Directed by Gaspar Noé
When looking at the cover of Irréversible, one can see a warning in very bold print that reads: This film contains graphic sex and violence, for mature audiences only. The warning is an understatement of what the film contains. The film is an odyssey into the worst of the human soul, displayed on screen in vivid detail. Gaspar Noé’s camera tilts and turns around as the film plays out, showing us things we know exist, but choose to ignore. The film isn’t good because of this though, that would make it an exploitative shock film. The film is good because it is structured in a way that gets these scenes out of the way first, and the final hour of the film contains some of the most beautifully tragic scenes shot.
Irréversible is a French psychological drama directed by Gaspar Noé. The film stars Vincent Cassel as Marcus, Monica Bellucci as Alex and Albert Dupontel as Pierre. It is told in a reverse-chronological narrative that echoes the structure of Memento by Christopher Nolan. The film begins with a quick few lines of dialogue between two men in a hotel room above a night club as the police haul two men, Marcus and Pierre, away. We see that these two men committed a violent murder in a homoerotic fetish club and their reasons for it later: the horrifically violent rape of Marcus’ girlfriend Alex. After we see Alex’s rape we see her leaving a party due to Marcus being drunk and making a fool of himself and her. This leads to a long discussion on the train before the party between the three of them, talking about how Pierre was Alex’s ex-girlfriend and having a friendly discussion about their pasts. The final scenes show the love that Marcus and Alex have for each other, and as the film ends we see all these happy moments with the foresight of their destruction.
The acting in the film is a great part of what makes it so good. The characters act with such extreme and unrealistic emotion in the opening of the film it’s hard to see how that is good acting, but the film goes on we see that the events in conjunction with a night of drinking and partying that have occurred over the night make the emotions displayed realistic. The power in this film stems from a scene near the end of the film that shows Marcus and Alex in bed together, caressing each other romantically and showing their love to each other. Both Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci are married to each other in reality, making these scenes extremely intimate because they are real. What we see on the screen is the truth, two people in love. Monica Bellucci’s role calls for her to believably perform in scenes that most people would detest completely. Not only does she do this, but she performs with such intensity and realism that it makes the scenes almost unwatchable. Albert Dupontel has one of the biggest character transformations in the film, as the cool and level-headed Pierre. At the party he ignores most women and refrains from drugs and alcohol. While he knows he is Alex’s ex, they are still friends and he never tries to sabotage their relationship. In one of the film’s most violent scenes he is the one that acts without inhibition when Marcus is hurt during the struggle.
The camera work in the film is exceptional, the film gives the us the sensation of being one continuous take. Irréversible is divided into thirteen segments that are each one take. This was achieved by shooting some scenes in incredibly long takes, some that are nine to ten minutes long. After these were filmed they were edited in a way where they are one continuous segment (some of the segments weren’t edited in this way and are actually one uncut take). This is done so well that you can try to find where the cuts are in the film but most will have a lot of trouble finding them, as it is masterfully edited. The use of color and setting in the film is also worth noting, as certain colors and hues in specific places in the film help to work with the subject matter to bring out more emotion in the viewer as well as the film. The subway and the night club, the settings of the two darkest moments of the film, are covered in red and black, with little light and space, making the viewer feel confined to what is unfolding. The hotel room where the party is and where Marcus and Alex live are very open and spacious, letting the viewer relax and reflect on the earlier scenes of violence.
Irréversible is notorious for two extremely violent scenes in the film. The first of these is the violent murder of Alex’s rapist by Marcus and Pierre. Not only is the scene violent, but the way the camera twists and turns and the director’s use of color, lighting and sound make this scene unbearable to a lot of people. The camera never stops to focus on one thing. Just like the characters, it is constantly winding through the labyrinthine night club, making the viewer feel lost and disoriented. Marcus and Pierre wander through the rooms, questioning people who are engaged in vivid acts of homoerotic masochism. The club is bathed in red light and under the picture an ominous drone plays. Gaspar Noé purposely embedded an extremely low frequency note under the scene to produce nausea in the viewer, and when combined with the camera work and subject matter it doesn’t fail. This all leads up to the confrontation with the man the believe is the rapist, culminating in Pierre repeatedly smashing a fire extinguisher into the man’s face for what feels like an eternity. This goes on well after the man is dead, and the camera falls on the skull with the weapon of choice, obliterating anything that resembled a man. Everyone watches in shock and awe, doing nothing.
The second of Irréversible’s two scenes of violence, and the one that is most notorious, is the Rape of Alex. Where most films containing a scene of rape show the looks of anguish upon the faces of both involved for a few seconds, Irréversible gives us the cold truth to the act of rape. It is not a crime that occurs for mere seconds. Irréversible’s rape scene occurs for over nine minutes from a fixed camera shot on the ground before the victim and assailant in a subway lined with red walls and a concrete floor. A man walks into the background after some time, seeing what is happening and leaves to avoid becoming involved. This echoes a lot of what happens with witnesses. Everyone expects the person next to them to help, and that person is the viewer. The film treats us as voyeurs to the crime, as we watch on. It doesn’t matter that we are powerless to what we see on the screen, it is how we are unable to look away from the horror that gives the scenes their power. With this, the camera continues to look on.
Irréversible is one of the hardest films to watch, not because of the violence but because of the happiness of the second half. We know the pain to come and we are unable to warn Alex that her dress is too provocative, that Marcus should be by her side when she leaves, and that their happiness will be coming to a bitter end very soon. With this I say that is you feel like you can handle some of the things that the film shows, watch it. It is something that tears at the human soul and makes us feel for the characters, from the act of revenge to the act of romance. And with that I leave with one more statement. In the real world, the acts of rape and revenge can occur for hours at a time. We shouldn’t condemn Gaspar Noé for showing a rape scene so long. We should be thankful he kept it so short.
Irréversible is available on Netflix Instant: