Starring: Vincent Cassel, Monica Bellucci, Albert Dupontel, Jo Prestia
Not Rated (Definite NC-17 for Extreme Brutal Violence including a Vicious Rape Scene, Strong Language, Graphic Nudity and Drug Use)
This review contains spoilers. I'm on the fence on advising to go ahead and read on because in a way, the film is spoiler-proof. It's not that kind of movie. But on the other hand, viewers watching it without any foreknowledge may have a different experience than those who are aware of the director's methods.
There's no denying that Gaspar Noe's 2002 film is tough to watch. Featuring a particularly brutal act of revenge and one of the most graphic rape scenes ever committed to film, "Irreversible" is definitely not for everyone. However, it's debatable whether or not it actually works as it is intended, even on its own level.
"Irreversible" could be described as an "anti" revenge tale. The story is the same, but the approach takes all of the adrenaline and the pleasure out of it. Like Michael Haneke with "Funny Games," Noe is trying to show how morally reprehensible Hollywood revenge pictures are. Also like "Funny Games," it doesn't really work because of ego.
The story is a simple one, detailing a fateful day in the lives of three friends attending a party. Marcus (Cassel) is a party animal and in love with the beautiful Alex (Bellucci). Joining them is Pierre (Dupontel), who is Alex's ex and friends with Marcus. But what starts out as a night of fun turns to horror as Alex is viciously attacked and raped by a man named La Tenia (Prestia).
To set his film apart from movies like "Death Wish," Noe does two things. One, he tells the story backwards. Two, he doesn't censor the violence. Taken alone, it would be difficult, but not impossible, to experience some of that adrenaline that audiences crave when they go to see movies like this (although my personal preference is for psychological revenge as opposed to physical violence, but never mind). But together, there's no way a member of the audience could get any sort of pleasure from watching what unfolds. The film featured a number of walkouts when it was originally shown at film festivals, and three people fainted during a screening of it.
"Irreversible" is very violent. We see a man's face get crushed by repeated blows with a fire extinguisher in its full graphic glory, but it's not very convincing. It's easy to tell that it's fake. Much more difficult to watch is the scene where Alex is raped, mainly because Noe doesn't cut away from the action. It's a 9 minute long scene featuring Bellucci in a totally convincing performance. And after that, we are given the pleasure of watching La Tenia grab her hair and repeatedly smash her face into the ground. Sounds lovely, doesn't it?
However, the film has some definite flaws. For one thing, the film is almost entirely improvised. There's nothing wrong with improvisation in general (many great lines and scenes are the result of improvisation), but in general drama isn't a good genre for it. The dialogue is banal and character identification is next to nil. I never got a sense of who Marcus, Alex and Pierre were, so I found it hard to care about what happened to them. All three give great performances, but Noe's approach, which consists of almost entirely of medium shots of unvarying length (many of which are static), robs the film of its drama and intimacy. It's incredibly distancing.
But far more problematic is the film's opening scene. By his own admission, Noe used sound and camera movements to induce vertigo, nausea and disorientation. Noe is trying to get us inside Marcus's head, whom we later realize is both high and consumed with rage. But he goes too far with it; his technique overshadows the storytelling. It goes on for too long and Noe has a tendency to show off. It's so over-the-top that, rather than conveying to us what is going on in Marcus's head, simply tells us.
"Irreversible" is more like an experimental film than a narrative piece.