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The basic storyline can be summed up as a revenge tale in which a woman is raped, and her lover and friend attempt to find the rapist to punish him. But those are just plot details. As with Memento, Irreversible chooses to tell its tale in reverse. So the film begins with the end credits which run backwards and are done in a bold all-caps font with many letters reversed for a further disorienting effect. Then theres a kind of prologue with a character known to Noe fans as the Butcher (played by Philippe Nahon in each of Noes films). The Butcher lays out the essential precepts of the film: man is an animal and time destroys all things. The camera eventually moves out the window of the Butchers room to reveal chaos below. A badly beaten man on a stretcher is being taken out of a gay club and hes followed by another man whos being escorted by the police. All the while the gay patrons are hurling vulgar and vile taunts, threats and insults at the pair who were obviously involved in some sort of fight inside the club.

Vincent Cassel in Gaspar Noe's Irreversible (Alliance Atlantis)

The film then begins its progress back in time to reveal the two men, Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel), forcing their way into the gay club, getting into a fight and killing a man (the first scene that provokes flight from the theater). Then we move further into to the past to see Alex (Monica Bellucci), the rape victim, lying in a pulpy coma and being taken to a hospital. A man at the crime scene approaches Marcus and Pierre and tells them vengeance is a human right. The film then proceeds backwards to show the rape (the second scene to make viewersand even some of San Diegos local film critics-- head for the exits); the party where all three were at; and an intimate scene between Alex and Marcus at home. Then the film takes us to the beginning of Alexs story--a serene moment involving the young woman well before the rape and in ignorant bliss of what the future holds. But the final images of the film are of the camera pulling back to an omniscient, even cosmic, point of view that emphasizes how inconsequential each little life in the universe is. And then banga big bold title tells us Time Destroys All Things.


Noe designs his film as a challengeas if hes daring us to continue watching. He hurls one provocation after another at us and assaults us with a visual style that reflects the violence of his story. Its like a test and only the most dedicated viewers will persevere till the end. But I urge filmgoers with the stomach for daring cinema to stay until the end because theres a cogent artistic vision at work here and you have to see the whole film to perceive that. Is it disturbing? Yes. Is it graphic and unrelenting? Yes. Does it make you want to look away? Yes. But now the important questiondoes it have a purpose and is it art? For me the answers are a most definite yes. Art does not have to be pretty or pleasing or comforting but it should make you think and its creator should display craft and vision. Noe displays both but in a manner thats intellectually challenging and sometimes emotionally repulsive.

Noes first challenge to viewers is the films visual style. The opening scenes employ a constantly moving camera that takes deliberately disorienting angles and never settles on anything. Your first response will be annoyance as you wonder if there is any thought behind this seemingly random and unsettling handheld camera style. What eventually becomes clear is that for Noe the visuals must elicit an audience reaction that mirrors the characters emotional states. So these early scenes, fueled by a sense of vengeance, are out of control because Marcus is out of control. The camera creates a visual frenzy and rage to match the unstable emotions of the characters. A pounding, relentless music track heightens this mood and creates further tension for the audience. Noe fittingly names the gay club the men go to The Rectum because he wants to literally take us into the bowels of that establishment to find the suspected rapist whos a local pimp. When we reach the hellish final depths of the establishment, the camera does focus on the brutal murder that takes place. What people will find disturbing about this scene is the unflinching gaze the camera fixes on the murder and the fact that it seems to take place in a single take which makes it seem all the more real and upsetting.

In stark contrast to the beginning scenes is the rape, which takes place in essentially a single eleven-minute unbroken take. Rape scenes are difficult to film because they always seem to exploit the victim in some way. What Noe does, though, is to trap you in the scene just as Alex is trapped. There are no edits, no cutaways, no where to turn. The scene makes you want to flee and it should because thats precisely how Alex feelsshe desperately wants to escape but unlike viewers who can leave, she cannot. Hollywood rape scenes can sometimes come across as titillating to some but theres nothing of that here. Noes approach reminds us that rape is an act of violence not sex. The rapist attacks Alex not because he wants sex but because he wants to destroy all that she representsmoney, beauty, a society that looks down on him. He uses a sexual act to degrade her and destroy her sense of security. The scenes also difficult to watch because we already know what happens. We know from what Pierre tells the cops that Alex left the party fifteen minutes before him, so we know the rapist will have close to fifteen agonizingly long minutes alone with Alex. And since we have already seen the physical damage Alex suffers, we feel downright queasy watching the rape and knowing that that will not be the end of her torment. Some have complained that the scene is misogynistic because Alex is so brutalized. But I would dismiss that charge and suggest that people are mistaking the actions of a character for the directors intent. Noe simply wants to put us in Alexs place and makes us feel her terror and victimization.

As Alfred Hitchcock pointed out, a director can heighten tension in a scene if he allows the audience to foresee a danger that the characters do notfor example, if viewers know a bomb is about to go off but the characters dont. So Noe creates not only tension but discomfort by letting the viewers know the characters futures. And thats another idea Noe brings up--he suggests that the future is already set and that we often have premonitions of that future. Alex for instance dreams of an ominous red tunnel, which is the place where she will be raped. This seems to deny the characters any free will and again increases our discomfort. Alex brags that she is not an object and that she makes decisions about her life but we know that she will be treated like an object and that her ability to control her own destiny will be viciously taken away.

At a time when filmmakers are dumbing down movies and seem most concerned with not offending anyone, theres something radically appealing about a film that refuses to coddle its audience and assure them that everything is okay. Noe delivers a film thats a horror film in the same way that Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer was. Both films are terrifying because they offer an unflinching and disturbingly real portrait of the horrors man is capable of committing. The fact that people have walked out on both these films serves as a testament to their ability to accurately convey those horrors. Mainstream films too often make violence palatable so viewers can watch without feeling the slightest urge to leave. But we have to ask ourselves, is that the best or only way to depict violence? Should violence be so easy to take? Noes response is no. Violence on film should make you feel like violence in real lifesickened and wanting to turn away. Irreversible may not be for everyone but its a valid artistic point of view and it deserves to be treated as that rather than dismissed as gratuitous filmmaking without a thought in its head.


The trio of actorsBellucci, Cassel and Dupontelis superb. They supposedly improvised much of their dialogue and action, and they give the film fluidity and realism. But dont let the fact that the actors engaged in a lot of improvisation lead you to believe that Noe is not in control of his film. What the actors provide are the small details of the characters lives whereas Noe has the big picture. Noe has everything under his control as he takes us from the end to the beginning, from darkness into light, from violence to hope. His visual style grows brighter and more serene but these concluding images of sweetness are tainted by the horrors we know will follow and that we can do nothing to prevent.

Irreversible (in French with English subtitles and unrated but for mature audiences only) is a film with no middle ground. Noe is not interested in making a feel good movie but hes passionate about making you feel something and not simply watch passively. Whether you like Noe or not you have to at least give him credit for provoking a response. While I may hesitate to call his film entertainment, I have no doubts about calling it art. -----