Irreversible: A torturous drama of gratuitous violence

By Ben Adams

A fat, naked man–an ex-convict–is sitting in a sweaty apartment, staring blankly at a dark-haired friend, clothed, but, like his companion, washed-up and inert. The fat man breathes out the words in a husky, seasoned voice. Le temps detruit tout. Time destroys everything.

They hear the sounds of sirens and car doors slamming, shouts in the street. Qu’est-ce que c’est ça? C’est rien. It’s nothing. How could it be anything? Le temps detruit tout.

What should we think of the young man, viciously insulted by police and medical workers, as he is carted away, barely conscious, from the basement of the gay club in which he was assaulted? What should we think of his friend, sitting silently in a police car, dark, alive but barely human?

We see the story unravel backwards in all its gruesome detail: the protracted, horrifying murder scene in the basement of the club, and the equally horrifying sequence of events that lead up to it. There is nowhere to hide from this movie. Director Gaspar Noé wants to shock you. He wants you to have nightmares. He wants you to obsess over the movie, to agonize and rehash its details over and over in your head. He just doesn’t want you to walk out.

But these are the risks you run when there are two scenes in your movie, separated by 40 minutes or so, that offend the human sense of morality so immediately and so thoroughly. I will not sully these pages with the descriptions of these scenes. Please understand me, however: morbid curiosity is not enough to get you through this movie. What you will see is truly atrocious. Stop smirking with curiosity. Stop. It is disgusting, this movie. This movie is disgusting.

As the story moves backward in a Memento-style narration, we learn of the human sides of the characters. Noé’s idea seems to be that ordinary men and women–whose identities were improvised during filming and thus completely organic, and, in some special sense, real–can be turned into animals, that life has infinite potential, but that time will destroy it all in the end.

Irreversible details one night in the lives of three innocents (Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, and Albert Dupontel), whose optimism is shattered by an unspeakably brutal act and by the bloodthirsty need to avenge it. Their night begins with humor, hope, and sentimentalities and ends with wretchedness. Time destroys everything.

So why should the film play backwards? To hear Noé explain it, the film ends hopefully so that all the destruction has been worth something. We begin amid the red lights and nameless vibrations of a revolting night club-bordello hybrid, populated with aggressive gay men. The camera twists and dives–Noé insisted on handling it himself–and burrows ever deeper into this pit of orgiastic violence. But as the film progresses, we move away from this inferno and towards a brightly optimistic conclusion better left unspoiled. Truly, if one can emerge from the horrors of this film with a positive outlook, then all the pain has been worth something. Time reveals everything, too, say the movie’s sloganeers.

Maybe there is a coherent philosophy buried here. As upsetting as the violent scenes are–very upsetting, in case I haven’t made that clear–the final scenes are, or at least purport to be, proportionately beautiful. If we cannot erase the graphic obscenities that define the first half of the film, we can no more ably rub out the wonderful scenes that follow. This explains Noé’s decision to replace a funnier version of the intimate exchange between Cassel and Bellucci with a more tender one: humor lacks the profundity of real and legitimate love (Cassel and Bellucci were chosen for their roles because they are a real-life couple). The two acts are equally irreversible.

Perhaps we have been misunderstanding the fat man’s claim, then. It is not innocence that dies inevitably; in fact, the very notion of innocence is absurd. No, time destroys everything, good and bad, horrific and inspiring. It all collapses in one cataclysmic moment, a stomach punch. Good and evil smash headlong into one another and disappear. That is what makes a person apathetic and world-weary: the knowledge that nothing exists.

Still, Noé indulges us in the details of the story, and it doesn’t seem that he endorses the fat man’s resigned worldview. Illustrating this point is Noé’s directorial résumé, which consists almost exclusively of painfully evocative movies, two of which concern themselves with the circumstances of the fat man’s sordid past. Noé’s movies evince a belief in the importance of experiencing the full range of human emotions. If everything is destroyed, then the only purpose left for human existence must be emotional in character, so we owe it to ourselves to experience those emotions as powerfully as possible. Such are the courses of Noé’s films in general, and of Irreversible in particular.

It must frustrate Noé that all his films are received in the same way. Every critic feels obliged to warn audiences of the obscenities, and censors are constantly trying to ban his work. In order for all these fights to be worthwhile, the films must be worked to absolute perfection. And evidence exists that Noé is a perfectionist: he came to the verge of destroying every last frame of the film only three months before it was released to the Cannes Film Festival. His work demands that viewers leave the film shaken, in tears.

But Noé should be heedful of his audiences. Viewers will leave the theater shocked, many before the film ends, and some will probably cry as well. But few will gesture towards unspeakable beauty, towards the evocative scenes of human love. With rare exceptions, the first response to the film will be the same: it is reprehensible. Some people, many even, should never see Irreversible. It would simply be too much to take.

Besides, it’s not at all clear that the movie’s final sequence lives up to its billing. Even if the love scene we see between Bellucci and Cassel was the most intimate of the crop, it was most likely not the most loving scene ever recorded. That sort of distinction is much more easily awarded to the movie’s darker half. Innumerable movies chronicle the happy innocence of young lovers; this sort of effect is lost on most viewers these days, if it ever had the kind of puissance Noé is trying to invest in it. Before Irreversible could reach perfection, censors would have to be arguing over whether its ending is too beautiful to look at.

It’s something to work toward. As far as subhuman atrocities go, though, Noé has them down to a science.