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Irreversible (2002)

January 19, 2011

3/10 Night Terrors

Cannot be unseen.

Irreversible is about a guy, his girlfriend and her ex who all go out for a night on the town but get separated after the boyfriend gets wasted and his main squeeze goes home by herself. Not five minutes after she leaves the party, the woman is brutally raped and assaulted by a pimp until he puts her in a coma. She gets transported to a hospital, her boyfriend and her ex are devastated when they see her on the stretcher, and they immediately start searching the streets to find the pimp who did this to her and make him pay.

This is one of those movies that’s had one mean reputation going for it since it first blew up on the scene, and as a result, it took me a really long time to finally pump myself up to watch it. And now, after somehow managing to sit through the whole thing without pressing STOP or vomiting in my hand, there are definitely aspects worth appreciating, but I’m not so sure it was actually worth it in the long run.

The only other movie I’ve seen by writer/director Gaspar Noe was his debut effort, I Stand Alone, and that one quickly took the award for Most Loathsome Movie of All-Time. It’s the closest thing to a snuff film I’ve ever seen, I was completely unprepared for it and I’m still kinda wondering why it exists. All the same, there’s something to be said for a director like Noe who can push things to the extreme and showcase the depths of the human soul without nosediving into the realm of torture porn. Then again, I think I’d have a damn hard time defending that argument against someone who believes otherwise.

But Noe is a good director, a great director even. Told in reverse chronological order from aftermath to lead-up, he films this thing like a drunk on a Tilt-A-Whirl with a camera that rarely stays still or in focus, and the way it goes from frantically erratic before the opening credits even leave the screen to the polar opposite end of the spectrum by the time it all wraps up, it’s darkly hypnotic and will take you places you never want to go. It’s a total nightmare and the score by Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter heightens it to a point of palpability, but as misleading as this sounds, there a fucked-up beauty to it. Also amazed at all his invisible cuts that make each new scene look like it was filmed in one long, fluid take. Could not have been an easy thing to pull off.

So from a technical standpoint, Noe is brilliant and the mood he creates from so many different angles is just astounding from start to finish. But then there’s the rape and the murder that he puts on display here, and as soon as they hit, you may very well forget everything else that this movie has to offer.

These are two traumatic, awful scenes of unbelievable violence the likes of which I have never seen before and pray I will never have to see again. For starters, the rape scene goes on for nine straight minutes with the camera never panning away and finishes even worse than it starts, and then there’s the murder which takes place during the first 15 minutes of the movie and wraps up with half of a man’s head caved in. Trust me, even with this brief look into what the scenes have to offer, your jaw will drop and you will be left horrified. I remember stumbling upon the murder scene back when I first discovered YouTube and feeling like I had just undergone shock therapy, and even having seen it before with full knowledge of what was coming, I still lost sleep over this movie.

As to why Noe takes the unflinchingly visceral approach that he does, your guess is as good as mine, but that also seems to be the desired effect. It messes with you, it burns its way into your memory banks and it will inevitably leave you wondering “Why?”. I just have a hard time believing that someone would create such a monster as this for the sake of “Why not?”

And I really can’t imagine what it must have been like to see this in a theater, but that is one bullet I’m glad to have dodged and I probably would have been one of the many to walk out if I didn’t have this darned movie blog to consider. God, how on Earth do you watch this movie with someone else in the room let alone act in this?

Although Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel do deserve some kind of strange award for signing up and giving this their all. I don’t know how many people would actually get through this movie and immediately strike up a convo about how good the acting was as soon as it ended, but this is some royally demanding shit and the way their dynamic changes in the face of such a tragedy adds a great deal to legitimizing the movie as a whole. Very sexual, very vulnerable and very humane in avenues that aren’t easily tapped into.

As much as I’d like to give this movie a higher rating because of how well-made it is, I could never in good faith recommend this movie to someone for fear of having to be That Guy Who Told Someone To See Irreversible. I know it’s just a movie and I do feel like there’s more to this than just serving as an excuse to shock the shit out of people, but thanks to the sheer brutality of those two scenes that could easily be construed as deplorable on a number of levels, it’s not an experience I would encourage someone to undertake if they weren’t already interested. A 3 is a pretty misleading score for a movie that I don’t consider bad, it’s just a movie that ultimately left me more sickened than impressed.

I almost wonder if that was the whole point.

