The Dark Side of Cinema: Irreversible

There's no suitable image from the film I can include in this article, so I'll just stick with the poster.

The Dark Side of Cinema: Episode One: Irreversible

This is the first of a short series examining films that are often booed for their graphic and explicit content, but really have an important tale to tell.

Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible caused an uproar of controversy following its release at the Cannes film festival in 2002. Hundreds of people walked out of the film before it had finished, finding it too shocking, violent and disturbing to watch. I was not at Cannes, but I felt similarly when I did see it. I did not turn it off, however. I continued playing the DVD and when I reached the end I was not relieved that it was over or anything like that. No, rather I put it back to the beginning and watched it again. This is a dangerous thing to say, but I don’t want you to get the right idea. I did not get some kind of sick thrill out of Irreversible, but the reason I watched it twice was, as silly as it may seem, to make sure what I’d just watched was completely real, and that none of it was my exaggerated imagination projecting images on to the screen. Oh, no. I can assure you, this is all very real. To a degree, of course. The film itself is just a film, but it is a brutally honest film. Most brutally honest movies are dramas about suburban life (American Beauty, Blue Velvet, Ghost World, etc.). This does not explore suburban American life. This is the life of two men and a woman living in France. They are happy. They are together.

The woman, Alex (Monica Bellucci) is dating Marcus (Vincent Cassel), ages after breaking up with their mutual friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel). The three of them go to a party, but it does not end well. Marcus is drunk and annoying, and after an argument, Alex leaves the party. She goes to the road and attempts to hail a taxi. A woman standing nearby tells her to take the underpass (“It’s safer.”) She does so, and in a brutal, controversial, terrifying extended sequence, she is raped and beaten to near-death by a shadowy figure named La Tenia (Jo Prestia). Following this, Marcus and Pierre decide to get revenge and hunt down La Tenia, travelling through a dark, shady S&M sex club called The Rectum. They find who they believe to be La Tenia and Pierre smashes his face in with a fire extinguisher. The end.

But, alas, that is not how the story actually goes, and allow me to inform you of what makes this R&R (rape and revenge) story so special and distinct from the other bloody, gratuitous films like it.

For starters, the events I’ve described to you are not told in chronological order. No. Rather, each scene appears in reverse order, so that we are presented with the final bloody vengeance at the beginning of the movie, and the calm before the storm at the end. This technique completely changes the way we look at the film, and makes it even scarier and more effective than if the events were in normal, forward order of time.

It helps us to understand and grasp the horrible nature of the human soul and the amazing lengths to which we would go to avenge the assault and violation of a loved one. Of course, not all of us would go as far as Marcus and Pierre, but it just goes to show that you never really know what you’d do in such a situation until it arises.

If the film were in order, then we would just be presented with a useless TP (torture-porn) movie about rape and revenge. Reversing it changes the aspect. We see this man beaten in with a fire extinguisher toward the beginning, and we ask why? What has he done to deserve this? Then later on we find out and this completely changes the way we look at the scene. This is why I watched the film twice.

The first hour or so is completely different from the last thirty minutes. All the blood, gore and violence is presented, and then we are given a half hour period of calmness, fun and laughing for the viewer to meditate and think about what they’ve seen. We are shown extensive footage of Marcus, Pierre and Alex as good friends, which makes the events they’ve already committed (from our POV, anyway) even more disturbing. It’s a clever effect.

As well as the excellent plot structure and character development, the film also has several other things going for it, namely Gaspar Noe’s awesome cinematography. Throughout the first half hour, the camera swoops and turns all over the place, creating a sense of disorientation and vertigo. He also uses low-frequency sound effects which are inaudible to the human ear, to create an uneasy and sick feeling to make the viewer feel even more affected. These are clever and memorable techniques, and enhance the amazing experience that is this film.

It is extremely ignorant to label this film a violent snuff-fest of rape and murder. It is so much more than that. It is a message about the human mind, and a very well-done one. In the film’s haunting final scene, which takes place before any other events have occured, the camera shows Alex relaxing in the sunshine as the camera swoops around the outdoor landscape and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major (also used in The King’s Speech) plays and a series of bright, rapid flashing lights occur on screen and a final title appears: Le Temps Detruit Tout. Translation: Time Destroys Everything.

About Tyler

Patient observer of all things film and music, from Béla Tarr to Boards of Canada. Foul mouthed and clinging to the edge of sanity.

Posted on March 17, 2011, in Movie Reviews, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen this film, but from what I remember, I had similar feelings. While the beginning was extremely shocking and difficult to watch (the rape scene is absolutely brutal!), the way he went back in time to when all was right with the characters was so well done. Like you said, the film would have never worked if told in chronological order. It amazes me how quickly people fly off the handle when confronted with such brutally honest filmmaking.


    • I hadn’t seen if for ages either. I watched it again just so I could do this review, though even though I own a copy, I may not watch it ever again! I can’t say I’m an expert on the ultra-violent movie category (Tarantino notwithstanding), but a friend recommended I see A Serbian Film. Two months later, and here I am. Some friend he was.

  2. Have you tried ‘Enter the Void’ yet? It’s amazing. I thought it was a bit too long, but not in a way that seriously detracted from the movie.

  1. Pingback: Irreversible. | The Flea Marcat

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