominated for awards for her work in films like L'Appartment and the romantic drama Malèna. American audiences mostly know her from her performances in movies like The Matrix Reloaded and Shoot Em Up, primarily because Hollywood seems intent on only allowing her to play the femme fatale or sexy love interest based on her appearance -- despite career achievements like winning the 2009 Women's World Award. Bellucci did team up with director Gaspar Noé and her husband Vincent Cassel in 2002's Irréversible for a role that showed real depth in terms of character and stands out for portraying the actress in a slightly different light than her previous work.
Irréversible is the kind of film many will find unwatchable. Its stark depiction of violence coupled with a shocking (and seemingly never-ending) rape scene makes it a very difficult movie to sit through. Director Noé has gone to great lengths to ensure that it's not merely an exploitation film, and he's successful, but that doesn't make viewing his story of the fate that befalls a young couple in love any easier to stomach. The film's main artistic concept, that it tells the story in reverse à la Christopher Nolan's Memento, isn't a mere gimmick. It does genuinely add something to the experience, giving it a power that it wouldn't have had if told in a more traditional format. Irréversible has a thesis statement -- time destroys everything -- and by structuring the film so that it starts at the end and works back to the beginning not only serves as proof of that idea, but also makes the ugly things that take place onscreen resonate that much more with the viewer.
While there's no denying that Noé's stylistic decisions play a vital role in making Irréversible transcend its rape-revenge film roots, the movie also benefits from the performances of the three lead actors: Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel, and Monica Bellucci. Of the three performances, Bellucci's is the most important. The actress winds up with less screen time than her two male counterparts, but her scenes in Noé's film are unforgettable. Bellucci's Alex is the engine that drives the narrative, the catalyst for every beautiful and horrible moment in the entirety of Irréversible. That she exudes sexuality so effortlessly would have been enough for many filmmakers, but Bellucci's performance in this title can't be reduced to her being just another pretty face for Noé to inflict his atrocities upon. Instead, the actress complements her physical beauty with genuine depth. Alex has moments where she's idealized in an almost angelic way, but they're repeatedly countered by sequences showing her to be a real flesh-and-blood woman. It's a challenging balancing act to pull off, but she's clearly up to it.
This is particularly noticeable in two different scenes in Irréversible: the party segment and the infamous rape sequence. In the party scene, we see Bellucci showcasing not only her sensual charms, but an air of vulnerability as well. It's an interesting portion of the film on a number of levels because we learn a lot about Alex and the two male leads in just a few moments of action and dialogue. Bellucci once again steals the show while dancing seductively in a white dress (how symbolic) that leaves very little to the imagination. When she later discovers that Cassel's character has taken drugs at the party, we're treated to a different side of the character -- one that's genuinely hurt and unsure of where her relationship is headed (which makes even more sense once we reach the end -- or rather the true beginning -- of the film). Alex's disappointment is presented in an understated way with Bellucci showing it through her dialogue, but really driving the point home with her body language and posture. There's nothing inherently subtle in Irréversible, but the actress does a fine job of demonstrating her character's mental state without beating us over the head with it.
However, Bellucci's most profound moment comes in Irréversible's most disturbing scene. The rape in the underground tunnel would be unpleasant viewing under any circumstances, but the actress' performance here takes it to another level. Noé films the sequence in one continuous nine minute take -- meaning Bellucci has to convince the audience that she's enduring a horrific assault for a long period of time with no breaks in the action for different camera angles or to allow her to recompose herself. She pulls it off flawlessly. Watching the scene is challenging not only because it's so long, but because Bellucci convinces the audience that she's really experiencing this act of violence. The emotional impact is magnified significantly because of the performance. What could have been pure exploitation becomes something far uglier and heartbreaking and that's a testament to Bellucci's skills as an actress.
It seems unlikely that anyone would select a film with such repugnant scenes as an example of a performer's best work, but Irréversible does really stand out amongst Bellucci's filmography. The story certainly benefits from Gaspar Noé's decision to tell it in reverse order, but Bellucci's portrayal of Alex is what elevates it from mere exploitation cinema. The actress breathes life into the character, making Alex seductive and playful and innocent. This only makes what happens to her that much harder to fathom. Noé wants you to realize that bad things happen to good people and Bellucci's Alex is about as undeserving of her fate as one can get. Part of why Irréversible is considered such an ugly film is because Bellucci makes us care about her character so deeply. Without her performance, it would just be an unpleasant experience. With it, it becomes something that makes you question every good thing you've ever believed. That Bellucci is able to help the film achieve that level of philosophical weight through her portrayal of Alex is why I consider it her finest performance.