32 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2011 12:19 am

    I thought Enter the Void was ridiculously brilliant. It’s the only Noe film I’ve seen, and I’ve been trying to gear myself up to watch this, but everything I’ve heard about the rape scene makes me put it off. Despite your score, this kind of made me want to watch it more…

    • January 19, 2011 8:59 am

      Dude, I’m counting the minutes until Enter the Void goes on Netflix Instant next Tuesday. Will be seeing it immediately. And I feel like no matter what I wrote in this review, it would still peak some interest in the same weird way it did for me. It really is vicious though and I doubt Enter the Void comes anywhere close to matching what this brings to the table, but don’t say I didn’t warn ya’.

      • January 19, 2011 9:13 am

        You should make the drive up to Toronto and see it on a big screen at The Lightbox! Haven’t seen it myself…and suddenly find myself rather loathe to do so.

      • January 19, 2011 9:18 am

        Irreversible? Man, I can’t imagine telling anyone that I was gonna take the weekend to drive up to Toronto so I could see Irreversible on the big screen after just seeing it for the first time a week ago. Even I wouldn’t hang out with me. But when the next TIFF rolls around, I’ll gladly make the trip.

      • January 19, 2011 9:27 am

        My bad – shoulda clarified.

        TOUCHING THE VOID is playing at The Lightbox (which TIFF runs btw), not IRREVERSIBLE. Worth the drive now?

      • January 19, 2011 9:32 am

        Haha. That sounds more like it. I’d drive up there immediately, but it’s actually still playing at an IFC theater in NYC, too. Will save the gas money for now, but the great journey North will eventually happen.

  2. January 19, 2011 12:33 am

    I can handle all sorts of upsetting films – but this one takes the cake. I think I liked it (though “like” isn’t really the word) more than you did, but I can certainly appreciate people totally getting turned off by it.

    Good on ya for getting through it – I’ve met many who can’t get past those first two scenes.

    • January 19, 2011 9:03 am

      I hear ya’, man. Those scenes come pretty early, too.

      And as someone who can appreciate how technically stunning this movie is, I “liked” it too in that I feel like Noe wouldn’t put so much painstaking effort into what some would consider a glorified snuff film. There’s got to be more to it than that, but damn, is it hard to get past those scenes.

      • January 20, 2011 7:29 pm

        I wish I could unsee most of this film. That it is played out in reverse makes it almost more horrible.

  3. January 19, 2011 4:44 am

    I’m with you guys on this. It’s a pretty tough watch and one of the worst films of the French Smut that was being churned out in the late 90’s/early 00’s.

    For what it’s worth the film succeeds in it’s main goal – absolutely, unadulterated discomfort. The camerawork is nauseating, the bass speaker wails with a barely audible low-frequency brown-noise is, the 5.1 track is splenetic at best, the camerawork glides effortlessly twisting and turning like a 1st person blackout… add to that everything you described. As a viewing experience it’s truly nightmarish!!!

    • January 19, 2011 9:04 am

      Nightmarish is definitely the word, man. Glad I don’t know much about that French Smut movement, this and I Stand Alone seem to be more than enough for one guy to take in.

  4. January 19, 2011 7:20 am

    Nice review. I faced a similar quandry when reviewing Aaronofsky’s latest, Black Swan. Is it art or is it offensive? Or is it just offensive art? One could argue a case for either interpretation but I guess it comes down to how much explicit content you are willing to tolerate, although prudence in selecting films based on content might be idea, I couldn’t endorse a film like this to anyone else myself either.

    • January 19, 2011 7:58 am

      Thanks, man. I was a bit shaken up by Black Swan when I walked out of the theater, but after a week went by and the shell shock wore off, I started telling everyone to see it. I think that one fell more on the side of art than this did, but still, not an easy endorsement on either end. Definitely gets people talking though. And good point, it really is entirely subjective experience.

  5. January 19, 2011 10:53 am

    Great review, man. Not gonna lie though — you really piqued my interest in this movie. Apparently I had it on my Netflix Instant queue already, which is news to me. Judging by your review, it kind of reminds me of Antichrist. I saw that movie in the theater last summer without knowing anything about it beforehand. Let’s just say that was a movie-going experience I will never forget.

    • January 19, 2011 11:13 am

      Hahaha. Thanks, man. Had a feeling this would get folks interested no matter what I had to say. But while I didn’t seen Antichrist in a theater, just seeing it by myself and being completely unprepared for it was enough to thoroughly repulse me. Strangely liked that one too, though. Bizarro shit.

