This review contains references to depictions of sexual assault, spoilers for Irreversible and pretentious use of French cinematic terms. Reader discretion is advised.
“Le Temps Détruit Tout”
Irreversible, released in 2002, was the second film from Argentine-born director Gaspar Noé. The film featured then European “it couple” Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci as Marcus and Alex, a couple living in Paris. Albert Dupontel plays their friend Pierre, who is also Alex’s ex. The film became a cause célèbre at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival due to its graphic violence and infamous 9-minute-long rape sequence, which is portrayed as if in a single uninterrupted take. Audience members stormed out. The crew and cast were confronted and threatened.
Conversely, the film was also praised by many. This divisive reaction was echoed around the world. The film’s combination of ‘high art’ (it is beautifully made) and ‘low art’ (the extreme violence and rape revenge plot) meant there were many debates about whether it was exploitation or a legitimate piece of art. It was also criticised for supposed homophobia, due to its depiction of the gay cruising scene. (Pre-empting this reaction, Noé added a shot of himself masturbating to the sequence during post production to show that he didn’t feel “superior to gay people”.)
One of the most striking aspects of Irreversible was its backwards chronology. The film opens with a brutal sequence in a hellish gay cruising club called The Rectum. In this sequence, Marcus and Pierre search for “Le Tenia” (tapeworm) – the rapist who assaulted Alex. A fight ensues where Pierre bludgeons a man to death with a fire extinguisher, crushing his head in a shocking sequence that still looks incredible today.
It is only as the film rewinds back and shows us Alex’s brutal rape in an underpass that we realise the wrong man was killed. Le Tenia was actually witnessing and enjoying the killing (which renders baseless the accusations that this film is mere Death Wish style revenge propaganda). The film goes back further to show us the party where Marcus’ boorish, drugged-up behaviour led to Alex leaving and taking the underpass. As the film goes back further the viewer is shown Marcus and Alex’s relationship. The structure allows the viewer the opportunity to do something a victim of trauma wants to but can not: the ability to rewind the clock on the destructive act.
Irreversible eventually ends with a pastoral scene of Alex reading J.W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time (a book centered around the concept of predestination) in a park. The camera spins around this scene, creating a kind of vortex before the film becomes an assault of white and strobing light, suggesting a kind of rebirth, a primal return to the womb. The film cuts to black. The title “Le Temps Détruit Tout” (time destroys everything) appears on screen. This is no happy ending: the film makes you mourn for the beautiful thing destroyed, especially when we learn Alex was pregnant.
The announcement that Noé had cut a new version of Irreversible, a version that put the events in a linear order, came as a surprise. The prospect of this new version made me determined to revisit a film I had deeply admired as a piece of cinema, but one I was never overly keen to endure again. So, dutifully, I picked up Indicator‘s new limited edition Blu-ray 2-disc set of Irreversible, featuring The Straight Cut along with a new 2K restoration.
Noé maintains that the theatrical cut is the definitive version of the film and this version of the film is a separate piece (it also runs 8 minutes shorter – excising material the director didn’t feel worked for pacing).
So, how is does this version stack up? Well… it’s complicated. It is incredibly difficult for anyone who has seen the theatrical cut to watch this with fresh eyes. I cannot unknow the revelations of the original cut. The linear structure allows you to empathise with the characters in a different way, but this structure means that we know Alex is pregnant from early on. We know as soon as Marcus begins to fight a man in The Rectum that Le Tenia is the man standing next to the unfortunate victim. In this way, it’s interesting as an alternate version that demonstrates why the original structure is integral. I do not, however, recommend this as your first encounter with the film.
The new structure, though, doesn’t dampen most of the film’s visceral power. Noé’s work has been variously characterised as part of the “New Brutalism” or “New French Extremity“, but I prefer to see it as part of “Cinema of the Body”. Noé’s gaze pores obsessively over the human body in all its destroyed forms. Noé’s work hits me on a physical level more than any other films of the moment. The opening (or closing) stroboscopic assault was overpowering even just on my TV. One key way in which Irreversible achieves this physical reaction is in the cinematography.
The film, in either version, takes the form of a collection of sequences that play out as if they were extended single takes. In actuality, these were multiple takes spliced together with clever digital post production. This dizzying camera work accentuates the nightmarish quality of The Rectum, a labyrinthine space lit only in red. In the scenes between Marcus and Alex, the camera movements are slower and more measured, creating a sense of intimacy that is unobserved. Anyone interested in this aspect of the film should seek out this Blu-ray because, if you’re anything like me, you’ll admire the film’s craft even more.
Another way in which the film affects you physically is with its use of sound. For large portions of the film, Noé included a background frequency of 28hz. The frequency is often used by riot police and designed to make you feel ill. Whilst it may be inaudible, there is a terrifying siren type sound that is consistent throughout The Rectum sequence that lives in my head rent-free.
Most of the music was composed by Thomas Bangalter, one half of Daft Punk. This music is so far from what you’d associate with his famous outfit, with Bangalter serving up bruising techno and discordant sounds that recall industrial noise.
The underpass rape loses none of its power. It is unbearable to watch but, of course, that’s the whole point. The filmmaker is telling us that we should not want to view this. By presenting this as an unbroken take, Noé refuses us the safety of traditional cinematic depictions of assault. He doesn’t cut to other shots. He offers us no escape. A truly upsetting element is that a silhouetted onlooker appears in the tunnel and watches for long enough to understand what’s happening before walking away.
The performances are stunning across the board. Bellucci and Jo Prestia are fearless in their respective portrayals of victim and rapist, but Dupont and Cassel are equally stunning. The film had a four page outline rather than a script, so much of the film is down to the actors’ improvisation.
Irreversible’s relation to the horror genre has been pored over for nearly two decades, so it’s a debate I would rather not wade into. However, I will say that Irreversible makes me think about humans’ capacity for brutality and cruelty and the often random nature of violence. No film before or since has managed to terrify me quite the same way.