Irreversible (2002)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Every once in a while a movie comes along and dares to ask what violence means to us. It is likely that my definition of the word–the broad, the specific, and its implications–will differ from yours and others’. Great movies does not define the word for you and me. Instead, it treats the subject in a serious manner–with insight and enough room to question and consider. Although “Irréversible,” written and directed by Gaspar Noé, is criticized for being morally reprehensible for not knowing where to draw the line in terms of showing different kinds of violence–threats, a murder, a woman being raped–it has artistic value because inflicting pain–physical, psychological, emotional–is never the final destination.

The story is told in reverse chronological order. We observe just above the Rectum, a gay sex club, where one man is arrested and the other is taken to the back of the ambulance in a stretcher. People throw profanities at them. We learn that Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) are together because they are looking for a man responsible for raping a woman named Alex (Monica Belluci). Earlier, they see her being taken away, covered in blood. One of the medical personnel says she is in a coma. Marcus is inconsolable and Pierre is barely able to keep the rabid dog in chains.

Noé’s camerawork has verve. In order to add to the immediacy of the mystery, the first third is comprised of rather dizzying movements. It is almost as if the camera is placed on a fly that is looking for something alluring to land on or on a leaf being carried by conflicting winds. When it is more settled, it mimics the movement we feel when floating on water. The decision to keep the camera moving allows us to absorb the mood of each scene.

Particularly impressive is the scene involving Marcus and Pierre looking for a man named Le Tenia inside a sex club. Their desperate search is almost like looking into a nightmare, a dungeon or a house of horrors where pain meets pleasure. As people inside engage in all sorts of sexual gratification, their faces and bodies are bathed in yellow, orange, and red against the black. While we can clearly hear the moans of hedonism against Marcus’ increasing anger (and Pierre’s increasingly desperate suggestions that they leave), we see only glimpses of the orgies and bizarre fetishes. It is meant to be an assault to the senses. We are supposed to be confused, like the naked people suddenly being pulled by Marcus to answer some questions, and, in a way, afraid, like Pierre recognizing that he and Marcus are out of their element.

The rape scene is meant to be ugly. Unlike the earlier technique that involves the camera moving about, this time it is as still as a corpse. When the woman is pinned to the ground on a ventral position and the assailant thrusts in and out of her, aroused by his power, the camera does not blink or flinch. The woman gets several kicks in the face and then on her body. She is then punched several times. Finally, he proceeds to smash her face on the floor. I wanted to look away but didn’t; the entire thing made my limbs feel weak. I felt sick about it. And angry–not because of what Noé chooses to show but due to what is happening to the woman. I found myself relating to Marcus’ rage. It took me back to a time where I would allow myself to get so angry, the more people I upset just so they could feel a smidgen of how I felt, the better. Yes, it is a choice.

What I admired most about “Irreversible” is the shift in the way we evaluate the characters. During the first half, we see and define them through what they do. In the second half, we understand them a little bit through the things they say and how they are like in good company. There is a shocking difference between the way a night starts and the manner in which it ends. The writer-director’s choice to tell his story backwards inspires us to think about our immediate reactions with respect to each scene and then later as a whole when we have all the facts.

7 replies »

  1. I’ve been purposely avoiding this movie because I know it’ll mess with me in ways that I might not want to be messed with, but I think it’s almost time that I wade into its murky waters. Wonderful review, my friend.

  2. I love your observation that violence is not “the final destination.” I think that is truly what elevates this movie above the level of exploitation. Imagine if the story was told chronologically. The effect would have been totally different. Instead of feeling the tragedy of violence we would have felt some degree of catharsis — the typical “bad guy gets it in the end” satisfaction. The whole point of the movie then would have been to indulge our attraction to violence, instead of getting us to question that attraction.

    It’s human nature to be BOTH attracted and repulsed by violence. That’s what makes it such a delicate subject, in my opinion. I think Irreversible has something very insightful and nuanced to say about the subject while leaving room for each viewer to have an authentic and personal reaction.

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