An ambulance takes away the comatose and bloodied body of Alex (Monica Bellucci). Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) are frantically searching for the elusive Le Tenia (Jo Prestia) in the Rectum, a violent and seedy gay nightclub. Le Tenia, well known to the prostitutes in the area, was seen attacking Alex. Alex is brutally raped and beaten in a pedestrian underpass. Alex leaves a wild party which she attended with Marcus and Pierre, after Pierre gets high on cocaine. The trio are on their way to the party in the subway, and discuss details of their sexual activities, with Pierre especially inquisitive as he used to be Alex’s lover. Alex and Marcus share a tender half hour in his apartment before Marcus goes to buy a bottle for the party and Alex performs a pregnancy test.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Audacious it may be, but Irreversible carries so little meaning and is so gimmicky from start to finish that it plays like a self indulgent experiment, with barely a decent line of dialogue or anything discernible to say. The two scenes in the film that give it a veneer of notoriety are inexcusably manipulative; the violence in the early scene inside the outrageously named Rectum nightclub is sheer hyperbole for its shock value. But at least the camera keeps moving, editing is intense and the dark red light defies clarity of vision. The second scene takes place later in the film (approximately the same ‘distance’ from the end as the first is from the beginning) but is the only scene shot in absolute camera stillness, locking onto the brutal anal rape and beating of Alex by a nasty little man in a grey suit. Here, the brittle, sleazy light of a littered subway tunnel glares down on the vicious and confronting action, in a long, single take.
As Gaspar Noe turns back the clock and Alex is on her way to the party with Marcus and her ex, Pierre, another long take is set in a subway station and then inside a carriage, where the three have a conversation, which is unscripted except for the setting of the topic, about whether Marcus can give Alex an orgasm. This is so laborious it bores the tits off everybody (except Bellucci, of course). Noe’s experiment, to tell a story backwards, is evidently driven by his creative drive to do something totally different. The problem is that he has found the vehicle but nothing to put in it. He also comes up against the inevitable physics of film: even if you edit the scenes into reverse plot order, you can’t stop the scenes going forwards in time, so you always have to engineer a fake edit point (or pan to oblivion of the pale ceilings) so you can jump back in time. Unless you simply shoot the film as usual and play it in reverse, including the dialogue: now, there’s different for you, but what’s the point? Well, exactly.
Noe begins with a wild, panting camera that swerves and glides and turns upside down in the dark recesses of the nightlife of (presumably) Paris. Slowly, as we draw back to the sweetness and light of the beginning of the short story, the camera – and the lighting – begins to steady and brighten. But the opening scene of two men sitting on what seems like a motel or institutional bed – one of them stark naked, old and flabby – is (other than having one utter the film’s mantra, “Time destroys everything”) a meaningless bookend to the final scene of Alex sitting on a park bench, while kids play in the sun under the sprinkler on the grass. The fact that she is evidently enjoying early pregnancy suggests the story has now inched forward from the previous scene – but not forward enough to avoid the brutal beginning … er, ending.
It seems more likely that the filmmakers have run out of ideas (which were fairly limited to start with) on how to end the film, and opt for a bright white strobe light that pulsates noisily at the audience. I can’t help thinking of Dylan Thomas, when asked to what he owed his literary success: “Confound the buggers,” he mumbles frankly.
Review by Jake Wilson:
Gaspar Noé, the director of Irreversible, is a big Stanley Kubrick fan. This would probably be obvious in any case, but in this film he makes sure we get the idea by lingering on a poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey stuck up in the main characters’ apartment. If I add that the opening scenes of Irreversible take place in a gay nightclub called The Rectum, it’ll be clear that he isn’t exactly a filmmaker with a light touch.
Irreversible is far cruder, slicker and more reliant on its actors than anything Kubrick might have done, but like many of the master’s works it’s both a conceptual puzzle and an assault with a blunt instrument – “real horror-show,” as Alex from A Clockwork Orange would say. As a hardened film critic I found the big shock scenes more obnoxious than seriously disturbing, but more susceptible viewers may need to be warned: not only does the film graphically portray violent rape, it strives to perform a similar kind of violence on the viewer, hammering home its camera-as-predator metaphor in frenzied long takes where the camera lunges forward into dark, reddened interiors.
It’s even arguable that the film’s big gimmick, the story told backwards, mimes the physical actions of sexual penetration and withdrawal: as we track back from the paroxysms of the Rectum sequence to the tranquil dream of a childhood paradise, it’s as if we’ve moving for the second time along a path that’s already been traversed in the other direction. On a more abstract level this seems to allude to the “heart of darkness” concealed within (male) sexual desire generally; hence the rape at the film’s centre is a paradigm for all sexual encounters, and the story which begins with Vincent and Alex’s unseen but presumably gentle lovemaking is bound to conclude, at the other end of time’s corridor, in an excremental hell filled with writhing male devils (“Fist me! Fist me!”) for whom sex and violence are one.
According to the film, this is the human condition, not even worth lamenting – “There are no bad deeds, just deeds”, according to the slob-philosopher played by Philippe Nahon, whose comments in the first scene serve as epigraphs for the ensuing action. Despite Noé’s limitless pretensions, crass showmanship, deep-seated homophobia, and refusal to consider female desire as more than sheer masochism, it’s undeniable that he puts forward this hideous view of life with a certain energy. But at times, isn’t it better just to look away?
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CAST: Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel, Jo Prestia
PRODUCER: Christophe Rossignon, Richard Grandpierre
DIRECTOR: Gaspar Noe
SCRIPT: Gaspar Noe
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Benoit Debie, Gaspar Noe
EDITOR: Gaspar Noe
MUSIC: Thomas Bangalter
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Alain Juteau
RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Accent
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Sydney/Melbourne: February 12, 2004
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Accent Distribution
VIDEO RELEASE: August 2, 2004