  6. January 19, 2011 10:55 am

    yeah, would need to steel myself for this one. and have a copy of Care Bears Movie 2: A New Generation close to hand to stick on afterwards

  7. January 19, 2011 11:14 am

    It doesn’t like something I’d ‘enjoy’. I’m not a fan of ultra violence in any context, but I really don’t like it when the violence becomes the point of the movie (ala Funny Games) and this sounds like it’s floating around the same ball park. Of course I’ve heard about the renowned rape scene but have never seen it. I guess the fact it has a nine minute torture scene is enough to put me off.

    • January 19, 2011 11:35 am

      Yeah, I’d say you’re better off just skipping this one.

  8. January 19, 2011 5:29 pm

    If I never see another Noe movie again it’ll be too soon.

    • January 19, 2011 6:02 pm

      Hahaha. That outlook doesn’t surprise me in the least after seeing this.

  9. January 25, 2011 10:12 am

    The point of the film is easy to figure out: The man that Cassel’s character brutally murders is an innocent bystander. You don’t know this, of course, as all you see is a brutal murder. You should be sickened by the sight. It doesn’t matter why he may have done it, there is no justification for this action. Right? Just in case you said, “But…”, the film has an answer. If your partner was brutally raped you would certainly have the impulse to seek revenge. The film sidesteps the idea of whether revenge is right or wrong by clearly displaying the greater problem with vigilante justice, sparked by the fact that the man who is murdered was not the rapist at all: human error is already too great to leave up to one person’s judgment, but a person blinded by rage is far less equipped to administer this justice. Thus, the film is less about the moral implications of the act of vigilante justice than it is about the great risk of vigilante justice being completely indistinguishable from cold blooded murder due to the clearly displayed human error. The great disgust that you felt initially toward the murderer is not undone because of the second crime, and thus the film denounces vigilante justice both intellectually and emotionally.

    As for the structure, if the film had been told forward then the ‘beginning’ would have been simple fluff, a pleasant buffer before the later horrors. The rape scene would have been purely terrible, which would have then fallen into the exploitation trope of giving the audience a vicarious urge to see the fictional character get vengeance. When the final scene came, his killing the wrong person would simply be an anticlimax as opposed to a full on realization of the horrors of brutally murdering someone. Thus, a typical structure would have softened every point the director was trying to make. By reversing the typical structure he avoids the vicarious impulse implicit in the genre and replaces it only with justified horror, and the rape scene then becomes not only brutally violent but also an elimination of the possibility of the earlier murder to be justified. The ‘beginning’ of the film, instead of being enjoyable fluff, is instead a tragic lamentation of the cost of violence, no matter who inflicts it. As such, every element of the film is enhanced by its reverse construction, and it also avoids unintentional elements of a conventional structure. Given that its reversal reveals the oft ignored pitfalls of vigilante justice that are ignored by films in the genre always ‘getting the right guy’ it shows how the film is not only a discussion of moral issues, a positive appraisal of life and non-violence, but also a condemnation of thoughtless genre films. A good example of a genre deconstruction which also serves a greater thematic purpose.

    Both Irreversible and Enter the Void are often flippantly dismissed, but a more careful analysis will reveal a very dense and creative core which is, in both cases, a simultaneously intellectual and emotional lamentation on the failings of the living and an affirmation of the possibilities of a life well lived. Check out Enter the Void, think about it, read about it. I wrote an extensive post about it a couple days ago.

    • January 26, 2011 9:29 am

      Wow. Did you just write all that our or did you copy and paste? Either way, you’ve dissected this a hell of a lot more than I have and I dig your points, particularly Noe using it as against vigilante justice. I think it’d be hard to flippantly dismiss such an insanely challenging movie as this, but I know what you’re saying, I can see how easy it would be for some folks to write this off as a snuff film. Will check out Enter the Void next week, been counting down the days for it to come up on Netflix Instant.

      And thanks for visiting!

      • January 27, 2011 4:01 am

        I’ve written a facsimile of it before, but I wrote it fresh this time. The next time I’ll copy and paste this one – got rid of all the loose ends.

        An interesting note on the film – the script was 3 pages long. Try selling that in Hollywood. Having the biggest celebrity couple in France on board probably helped.

