Irreversible (France, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Since one of the duties of a film critic is to provide readers with enough ammunition for them to make an informed decision about whether a movie is likely to match their tastes, I must begin with a stern warning. Irreversible is the kind of film that will offend, outrage, and possibly even sicken about 90% of the mainstream viewing audience. Its brutal, unflinching depiction of violence and sexual violation is of a kind that I have never previously encountered in a movie. Those who feel they cannot stand up to the worst director Gaspar Noé has to offer will be wasting time and money on Irreversible. Walk-outs are the most common byproduct of shock and outrage.

Irreversible unfolds with a reverse chronology that recalls Memento, although, in this case, narrative places a distant second to style. There are twelve segments, all shot in single takes, that tell the story from end to beginning. The sparse story is one that Charles Bronson's Death Wish character would be at home in. Two men – Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) – are out for revenge. They are after a man called "Le Tenia" (Jo Prestia), who viciously raped and beat Marcus' girlfriend (and Pierre's ex), Alex (Monica Bellucci).

Obviously, Noé's intentions here are not merely to craft a revenge flick. To begin with, most entries into that genre are exploitative. However, by making the violence as graphic and realistic as possible, the director is attempting to underline the difference between what happens in the real world and how that is often glamorized on screen. Still, one could (and many will) argue that Noé has gone too far, and that in his attempts to avoid sensationalization, he has achieved the opposite. Who but a twisted voyeur would want to sit through a nine-minute rape sequence?

That scene is the most controversial in Irreversible. It occurs slightly past the mid-point, and shows Alex being violated then beaten nearly to death (her head is slammed into the pavement). It's an amazing job of acting by Monica Bellucci, but it's nearly impossible to concentrate on the performance. The camera's vantage point makes us feel like impotent voyeurs, as incapable of acting as we are of looking away. Nevertheless, at least to me, it seems like the sequence goes on for too long. Could Noé not have accomplished in four minutes what takes nine?

The other scene to give viewers pause is a killing in a gay sex club. This isn't a pleasant, satisfying little revenge-murder. It's an animalistic act of rage in which a man's head is reduced to pulp in front of the camera. There is no cutting away from the violence. Even Scorsese at his most graphic has not been this gory. Those who go to this film because they like violent Hollywood fare are likely to find their expectations foiled.

Nearly everything that matters in Irreversible has to do with style. The reverse-time flow, the placement and movement of the hand-held camera, and the choices with regard to violence are all means by which the director makes a statement. Ostensibly, the stars are real-life couple Bellucci and Vincent Cassel, but no one has a more forceful presence than the unseen (or almost unseen, since he has a cameo) Noé. There are many occasions in which the characters seem secondary to the manner in which their story is being told. (And, in a testimony to the film's visual prowess, Irreversible could be seen without the English subtitles and still be completely comprehensible to an non-French-speaking viewer.)

Those who stay to the end will note that Irreversible concludes in a false paradise. Noé's approach to the closing moments is almost conventionally romantic. Unfortunately, our appreciation of this happy ending is clouded by the realization of what is to come next. We know that, within a short time, the characters' joy and zest for life will be forever, irreversibly shattered. As we are told at the outset: "Time destroys everything." This includes fairy-tale endings. Noé's backwards chronology reminds us that there is no such thing as a true conclusion; there's always something yet to come.

An individual's appreciation of Irreversible will be based in part upon what he or she expects from movies. Those seeking light entertainment or something traditional and/or civilized probably won't make it through Irreversible's 99 minutes. Those up to a challenge who attend with an open mind will find something to gnaw at the soul. Whatever else it may be, Irreversible is disturbingly unforgettable. It is impossible to have a blasé reaction to a film this visceral. Indifference is not an option.

Irreversible (France, 2002)

Director: Gaspar Noé
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel, Monica Bellucci, Jo Prestia
Screenplay: Gaspar Noé
Cinematography: Benoît Debie, Gaspar Noé
Music: Thomas Bangalter
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Ranked #8 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2003
Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 2003-03-07
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1