irreversible (2002)


director: gaspar noé

vincent cassell, monica bellucci, albert dupontel

There’s nothing you can say to prepare anyone for two, already infamous, scenes in Gaspar Noé’s brutal and essentially cynical revenge tragedy, Irreversible. Told backwards, the film begins with a grisly murder in a gay S&M bar, backtracks to a nightmarish rape and beating, and follows the rape victim and murder perpetrators further back to the unbearably innocent, but hopelessly fraught, hours before these gruesome events.

The film has prompted reactions of almost pure outrage, as well as fainting and vomiting at its Cannes screening last year. To be sure, your first reaction will be one of unholy resentment at Noé for conspiring to make you watch such skillfully executed horrors, even if you enter the theatre warned and aware.

After a short prologue, the camera goes on a sickening, vertiginous whirl into a club called, appropriately, The Rectum. Two men, Marcus and Pierre, are led out by the police, one on a stretcher with a broken arm; someone has been killed, and a crowd has formed to jeer at the murderer. Another reeling spin and we’re with the two men entering the club, searching for someone with the vivid nickname Le Tenia (the Tapeworm).

A man is singled out, knocks Marcus (Vincent Cassell) to the ground, breaks his arm, and gets his skull bashed in by Marcus’ friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel), who up until that moment was trying without effect to calm his friend down. The camera lingers on the murder, wincing with every blow but never looking away, seemingly as fascinated and approving as the crowd that forms to watch.

Time rewinds again, with the friends on a lunging search for the man who has just raped Marcus’ girlfriend, Alex (Monica Bellucci). Then we watch the rape, all nine terrible minutes, crouched on the ground, only inches away. Back in time again, as Marcus and Alex argue at a party, then to that afternoon, where we find them, naked and happy, sharing an afternoon together. Alex discovers that she’s pregnant. It would be all too trite if Noé’s considerable skill didn’t make it feel simply too cruel.

Worst of all, Noé tries to explain away all this horror with glitteringly cynical slogans like “Time destroys everything” and “There are no evil deeds, only deeds.” It’s a glib show of moral imbecility that makes Irreversible feel brilliant but shallow, a heartless, theatrical confrontation, mean spirited and sneering.