There’s been quite a few films lately, often French, which seem determined to ever more push the boundaries of what can be shown. “Romance” and “Baise-Moi” for instance have scenes of graphic sex and violence the likes you’d never see in a Hollywood movie, and Gaspar Noé’s “Irréversible” reaches a new height (or low) as far as disturbing screen images go. I consider myself nearly immune to staged violence by now, but there are moments in this film when I had difficulty keeping my eyes open.
Even more provocative then the horrific actions depicted is the way Noé films them. The movie is constituted of a dozen long unbroken shots, with the camera unflinchingly recording the events, and through the first act it literally never stops shaking and moving in and out of places, over, under and all around people, to the point where it’s physically sickening. This creates a feeling of manic confusion which is sure to turn off most viewers, which made me wonder if it was Noé’s intent to make the audience walk out.
And it’s not just the camerawork, everything about the first scenes is unsettling. We follow Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) through the subtly named gay club Le Rectum as they’re hunting down a certain Le Tenia (Jo Prestia). Marcus aggressively barges into room after room, disrupting countless men having anonymous sex and slapping them around to learn where Le Tenia is. What happens when they find him leads to what might be the most ultra-violent images I’ve ever seen, and this is only the opening sequence.
The film then shifts back to what led the two men to the Rectum, with each scene taking place before the one preceding it. That’s right, on top of everything Noé complicates matters furthermore by telling the story backwards. But like in “Memento”, this gimmick serves a purpose. As the filmmaker put it in an interview with ‘Ici’, he wanted to do sort of a “Death Wish” in reverse: “Instead of having a civilised man be contaminated by the barbarity of others and becoming an animal himself, we start with ferocious animals and then we see that the animal can be civilised.” Hence, the despicable behaviour of Marcus, as mirrored by the restless and jerky camera moves, eventually gives way to a nice, good looking young man and the film adopts a naturalistic, unintrusive directing style, with the actors taking centre stage.
Pierre and Marcus are two French friends coping surprisingly well with how Alex (Monica Bellucci) left the former to be with the latter. Dupontel and real life couple Cassel and Bellucci, who we’ve seen through hell, now get to be funny, charming and interesting. We see the lovers frolicking naked in their gorgeous, brightly lit apartment, in a scene reminiscent of “Eyes Wide Shut”, the Kubrick influence confirmed by the “2001” and “The Killing” posters on the walls. We see them and Pierre talking about sex in the subway. And then they go to a wild house party where Marcus snorts coke and flirts with all the pretty girls until Alex gets so fed up that she leaves, alone…
This brings us to the centre-piece of the film, an absolutely gruelling 10 minute long rape scene filmed in one static shot, as paralysed as Alex is. Suddenly, Marcus and Pierre’s actions in the beginning don’t seem so savage, as it’s clear that Le Tenia deserved to die. And since we actually see the happy moments in subsequent flashbacks, they retain bittersweet undertones.
The ironic thing in reviewing “Irréversible” is that even though I found it to be a powerful, unforgettable picture, I can’t really recommend it because it’s obvious that most people will find it unwatchable. Still, if you’re willing to watch it through, you’ll see that Noé’s initially disconcerting stylistic choices and the extreme violence are justified when you look at the bigger picture.