        By the way, the reason I took the time out to write the post was because you didn’t feel the need to make a final judgment on the film, like so many others do. Many people (and news organizations) decide which slant they want to take and then make the case for that as well as they can without investigating the nuances and leaving room for improvement in their own work. It’s refreshing to see someone confront a difficult film, work through it, and admit that they don’t totally see the point. I do it all the time, and then wrestle with others’ views of the film and see whether they make sense, sometimes even finding an argument that doesn’t make sense to me that triggers an opposing line of thought that I do agree with. That’s what’s great about blogs (but only the honest ones), and so thanks for that. If you ever stop being honest, I hope they paying you well!

      • January 28, 2011 9:09 am

        Thanks, man. And you’re right, there’s definitely something here that makes you think, challenges you and makes you wonder what it’s all about, and that right there is the biggest saving grace of the whole thing. A hard movie to dismiss in any way even if I still don’t know what side of the fence I’m on.

        Pretty crazy that the script was only 3 pages long, though. When I was watching it I kept thinking about what the hell this script must have looked like and how it could have possibly been pitched. But like you said, if it’s got a strong backing, I guess you can get anything made.

      • February 13, 2011 7:13 pm

        ‘But like you said, if it’s got a strong backing, I guess you can get anything made.’

        Either strong backing or the potential to make a lot of money. Quality never factors in. Too bad!

  10. felix lassiter permalink
    February 12, 2011 3:33 pm

    Piece of shit made by shitty people for shitty people to watch go shitty I give it one turd out of a bowl full.

  11. jessie permalink
    April 19, 2011 10:36 pm

    I just hope that no one got hurt like this in real life because some sick bastard got “inspired”and wanted to copy this piece of crap so called artistic movie.

    • May 2, 2011 4:35 pm

      Yeah, that’s bad business. Would take certain kind of megacreep to get inspired by this movie.

  12. July 17, 2011 2:51 am

    Dude, I gotta be honest with ya. The rape scene was shocking, but it wont give me nightmares. as for the first scene, it wasnt that bad.NEVERTHELESS, WHAT REALLY GROSSED ME OUT WAS WATCHING A BUNCH OF HOMOS IN LATEX. lol.

    • July 18, 2011 11:57 am

      Hahaha. Yeah, wasn’t expecting all those extreme close-ups of whangs in the first ten minutes, but I gotta disagree with on the fire extinguisher scene, that was beyond brutal. You got an iron stomach, man. And thanks for stopping by!

  13. Kevin G permalink
    June 3, 2012 8:23 pm

    I just watched Irreversible for the first time this week, and I think many of the points here are quite valid, but I took a thing or two from it as well.
    For one thing, the reverse chronology makes me think of every news bite i’ve seen or heard about some violent inident or another that is presented as if it occurred in a vacuum. Here, we’re presented with two random charachters hearing sirens and making assumptions the way the rest of us naturally would.’
    As the film progresses, we see the ‘initial’ act itself: a fight in an underground night club goes graphically murderous, as we (the viewers) sit as shocked bystanders, rendered as silent as the other patrons. We see a man bludgeon another with a fire extinguisher while one of the club patrons watches in amusement. As time winds backward we see backstory unfold with details that make the earlier scenes clearer, and the cinematography and sound progressively calm down to reinforce the clarity, until we see a sunny idyllistic day with the sense of dread that Noe apparently intends us to.
    The other thought I have is about the rape scene itself. I’ve read many, many reviews, analysis and gripes about the length of time the scene takes and of it’s unrelenting brutality. I’ve seen the word ‘endure’ used. Well, what a coincidence: actual rape is something that’s brutal, slows time to a crawl and is something that a victim endures. I think Gaspar Noe got it right, and so did Mier (I Spit On Your Grave) Zarchi. Both show the sexual assaults in their films without music to arificially inflate the drama/dread/pain of the acts, as no such embellishment is necessary. Noe goes beyond Zarchi by setting the camera up in a stationary position and leaves its audience to see the rape play out in real time as if we’re sitting right in front of the participants – too close to turn away but too far to be able to act. another nice touch was the figure of the man who stepped into the background and boogied thehell out of there rather than try to help Alex. I picture many viewers reacting like I did
    (y’know, the old ‘I would have beaten that f$%ker’s face in’) while the question burns in my mind about what my reaction really would be if it wasn’t merely a movie.
    All that being said, this film is brital but honest. If that’s too much for anyone, Disney still makes films…

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