Director Gaspar Noé is one of the current cinema’s notorious provocateurs. He shares his reputation with fellow French directors Catherine Breillat (“Romance”, “Fat Girl”), Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi (Baise-Moi) and Bertrand Bonello (The Pornographer). These filmmakers all share a great irony: no matter how many real porn stars they hire or individual scenes they add for shock value, their films are tiresome viewing experiences.
Noé hasn’t recruited a porn star like Karen Lancaume, Raffaëla Anderson or Rocco Siffredi for his latest film, “Irréversible”, but he has created a major scandal by casting Italian superstar Monica Bellucci in this graphic tale of rape and revenge. To add some art-house panache, he’s filmed the story backwards, showing the scenes of violence and retribution first, and then moving to kinder portraits of love and friendship. By piecing the story together from its frayed ends, Noé ostensibly aims to demonstrate that, as one of his characters says, “time destroys all things”.
It’s an idea that gets lost amidst a series of overextended scenes, the most graphic of which are clearly cobbled together for shock value. The film opens at its violent ending, wherein two grief-stricken men (Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel) hunt down a pimp (Jo Prestica) who has raped and severely beaten the woman (Bellucci) they both love. The men – one a former lover, the other the current boyfriend – end up in a club called the Rectum, swirling through its bowels in search of the pimp. Noé foreshadows the impending altercation with disorienting hand-held camera shots, cloudy red lighting and pummeling background music (provided by Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter).
The inevitable meeting between the men and the pimp ends in a vicious murder, wherein Dupontel’s character smashes a man’s face to a pulp with a fire extinguisher. The jolt upon viewing the first few blows is profound, but the scene turns banal as further blows reduce the face to mincemeat. Even worse, the lighting and camerawork is so muddy, you’re not exactly sure who has been killed.
The next jolt – Bellucci’s 9-minute rape-and-beating scene — comes soon after. It’s a rare scene where Noé fixates a static camera on his grisly subject matter, the better to capture it with pornographic zeal. Like the murder scene, this extended shot does nothing to augment the story with its length and repetitiveness.
The ending is supposedly the payback for sitting through these two jarring scenes. Au contraire – the remainder is no less painful to watch. Each scene plods aimlessly along, be it the three characters wandering around at a house party or making small talk on a subway. As we veer earlier into the fateful day, Noé degenerates into Nora Ephron mode. I don’t know what’s worse – watching two pissed-off vigilantes in a club called the Rectum, or witnessing Cassel and Bellucci’s characters as they endlessly profess their puppy love.
It’s worth noting that this film’s notoriety stems from the riotous response it received at Cannes. But the worst one can say about “Irréversible” is that it bores more than it shocks. It’s essentially a 30-minute film blown out to three times that length, battering its viewers with repetitive images and a story that is pure merde. Polish this turd of a film with whatever sort of intellectual fabric you deem appropriate – it still stinks.