Caution: Minor Plot Spoilers Ahead.
Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible is not easy to watch. Midway through the film, the camera remains a static, unflinching observer to Monica Bellucci’s Alex as she is violently raped in a stark blood-red tunnel by a stranger (Jo Prestia). The camera, and thus the viewer by proxy, is a voyeur, a peeping tom viewing the proceedings of the night with cold nihilism.
Viewing the film in this way, it is understandable why someone could dismiss Irreversible as gratuitous shock cinema. Noe’s film stands above this genre that is purposefully devoid of morals. By telling the story in reverse-chronological order, Noe presents everything that is to be reviled about the narrative right out front. Where other shock films gradually build to a sadistic final hurrah, Irreversible washes its hands of its own filth as it moves along, yet all the while leaving the fatalistic horrors of the first 45 minutes to remain mercilessly etched in the viewer’s psyche.
The cinematography mirrors this moral distancing. As we watch Alex’s new boyfriend Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and former lover Pierre (Albert Dupontel) traverse the seedy sex-bar The Rectum looking for her attacker, it is nearly impossible to see anything with clarity. Strikingly unconventional camera movement spins us around image after image of uncensored sexuality. Only when Pierre unleashes visceral carnage on the rapist does the camera finally calm down, eerily transfixed on the violent moment.
As the movie progresses, however, the camera takes the time to be transfixed by the quieter moments found in the second half of the film. The story trails its way back to before Alex’s attack to where she, Marcus, and Pierre are candidly discussing sex on a Metro train. Further back and we get Alex and Marcus in bed together, contented with the possibility that Alex might be pregnant. These scenes pull back hard on the cinematographic reins, where any movement is accompanied by the feeling of lightness.
The explicitly stated theme of Irreversible is: “Time Destroys Everything.” The characters in this film are plagued with circumstantial atrocities, where seemingly inconsequential choices lead to vicious results. All that keeps the characters away from their fates is time. Noe seems to be trying to put the pieces back together after the destruction has occurred. By effectively turning back time on these characters’ lives, he is purging the intolerable horrors of sexual violence, murder, homophobia, prostitution, adultery, and drug use, stripping away sensationalized movie staples so that all that is left is honesty and emotion. You can’t forget the nearly un-watchable carnage of the first half of the film, but you can more clearly recognize the beauty of the simple moments of the second half after having been exposed to carnage first.
Only when we watch the final frames, when the projection equipment seemingly runs out of film and all that is left is black flashing on white, are we jarred back into reality. A galaxy of stars flashes into our vision through the spinning, strobe-like film reel, reminding us of cinema’s tricky ability to mirror life and mask the reality of life at the same time. “Time destroys everything,” and now that the film is over, we are thrust back into the real world, where any improbable thing may happen to us. Unimaginable horrors and indescribable joys are both equally likely to befall us.
I can understand if you don’t enjoy this film, if you think that it is shock for the sake of shock. But, in my mind, it far surpasses anything else that has been cast aside as shock cinema. There are far more moral fibers holding this film together than The Human Centipede: Ad Infinitum Sequence or Saw XXIII have. From what I saw here, this film is actually trying to say something about humanity with its depictions of inhumanity, whereas these other films simply revel in their own sickness.
If you want to enjoy this film like I did (and get pretty queasy, most likely), you can find it on Amazon through the links below:
As always, thanks for reading!
Have you seen Irreversible? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!
–Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)