Sensory Assault: The Experience of Time in Irreversible

Irréversible. 2002. Directed, Edited, Framed, & Written by Gaspar Noé.
Starring Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel, Jo Prestia, Phillipe Nahon, Michel Gondoin, Jean-Louis Costes, Mourad Khima, Hellal, Nato, Jara-Millo, Le Quellec, & Isabelle Giami. Lions Gate Home Entertainment/Muse Productions/StudioCanal/TechnoVision/Eskwad/Nord-Quest Production.
Rated R. 97 minutes.

POSTERTime destroys all things,” says L’homme (Phillipe Nahon), his only name in the credits.
More fitting, perfect words have never been spoken at the start of a film. One of the most infamous films post-2000, Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible certainly earns that moniker. When Noé brought it to the actors, it was simply an idea, an experiment he hoped to try. What came as a result is one of the more daring and innovative films of the past 15 years. Yes, it is brutal. Yes, Noé is uncompromising in his vision.

But behind the brutality and the sexual violence contained in the film, Irréversible is all about how we react to the visceral, terrifying events which sometimes happen in life. Starting with the end of the story, then slowly working back, the story moves in a way which we’re not used to; the audience is accustomed to seeing things in a particular order. So this technique subverts what we see as a normal film experience, especially if it’s part of this sub-genre.
Noé uses this to force us to watch, to keep us involved, and once the inexcusable act of violence in question happens there’s almost no coming back – it is, quite literally, irreversible. We are not able to go back in time. We’re already headed backwards, anyways. By doing so, the revenge thriller becomes an examination of the lives of those involved, and opens the door to humanity as animal emotion, as well as the realisation that at any moment life can take a nosedive into cruel fate without so much as a warning.
Pic1Pic2Another interesting point to the opening scene with L’homme is that he’s likely the exact same character from Noé’s bone rattling feature film debut in 1998, I Stand Alone (French title: Seul contre tous). So there’s a continuation of that character here, his misanthropic view of the world joining quite easily with this film’s plot.

The line he gives us— “Time destroys all things“— is a perfect summary of exactly what Noé is doing here with Irréversible. We start from the credits, then literally work our way back scene by scene until arriving at the beginning. Whereas a regular film of this type will begin with the characters, helping you get to know them and ingraining us into their lives, Noé immerses us into the violence committed first. The movie goes from revenge, to the act which drew out the need for revenge, to the happy beginnings. So what this effectively does is put us in a position where we have to see it all in reverse— therefore, the initial act of revenge is astonishingly savage, including a head bashing of the likes you’ll rarely see (only in other films with awesome practical effects). But this is Noé’s strategy. He confronts you with the violence first, and afterwards you’re forced to slowly move back through the motions until figuring out why this revenge has happened. This comes with no catharsis.

Rape-revenge thrillers, such as The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, give us the lead-up, then the shocking violence, and finally we’re privy to the violence returned in revenge, so there’s almost a sense of relief, as if the audience is also getting revenge onscreen. Noé throws us into an uncomfortable position where the catharsis comes first, leading us to think it’s needless savagery. Then we’re left to confront a nasty, awful scene of sexual violence which prompted it, and there’s no rest for us, there is no revenge. By putting things in reverse, Noé really subverts the expectations of viewers who’ve come to his film with pre-knowledge of the sub-genre of rape-revenge thrillers. Aside from all the horror we witness, Irréversible is an exercise in form, which takes guts to get through, but believe me is worth it.

