January 16, 2010

Review: Irreversible

Marcus (Vincent Cassel, “Brotherhood of the Wolf” & “Black Swan”) and Alex (Monica Bellucci, “The Matrix Reloaded”) are an average couple living a social life in Paris. One night, during a boisterous party, Alex decides to leave when Marcus becomes far too belligerent to enjoy the evening any further. Traveling down a metro tunnel, Alex is attacked by a pimp and is violently raped. Marcus, having learned of his girlfriend’s fate far too late to prevent it, decides to track down the offender, leading him and friend to an S&M club called “The Rectum,” and ideally, ultimate revenge.

Gaspar Noe’s 2002 film “Irreversible” is a lightning bolt into the cerebral cortex. For those with a strong stomach, the film is simply a journey into hell. But for those who might not have familiarity with the recent wave of French “shock cinema” (“Baise-Moi, “Fat Girl”), “Irreversible” might be far too strong an experience. However you approach the horrors contained within the picture, the end result is one of the most artistically daring and searingly hostile pictures I have ever come across. This isn’t a film that is passively watched, but more a film that grabs the audience by the collar and takes them down with the events onscreen. Any kind of emotional reaction is welcomed from a moviegoing experience, but with “Irreversible,” the reactions are taken forcibly and violently. This isn’t an easy film to swallow, but the artistic merits and pure adrenaline of the filmmaking make this film a rousing creation unequaled this year.

The film’s centerpiece, if you will, is the Bellucci rape sequence which ends up taking almost 10 minutes of screen time. Presented in one single take, the sequence is blistering to behold. It’s also responsible to the film’s unseemly reputation, which I feel is without merit. Noe uses this sequence, and a similarly brutal beating in the “Rectum” club, to make his dramatic points about the tragic underbelly of life. As wrenching as they are, I never found these two scenes to be exploitative. Noe has a bigger strategy in mind with the violence, which is made all the worse once we learn to true nature of Alex and Marcus’s relationship near the end of the film.

The theme of “Irreversible” is how “time destroys everything,” which is pessimistic to be sure, but Noe’s examination of inevitable dread is fascinating. The film is structured backwards (the end credits open the film), much like Chris Nolan’s “Memento.” However, “Irreversible” is no mystery. The ugliness of the story is presented right away, forcing the audience to view events they have no emotional connection to besides horror. Once we witness the crimes, it is only the route to them that is left, robbing the film of the visceral power a revenge story typically inspires.

This leaves the film with an unmistakable power, with Noe deliciously taking away expectations, and replacing them with small doses of originality and horror. Noe keeps his film disorienting with swirling camera movements and a cast that is performing mostly through improvisation (Cassel clearly breaks character at one point), but “Irreversible” is hardly chaotic or meandering. The horror of the events onscreen are often impossible to watch, but Noe’s commitment to his theme of destruction and stylistic choices are splendid.

I would never suggest that “Irreversible” is an easy-to-watch movie, nor do I think it will appeal to a great many people. This is a challenging film that consistently requires the full attention of the viewer.

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