This is not a review of Gaspar Noe’s new film “Irreversible.” It is a warning. You have never seen a film like it; that is not a qualitative statement, it’s a fact. There has never been a film like “Irreversible.” No “star rating” has been applied above because conventional indications of “good” or “bad” simply do not apply to this film.
Anyone brave enough to see “Irreversible” should be aware of what to expect.
In the first fifteen minutes, you will see two men, Marcus and Pierre, drive into a tough district of Paris and enter a gay sex club called the Rectum, frantically searching for a pimp known only as “The Tenia.” The Tenia is not around, but another man starts a fight with Marcus, breaking his arm. Pierre then uses a large fire extinguisher to beat this man’s head to a pulp. Literally. Blow by blow, under the force of the heavy canister, the man’s head actually breaks apart. His teeth cave in, his face cracks open, his skull shatters, his brains leak out. All this happens in one shot; how the special effect was achieved is a mystery. But it may be the most raw, sickening act of screen violence this critic has ever seen.
“Irreversible” is a story told in reverse (but far from a nifty postmodern puzzle in the style of Memento). So, in the next portion of the film, we find out how the man in the club came to be killed so savagely.
The two men who ended his life are Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel). Pierre was once involved with a beautiful woman, Alex (Monica Bellucci), but Marcus is now her boyfriend. We will learn later on that all three went to a party, where Marcus got a little too high and annoyed his girlfriend to the point that she decided to exit the party alone.
But first we see Alex’s cruel fate after she has left the party, as Noe subjects us to the most horrific, protracted rape scene in cinema history. When Alex ends up walking in a pedestrian underpass, The Tenia happens to find her there. He slaps her around, throws her to the floor, anally rapes her, and then kicks her almost to death. Again, this scene happens in one sustained shot; it lasts nearly ten agonizing minutes.
At this point, it would be easy to dismiss Noe as yet another snotty indie provocateur, a professional offender who wants nothing more than to rub our faces in cruelty and brutality. (And futility: Marcus’ frenzied quest for revenge not only doesn’t lead him to the man who raped his girlfriend, it leads to the murder of someone who had nothing to do with it.) But as “Irreversible” goes on, delineating the relationships of the three principal characters, it brightens (though it couldn’t really get any darker). The camerawork, which swirled and prowled like a rabid animal at the beginning, settles and centers on the three friends. Light streams into the rank darkness of the first half-hour. Marcus, Pierre and Alex actually laugh, kidding one another about their shared, tangled history.
By the end of the film – which is, of course, the beginning of the story – Marcus and Alex are just another young couple in love, filled with the possibilities of their life together. The relief that the last stretch provides cannot be overstated, though it’s never possible to forget what will become of the doomed couple. This relief indicates that Noe actually does have some concept of what he’s doing, that he’s not merely trying to sicken us for kicks. His is a film about how a couple of wrong turns in a relationship, snap decisions or insensitive acts, can lead to many kinds of madness, violence, death. “Irreversible” is nothing less than a descent from heaven to hell; in the way it’s told, however, the nightmarish horror assaults us up front, incrementally giving way to hope and happiness, ending in sunlit bliss. At the very least, Noe has the courtesy to reward those who can stomach the first half with some sort of “happy ending,” however illusory it may be. We know that Marcus and Alex will end up ruined, but we do get to glimpse them as they were at their best – together.
Another warning: after the final fadeout, there’s a minute or so of intense, strobing light and noise. No joke: anyone with epilepsy should stay away. Anyone with a weak heart or a queasy stomach should stay away. In fact, most everyone everywhere should stay away.
But if you still want to see “Irreversible,” be prepared to see images that will upset and disturb you for a long, long time. Be prepared to be shaken to the very core.