Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel
Offhand, I'd be hard pressed to think of a motion picture that I've enjoyed as little as Irreversible and yet still felt compelled to give a positive review. This controversial French import has its merits, but sending audiences dancing out into the streets isn't one of them.Cinematic downers find their way into the nation's movie theaters every once in a while, but even the most draining of them often have some factor to offset the doom and gloom. For example, the drug odyssey Requiem for a Dream, which earned my vote as 2000's best film, wallowed in the mire for two hours, but writer-director Darren Aronofsky's shooting style was so alive, and Ellen Burstyn's central performance so astonishing, that one left the theater at least feeling charged by the technical accomplishments of both auteur and artist. But Irreversible isn't in Requiem's class. Certainly, it's well made and strongly acted, but its craftsmanship is never transcendent -- as a result, a viewer is likely to leave the auditorium admiring its audacity yet still feeling the need to go home and take a shower.
Of course, movies like Irreversible are exactly the sort needed on a regular basis to shake things up cinematically, to lurch the medium forward whenever it appears to be headed toward a long hibernation away from audacity and creativity. This one's certainly doing its job: Audiences are walking out in droves (even at Cannes and Sundance, back when the film was still playing the festival circuit), and at www.rottentomatoes.com, a web site that compiles critics' reviews from across the country, the current breakdown stands almost even at 42 positive reviews and 40 negative ones, with views ranging from "a marvelous work of art" to "a movie without any redeeming social value."
It might be easy to dismiss Irreversible as a knockoff of 2001's Memento: Like that twisty neo-noir, this picture plays around with time, beginning at the end of the story and proceeding until it reaches the beginning (Irreversible goes one better than Memento by displaying its end credits at the start of the film). The notion of time is in fact central to the movie, as evidenced by the very first line of dialogue: "You know what? Time destroys all things."
The movie gets off to a frenzied start -- an apocalypse of sensory overload -- as two men, the raving Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and the calmer Pierre (Albert Dupontel), bust into a gay nightclub called the Rectum and begin a rabid search for a man known as Le Tenia. Imagine if all concerned had been on speed while assembling Caligula and you'll get an idea how this segment plays out. Backed by the same type of throbbing industrial sounds often employed by David Lynch in his whacked out yarns, writer-director Gaspar Noe keeps his camera constantly moving through the extremely dark surroundings in which we can just barely make out the occasional exposed penis or male couple engaged in heavy lip-locking. This sequence ends with a murder that ranks as one of the most disgusting and graphic ever put on screen, as we witness a man's head repeatedly smashed with a fire extinguisher. Needless to say, this is one of the movie's two big scenes that have elicited walkouts across the globe.
After this startling sequence (which, like all the different set-pieces in this picture, was filmed in one long, continuous take), we're taken back in time to find out who these men are, why they're so angry, and what brought them to the Rectum in the first place. We learn that Alex (Monica Bellucci), Marcus's beautiful girlfriend, has been brutally raped and beaten to the point where she's now in a coma, and the men were on a journey of vengeance. It goes without saying that the rape scene has also generated plenty of exit-dashing: Running almost a full 10 minutes, it's astonishingly brutal, with only the barest glimpse of nudity (doubtless to squash charges of titillation) but utterly degrading in the manner in which Le Tenia (Jo Prestia) has his way with Alex.
It's after this point in the movie, as we move past all the tragedies and visit with Alex, Marcus and Pierre during a more tranquil time (i.e., earlier that same day), that Noe and his camera relax. The pace slackens, meaningful dialogue takes over, and we're finally able to become familiar with the central players. The movie then ends with a discovery by Alex that in any other film would have indicated a "happily ever after" fadeout -- here, though, it only adds yet another layer of sorrow.
Had this simple story been told in linear fashion, it would have registered as nothing more than a Death Wish wanna-be, but by spinning his tale in reverse order, Noe has come up with a thought-provoking drama that's more than just a gimmick. As we move backward in the day, we spot moments where one simple action on the part of one of the characters could have prevented the madness that rests ahead, and this realization in turn leads to reflections on the very nature of time, the frightening randomness of the little moment-by-moment choices we make, and whether our destinies are indeed laid out for us or whether our fates are constantly in our own hands. Noe also tinkers with the notion of foreshadowing by, for example, having Marcus play-attack Alex in the privacy of their bedroom, or having Alex declare, "It's the woman who always makes the decisions" -- a reasonable claim that will be forever shattered a few hours later.
The warning to audiences who believe they might be up for this picture cannot be stressed enough: It is ugly. It is brutal. It is hard to sit through. It leads to restless nights of tossing and turning and long days of mental distraction (I felt its oppressive weight on my senses for at least 48 hours after viewing it). But for those who will appreciate Noe's intentions, is it worth it? Most assuredly.