A few nights ago, I watched a French film entitled Irreversible, by Romanian director and screenwriter Gaspar Noé. Noé develops the narrative by ordering the forward-moving scenes in reverse chronology, much in the way of Christopher Nolan's Memento. So, the first scene of the narrative depicts the final ten minutes of the story, minutes (say) eighty through ninety; the second scene depicts minutes seventy-one through eighty; and so on, until we see the first nine minutes of the story when the film ends. [To help clarify some of the terminology, let's call the plot as told in reverse-chronologic scenes the narrative and the plot as told in standard chronology the story.]
[SPOILER THREAT LEVEL: Severe]
Anyone who's heard anything about this film has at least heard about Monica Bellucci's nine-minute, uncut, steady cam rape scene. Suffice it to say: not easy watchin'. In addition, the first twelve minutes (or so) includes the most brutal depiction of a murder that any film has ever exposed me to. Now, if I were to ask you which character you thought the murder victim was, which would guess? And the murderer? Since the plot involves the rape of a female character, your stock assumptions about who takes revenge upon whom would be correct: respectively, the rape victim's boyfriend and the supposed rapist.
In short, what I'm saying is that the film's story is pretty unoriginal.
ACT I: In which MALE ANTAGONIST harms FEMALE PROTAGONIST
ACT II: In which MALE PROTAGONIST attacks MALE ANTAGONIST.
What makes the film interesting, then, is it's narrative.
SCENE 1: In which we see a character is murdered with incomparable brutality.
SCENE 2: In which we learn that the murder victim raped the murderer's girlfriend.
SCENE 3: In which we learn that the murderer is a philanderer and used coke before finding out his girlfriend had been raped.
SCENE 4: In which we see the rape, learning thereby that the boyfriend murdered the wrong guy.
[SPOILER THREAT LEVEL: Low]
One notes that all of the past-tense verbs in the narrative description would be future-tense verbs in the story description. So, when we learn that the murder victim was presumed to have raped the boyfriend's girlfriend, we believe in the story that the murderer will avenge his girlfriend. And when we learn in the narrative that the boyfriend murdered the wrong guy, we know in the story that he will murder the wrong guy. What the film is doing, then, is offering us an overdone storyline and showing us just how that storyline normally manipulates our emotions. For senseless violence startles us. But vengeance thrills us and justifies the violence. But philandering and drug use mitigates our sense of justice. And the rape itself becomes all the more horrible, then, because we know that the rapist will not meet justice. Based on this sort of analysis of the plot, I'd submit that Noé's purpose it to point to a problem with standard stories: so much richness in a plot is lost, simply in virtue of the order in which we depict it.
Now my purpose with all of this is not to meditate on Noé's film. It is, rather, to ask a simple question of the film's content: to what extent does the gruesome depiction of certain sorts of human behavior require justification? Reading the negative commentary of Irreversible, I found that in their reviews his critics treated this abhorrence as a sort of cheap, sideshow trick used to startle and enrage his audiences. And as evidenced by these very critics, the 'trick' did just that. But having watched the film, I can't help but think that the repugnance of those two scenes is playing a much larger role in a complex commentary on just how films jigger with our emotions—how willing we are to accept the premises of some films and reject those of others, despite incredible similarity in film structure.
My suspicion is that such an analysis could apply to most other art forms—novels chiefly, and to some lesser extent music and painting. But even so, in the best case scenario for Noé, the disgustingness of those scenes is essential to the delivery of his message. If we accept that premise (or some weakened version of it), to what degree does the moral outrage that watching those scenes motivates in us demand justification? Or does it at all?
After all, when we buy our tickets at the theatre or pay our rental fee (or peel back the first pages of a book, hear the first taps of the baton on the music stand), there's a sense in which we have consented to allowing the author/director/conductor to inspire us with certain emotions and to thereby raise questions about whatever topic is of interest to him. And those who disappoint and satisfy us, we call them respectively terrible and great. But whatever the sense in which the director has obligations to his audience, I would argue that the audience has similar obligations to him—to treat whatever depiction he offers with what we might call a Principle of Aesthetic Charity. Such a principle might require us assume that any director is attempting to point our attention to something better than the base and low. I would also argue that such a principle operates in tandem with a second: The Principle of Coherence, which stipulates that the best interpretation of a work is that which can consistently account for greatest number of the most important elements in the work. And if the most coherent interpretation shows that (say) a director employed certain techniques or depicted certain base and low images that cannot be accounted for under that coherent interpretation, then our obligation to the Principle of Aesthetic Charity dissolves, for it's clear in such a circumstance that the author was utilizing the base and low in just the sorts of ways that Gaspar Noé's critics have accused him.
A corollary, of course, is that if the depiction of the base can be accounted for in the most coherent interpretation, then there is some degree of obligation on the interpreter to accept that depiction. For my part, I do not find this obligation too extreme—but then, there are many human behaviors that I have never seen depicted.