Note: You don’t have to watch the rape scene. Although the act itself is a big part of the screenplay, it isn’t necessary to physically watch it through, as long as you know it happens there’s still an effect to it all.
Pic2Apart from the reverse format of Noé’s movie, the style overall is incredibly infectious. It’s like actually being there alongside the characters. The camera floats along through Paris, as we’re privy to all sorts of views into the world these characters inhabit. Even in the opening scene with L’homme, the camera wavers between him and another man chatting, the camera only staying still on them now and then. Also, going further through the film, as we technically move closer to the beginning with each scene, the frenetic handheld style of camerawork and Noé’s direction get more steady, more framed and gentle. So while we’re following Marcus (Cassel) and Pierre (Dupontel) in The Rectum club, back through the cabs and on their way to find La Tenia (Prestia), everything is chaos, rarely is anything centred and fixed in the frame.
So it isn’t simply going back to front with each frame, Noé makes us truly feel the emotions, as the camera eventually evens out and gets more controlled the further we get to the end (a.k.a the beginning). And everything works well here. The look and the atmosphere of the film is still raw and gritty while there are plenty of instances of almost psychedelic-looking techniques used to keep us off-balance for quite some time. You make not like Noé or enjoy the plots/themes of his films, but you cannot deny his visceral effectiveness as a director, and as a storyteller.
Pic4I’m also highly interested in the characters. Alex (Bellucci) is a strong and beautiful woman, someone in love and with a joy for life— part of the enjoyment in her character is that we’re privy to the aftermath of her beating/rape before ever getting to know her. And also there’s a point here: it doesn’t matter who she is. There’s nothing that brought on her rape, nothing that ever could, so Noé subtly points out that even if she were a horrid, whore-ish woman after working back to the beginning (/the end), there’s nothing to justify the horrid act of violence brought upon her. Instead, the tragedy of the act becomes even more weighty, even more horrific, as Alex goes from a bleeding, broken victim to a living, breathing, loving woman. With a tendency for society to judge victims of sexual assault and rape, Noé almost abolishes this possibility because of the form, and so there’s a sense that he isn’t allowing us to pre-judge her (not that we should at all). Getting straight to her assault without ever seeing her before is a way of pushing through the typical patriarchal view some viewers take when considering rape.

Then there are Pierre and Marcus. They’re each very different men. But what’s so intriguing is seeing the opening, watching Pierre bash (who he thinks is) La Tenia’s face in after saving Marcus from also possibly getting raped himself. Then we’re moving backwards, as Marcus is shown in greater detail, and his hypermasculinity bleeds through the screen, his need for revenge described as his “right” and an almost necessary requirement for his masculinity to continue. It’s not even so much about Alex, it’s more about his need to destroy the man who destroyed his girlfriend. So there’s something in that, which speaks to the idea of the rape-revenge thriller, as well: the man is always the one looking for revenge, out to get it, and it’s usually the man involved with the woman assaulted. Yet we know Pierre, Alex’s former lover, is the one who tries to kill La Tenia— though he kills the wrong man.
And before the act, he was trying hard to steer Marcus away from what he calls “Bmovie revenge“, so where does his violence come from? Perhaps Noé is further getting at the trope of men avenging women. Not only does her boyfriend want so bad to destroy La Tenia, her ex-lover, a man clearly still with feelings for her, has to step in from outside the relationship and take his own revenge, too. Above all else, Noé speaks to the heart of revenge, and even love, as both men do what they do for love, regardless whether or not it’s truly for Alex or if it’s more about their male ego. There’s still a beating heart of love at the center of this film, next to all the brutality.
Pic5Pic3Noé’s Irréversible is a 5-star film. It is flawless. Although the themes and the shocking violence are not for everyone, this is an important piece of cinema. Reversing the regular order of a film might seem like a gimmick. But believe me, this is no shtick. It is a legitimate technique used here to transform a rape-revenge thriller into something far more interesting and poignant. Often, we’re left at the mercy of filmmakers who push us through violence and sexual abuse in order for the film itself to pay-off in the end. However, by turning his plot in reverse and working backwards from the moment of revenge, to the assault, to the happy beginnings of a day in the life of a Parisian couple, Noé is effective in his attempt to forego catharsis. More than that, he punishes us, forcing his viewer to focus on the assault, and deprives us of an act of revenge to counterbalance what we’ve seen. Full stop, this is an exercise in form that need not be ignored. Noé is a modern auteur, no matter what you think of his ideas.

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