Combustible Celluloid
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With: Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel, Jo Prestia, Philippe Nahon, Stéphane Drouot, Jean-Louis Costes, Michel Gondoin, Mourad Khima
Written by: Gaspar Noé
Directed by: Gaspar Noé
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 97
Date: 05/22/2002

Irreversible (2003)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Backward Glance

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Gaspar Noe's Irreversible has supposedly made film festival moviegoers run for the exits and vomit in the alleyways. In one of the first scenes, a man bludgeons another man to death with a fire extinguisher -- all in one shaky, quivering shot, drenched in dreary red light. You can see the man's teeth breaking off and his skull collapsing under the force of the metal canister.

About 40 minutes later, a man anally rapes a woman in an underground tunnel for a solid ten minutes. This time the camera rests at ground level for that entire time, filming without a cut. He has a few lines of dialogue during the scene; she just screams and cries. For ten minutes.

These two scenes have caused people to talk about Irreversible, either damning it to hell or praising its so-called artistry or bravery. Noe's last film, I Stand Alone, was equally disturbing but went away quickly, as it did not have a "centerpiece" scene that merited discussing.

Irreversible begins with the closing credits and runs backwards in a series of twelve scenes, each taking place in reverse chronological order -- exactly like Memento. The film opens with an homage to I Stand Alone. The Butcher character from that film (Philippe Nahon) sits on his bed naked, talking to a friend and telling him about how he raped his own daughter.

Then the real story gets underway. Our two heroes, Pierre (Albert Dupontel) and Marcus (Vincent Cassel) search for a rapist in a gay sex club. In this scene, Noe whips the camera around wildly, scanning up and down the walls and generally lolling about like a man with no bones in his neck.

As the story travels backwards, we learn that it was Marcus' girlfriend, Alex (Monica Bellucci) who gets raped.

That first 50 minutes is almost unbearable, but following the rape scene (or, rather, previous to it), we see a glimpse of Marcus, Alex and Pierre in quieter times: going to a party, waking up after sex, etc. We learn that Pierre and Alex once dated and that they're still friends. Alex also brings up a book she's been reading about fate and everything being destined, etc.

These scenes are so beautifully done that you wonder what caused Noe to go the shock route.

Not to mention that Noe is a latecomer to shock cinema. In the early 70s, two filmmakers made similar movies to Irreversible, Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left and Meir Zarchi's I Spit on Your Grave, both of which outraged critics and fascinated audiences. Both contain vicious rape scenes, and both end with the rapists' violent deaths. Both films offered a kind of intense catharsis for the audience -- witnessing a horror so brutal that the only payoff has to be equally brutal.

Before that, Ingmar Bergman did it with The Virgin Spring (1960), the story of which Craven lifted for Last House on the Left. So even the idea of bringing shock from the grindhouse to the arthouse is an old one.

However, Noe's attitude is so arrogant -- you can see it in his director's title card -- that you feel he thinks he's doing something profound. The only difference in this film is that he does not provide a release. He's sneering at his contemporaries, his critics and his audience.

But we can't write Irreversible off completely -- those later, quieter scenes are extremely effective. I was surprised how well they worked. You're sitting in your seat, feeling beaten and drained, and these wonderful, truthful little moments come up where real people talk to each other for a while. And because we know how awful their future will be, the scenes have a poignant tinge; every little moment counts all that much more.

Is that enough to go see Irreversible? Frankly, no. The violent scenes don't have enough of a point to matter. They're blatantly gratuitous, and Noe takes them way too seriously to even write them off as pure "B" movie exploitation. They're the cinematic equivalent of cutting yourself because you're too numb to feel anything but intense pain. There has to be a healthier alternative.

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