It was a movie that set an all new bar for infamy at the Cannes Film Festival by managing to render unconscious a member of the audience during the controversial nine minute rape sequence. As per the fate that befalls such movies, it was more or less panned by critics for being gratuituously visceral and exploitative and settled down to a fairly decent cult following on its DVD release.
It is easy to condemn a movie such as "Irreversible". Effant terrible director Gaspar Noe makes no pretense of even the slightest shade of a conscience. It's an ugly movie that is unrelenting when it comes to the portrayl of the carnal and the violent. There is no effort to tone down the bloodlust with skewered camera angles, quick cuts or botched colors. All flinching is left solely to the discretion of the audience.
"Irreversible" is the average revenge thriller which is turned upside down and inside out while it rolls out in an inverse narrative which begins at the ending and ends at the beginning a la "Memento". While "Memento", a classic in it's own right, plays the narrative brilliantly as a suspense noir, Noe seems to aim stright for the soul.
"Time destroys everything" says a strange old man at the beginning of the movie and establishes the movies' central philosophy before the camera dizzies down where a man with a broken arm, Marcus (Vincent Cassel) is ushered into an ambulance while another, Pierre (Albert Dupontel) is apprehended by the police.
The scence then prelapses vertiginously into the seedy red neon confines of a kinky gay club where Marcus looking depraved and dangerous runs around amidst acts of perverse sodomy asking for a certain "Tenia" with whom he seems to have a score to settle. He is undettered by Pierre's desperate pleads to maintain his cool. When he finally encounters the Tenia, a scuffle breaks out resulting in the Tenia breaking Marcus' arm and just as he is about to rape him, the seemingly docile Pierre bludgeons him to death with the butt of a fire extinguisher,the camera unrelentingly following the head's disintegration into gooey pulp. It's a most brutal scene.
As the movie backtracks a bit further, further brutality erupts in the form of the rape scene in which Marcus' lover and Pierre's ex-lover Alex (Monica Belluci) is assaulted by the Tenia. For the thirty seconds,it may seem an excercise in titilation. The next two minutes may seem a cheap shot at pure shock value. But Noe pushes it as far as it goes and gradually it becomes unbearable to the senses. You blink before the camera does. The animal brutality, the violence,the horror, the pain of the moment grips you in full measure.
As the movie prelapses from the point of the rape, it may lose some its pace but none of its urgency. Even in the playfully romantic bedroom scene between Alex and Marcus, played to the tune of a sunny pop love song, Noe keeps making sly allusions to the horrific crime that is yet to be via dialogue and visuals. For example, when Alex cheerfully suggests that she might be pregnant, the sense of foreboding and grimness is almost overwhelming.
While Noe may seem to paint a bleak, nihilistic picture of the human soul and time and fate, he also packs in a comment on the sham that is bourgeois mentality. The scene where Alex,Marcus and Pierre take the subway and experience obvious awkwardness as they try to discuss sex in front of the other passengers even as the others don't even seem to display a passing interest in the conversation, seems like a ready rebuttal Noe had pre-packaged for all those he knew would detract his movie. Another striking scene indicating the complascency of the bourgeois is when Marcus hears about a 'whore' being raped and almost non-chalantly shrugs it off, only to breakdown on realizing that it was actually Alex who was assaulted.
The movie ends like most movies end- with a happy ending, with the promise of the eternal hope of a new birth. But it is yet a foreboding end that is actually the beginning. As the camera swirls over Alex who lies on emarald green grass in the bright yellow sun, children playing cheerfully all around her, a bitter and all-pervasive sense of melancholy is invoked. There is a profound sadness, some strange regret over what is after-all inevitable yet at once, random and horrific. That is the ultimate and the greatest triumph of the movie.
It is great cinema. Juxtaposing dizzy visuals, psychadelic music and a non-linear narrative, Noe turns a simple act of vengeance into an emotional firmament that ponders on the nature of man's soul and the control that he can excercise over 'his very own life'. His vision is bleak, ugly and uncomfortable to confront but there are times when it rings with the clarity of an absolute truth.
One only hopes that the antagonist time is more charitable to the movie than it was to its characters and that it will allow it to rise above the controversies and cult status and enter the realm of greatness.