(Warning: the following review was written after an hour of sitting, fully clothed, in the shower, trembling with revulsion and scrubbing my eyeballs with borax. You could be next!)
Hey there, readers. Have you been a little too happy lately? Has your sunny attitude been annoying your friends? Does your face hurt from smiling too much? Are you ready to cut the Little Miss Sunshine act, turn that frown right-side-up, and be miserable for a while? Well, look no further! Ladies and germs…Irréversible!
When a beautiful young woman (Monica Bellucci) is brutally raped, her boyfriend (Vincent Cassel) and ex-boyfriend (Albert Dupontel) go on a quest for vengeance. Their search for the rapist (a sadistic pervert called The Tapeworm) becomes a nightmarish Orphic descent into the scummiest sleazepits in Paris—infested with gangsters, whores, and junkies—and eventually into the bowels of hell itself (or the secular equivalent): a gay S&M club called The Rectum.
Yep, that’s the entire movie. If you think that’s not much of a story, you’re right. However, this is no common rape-revenge film. Rather than re-treading the I Spit On Your Grave / Last House On The Left formula, director Gaspar Noe gets all postmodern on us. Much like Memento did before it, Irréversible is told (you guessed it!) in reverse.
More on that later. First, I should address the elephant in the room:
Okay folks, there’s an elephant in the room—and he’s hanging from a sex swing, doing something unspeakable with his trunk. We have to address the infamous rape scene. Halfway through the film, Monica Bellucci’s character gets raped. Horribly. The scene stretches on for nearly ten minutes, in real time, with no soundtrack, no cutting to a scene elsewhere, no camera movement. Just ten excruciating minutes.
Here’s my personal opinion about rape in film: if your film isn’t about rape, do NOT put a rape in your film. Doing so is a craven example of audience manipulation and screenwriting laziness. But, if you absolutely positively MUST be a rape in your film, you owe it to your audience to make it the most horrible, disgusting, traumatizing rape they’ve ever seen. Don’t sugarcoat it. Rape is offensive; not in the oh-you-hurt-my-feelings, fun-to-be-an-asshole way, but in the deepest way possible. It offends me. So, if you film a rape scene, it must hurt the viewer. If your audience cringes, vomits, or leaves in disgust, then congratulations: mission accomplished! If your rape scene is “tasteful,” then you failed, you repugnant hack. Find another line of work.
So basically, what I’m trying to say is that Irréversible, in this respect at least, succeeds. The rape scene, which is essential to the plot, is pretty damn near unbearable. I’ve seen (and enjoyed) some really messed up movies: Cannibal Holocaust, New York Ripper, Pink Flamingos, Bloodsucking Freaks, The Devils, etc. But this scene had me cringing in my seat, begging for it to all to end. Score one for Gaspar Noe.
(Would it be immature to make a joke involving Marlon Brando and a stick of butter? It would? Okay, never mind.)
It’s easy enough to disturb an audience by content alone. If you hit enough cultural hot-buttons (Rape! Abortion! Incest! Necrophilia!), you’re bound to disturb somebody. At the very least, you’ll irritate someone. However, there is an art to shock value. Music, camera work, editing—in short, the entire vocabulary of cinematic language—can turn something that’s merely “bad taste” into a truly disturbing experience.
The camera work in Irréversible is, plainly, nauseating. The cameraman should be arrested for operating heavy machinery (booms, steadicams, etc.) while intoxicated. That, or Noe stole a wacky-waving-inflatable-arm-flailing-tube-man from a used-car lot and gave him a job. The camera swiftly skims over each necessary detail of the scene, before reeling around the room, as if trying to escape. Also, the first half of the film was apparently filmed through a layer of period blood and human filth.
If that weren’t enough, Gaspar Noe takes the audience-torture one step further. He gets all scientific on us! The film’s score—a deafening, brain-drilling cacophony composed by Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter—is laced with subsonic rumblings, bass tone so low that that listener can’t quite hear them. Despite being inaudible, subsonic tones have some interesting physiological effects on humans, inspiring feelings of nausea, dread, and even reverence. This gut-curdling subwoofer growl permeates most of the film’s first half. So if you wanna give that shiny new home theater system a workout, just grab a puke bucket and crank up the volume!
Still, Irréversible’s chief gimmick, the backwards storytelling, is the most successful. Dread can work backwards: aftermath leads to climax, which leads to the build-up, then the trigger event, and so on. Each scene relinquishes fresh clues about plot, letting us slowly discover the cause of the horrendous on-screen carnage. It’s a puzzle, and there’s a grisly satisfaction in solving it.
However, once we witness the crime that starts the plot rolling (the afore-mentioned ten minute rape), Irréversible has nothing to do but establish the three main characters. While an interesting storytelling tactic in theory, there’s still a good 40 minutes left. Considering entire film is a brisk 90-some minutes long (nasty, brutish, and short, as it were), that’s an awful lot of character introduction. It drags. True, it’s nice to catch one’s breath after all the nastiness, but with no climax to anticipate/fear, there’s not much look forward to. Also, when we see something genuinely beautiful—for instance, the painfully photogenic Bellucci and Cassel lounging nude in a post-coital shambles (the great French national pastime)—our enjoyment is tainted by our ghastly fore-knowledge of their future suffering. Yeah, that’s probably the whole point, but it’s a little like petting an adorable fleecy lamb while knowing that when you next meet, he’ll be on a pita, smothered in yogurt sauce.
(Do I want to see Monica Bullucci on a pita, smothered in yogurt sauce? No comment.)
ATTENTION LADIES! If you’re into the gentleman-neanderthal-type guy, Vincent Cassel gets totally naked the above scene, as does the gorgeous miss Bellucci. Cute trivia fact: they’re actually married in real life. Aww.
Unfortunately, with so little to do in the closing ten minutes, Irréversible goes from artsy to fartsy. As if frantic to appease the pretentious film-snobs in the audience, Noe clumsily crams the film with symbolism, philosophy, and message. If you’re into that stuff, I won’t spoil it for you. The final title card reads LE TEMPS DETRUIT TOUT (Time Destroys All Things). That sentiment certainly applies to my patience.
This film got a very strange reaction from me. Upon finishing it, I immediately wanted to phone up my friends and warn them to never, under any circumstances, watch this film. I hated it. Irréversible is anti-audience terrorism, a calculated, joyless assault against cinematic convention and viewer sensibilities. I know that description makes it sound fun, but believe me, it isn’t. Irréversible isn’t a movie, it’s an ordeal. You don’t watch this film, you subject yourself to it.
However, thinking back, used to feel exactly the same about Requiem for a Dream. I like that movie now. So, in a decade or so, Irréversible may well be my all-time favorite movie. Until that day, I hope I never see it again.