Irreversible (review)

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There Is No Rewind

You think that you’ve seen it all, that movies have inured you to violence — or at least, to depictions of violence onscreen — and then you see a film like Irreversible. If you can work up the nerve for it.

You may have heard, like me, that this is the film that hundreds of people walked out of at Cannes, but also that those who didn’t walk out raved about it. You may have heard that the film’s centerpiece is a ten-minute-long rape scene, and you may wonder whether you want to put yourself through that, even if it’s intended in the name of art. You may, like me, wrangle with yourself over seeing it at all.

This is a hard film to recommend, even given that nothing can ever match the dread visions your imagination conjures up in awful anticipation. Which isn’t to say that Irreversible isn’t among the most horrendously disturbing films I’ve ever seen. This isn’t a film you merely watch — it’s a film you survive… or you don’t, if you walk out of it.

Director Gaspar Noé shot this Memento-style, in reverse sequence, starting with a terrible act of vengeance and moving backward to the crime that inspired it and to the tranquil normalcy that preceded either offense. His camera swings dizzily around at first, colors muddy, the score yawning with deep, booming tones — the effect is sickeningly even before we see anything more than brick walls and wan illumination thrown off by the streetlights in the narrow alley where we start.

We have no clue what’s going on: why two men are searching desperately for a third or why, when they find him — or think they find him — they beat him to death and beyond. Stepping back in time all the way to the beginning eventually helps us understand, in retrospect — Alex (Monica Bellucci: Tears of the Sun, Brotherhood of the Wolf) was beaten and raped by a pimp (Jo Prestia), and her boyfriend, Marcus (Vincent Cassel: The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc), and their pal Pierre (Albert Dupontel) strike out in their grief for revenge. But even though the camera grows steadier and the colors brighter and the music more soothing the further back in time we go, it’s all tainted by what we’ve already seen. Certainly, the penultimate scene of the film, the afterglow of the afternoon lovemaking of Alex and Marcus, is suffused in golden light and full of the warmth of their real affection and desire — Bellucci and Cassel are married to each other offscreen — but we can’t simply bask in this like they can. Noé isn’t merely aping Memento‘s gimmick — there’s a point in running things in reverse that wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t, and it’s that severe trauma doesn’t just change our lives from the moment it occurs but colors everything that came before, too. Even our memories of life before the Bad Thing happened cannot soothe us, and even this cozy domesticity cannot erase what we’ve witnessed before this.

Every scene in the film is composed of a single, uncut shot — some 15 minutes long — which not only posed a challenge to the cast and crew but also dares the audience to confront its expectations of what film can and should, and can’t and should not, do, particularly in the rape scene. Alex’s attack occurs on the concrete floor of a deserted underground pedestrian tunnel, the camera low on the ground for most of it, still and static. Noé doesn’t coddle us by cutting away or shooting discreetly — he shoots full-on, and it feels like it goes on forever. He doesn’t want us to look away — he wants us to fully understand what’s happening here (unlike the man who wanders into the background of the scene and scurries away when he realizes what’s happening). It’s shocking, of course it is, and we should be shocked at the depths of barbarity that human beings are capable of, and shocked, too, that this is not a rare crime. Is this level of unflinching reality something that every film should strive for? Of course not. But to say that any area of the human experience — however horrible that may be — is off limits to a storyteller is to deny that part of the human experience. This is real.

But that doesn’t mean that everyone has to be open to enduring this. A certain level of disconnect is possible here — just the knowledge that this was all staged, however convincingly, is a bit of consolation. But if the effects of trauma are irreversible, so to is witnessing that trauma so plainly depicted. I haven’t been able to get images from this film out of my head. And that is certainly not a pleasant reality, either.

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