Thursday, December 20, 2012


Film: Irreversible
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

It’s evident within the first minute of Irreversible that it’s going to be a rough ride. That first minute, when we see the closing credits of the film indicate that nothing is going to be what we expect here. What follows is one of the most disturbing and upsetting 100 minutes ever seen on film. Certainly there are films that go to more difficult or horrible places than Irreversible, but none that I can think of with this combination of horrifying imagery and physically upsetting camerawork and ugly headspace. Irreversible is less of a movie than it is a visual and physical assault on the nervous system. I’m not entirely sure how to process it.

Irreversible is not the first film in the new French Extreme, but it is one of the most infamous. I’m not going to attempt much of a plot summary here beyond the basics. Alex (Monica Bellucci) and Marcus (Vincent Cassel) are in a relationship and Alex discovers she is pregnant. However, there are problems with the relationship because Marcus drinks too much and flirts with other women. Angered, Alex leaves a party and encounters a man named Le Tenia (Jo Prestia) who is viciously beating a transgendered prostitute named Concha (Jara-Millo). He turns his attention from Concha to Alex and brutally rapes her. Marcus and his friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel) then hunt for Tenia and exact a brutal revenge. All of this is show in reverse order. We see the aftermath, then the revenge, then the rape, then the lead up to the rape, and then Marcus’s and Alex’s life before these incidents.

That Irreversible is show backwards, Memento-style is difficult enough. More challenging is the camerawork. Through large sections of the film, the camera spins and flows, never giving the audience a consistent frame of reference. Frequently, the action is shown sideways or upside down, or at severely canted angles. In these moments, the camera moves and spins constantly. It’s not merely dizzying; it’s nausea-inducing, the sort of thing that makes the film difficult to watch even if it were about puppies and rainbows. Seriously, I got motion sick from Cloverfield, and it’s like a merry-go-round compared with the outer space rollercoaster that is Irreversible. The first third (approximately) of the film takes place in this environment, and I’m not ashamed to say that it took me a lot of stopping and starting, since I didn’t feel like vomiting on my laptop. The swinging camera is also used as a segue to move us from the end of a scene to the next jump back in time.

Of course, when Noe wants us to see things in the cold light of clarity, he stops with the waving, swinging camera and the vertigo-inducing camera angles. For instance, in the rape scene, which goes on for a good 10 minutes or so, Noe plants the camera and forces us to watch. This is without question the most famous scene in the film and is because it is relentlessly brutal. I mean this. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, you aren’t prepared for it when it happens. You might think you are because you know it’s going to happen, but you just aren’t. That it’s followed by something just as awful…I don’t really have words.

Slightly less famous but just as brutal is the early scene. Marcus picks a fight with the man he believes to be Tenia. This man fights back and graphically breaks Marcus’s arm, threatens to violently sodomize him (this scene takes place in a gay BDSM club), and is taken out viciously by Pierre, who smashes the guy’s face repeatedly with a fire extinguisher. It’s pretty horrible, and made far more horrible by the fact that it never seems to end. It just keeps going and going.

As a film in the French Extreme, Irreversible is all about showing us things that we don’t want to see. It’s all about the breaking of taboos. The rape scene is a big part of that, naturally enough, but the early scenes in the gay club show what appears to be non-simulated gay sex and what is certainly non-simulated scenes of gay pornography.

The real question with a film like this is what its message is. Is it torture porn? Does it exist simply for the sake of existing, to give the audience a perverted thrill ride, the sort of shock to the cortex of a snuff film without it being real? I’m not so sure. From what I gather, that’s the whole point of the torture porn genre, and there seems to be something more here than just sadistic voyeurism. It’s not simply about making us like characters and then having awful things happen to those characters. It can’t be, because the awful things happen first and we learn to associate with the characters after.

I don’t know. I don’t even know if I respect this film for what it is or what it tries to do. It’s ugly and brutish and one of the most difficult watches I’ve had in a couple of years. I can’t say if I’m glad to have seen it or not because I really have no way to determine. I think I’m just relieved it’s done and I never have to see it again. But I’m certain I’ll think about it again.

Why to watch Irreversible: It’s one of the strangest headspaces you’ll ever be in.
Why not to watch: Motion sickness is the least of your worries.


  1. I literally had NO idea what was going on for the first 20 minutes. The camera motion on top of the fact my TV, at the time I watched it, automatically darkened whatever I watched, made anything going on impossible to discern. It pretty much wasn't until maybe 5 minutes before the rape scene that I started to comprehend anything. So I didn't even notice, at the time I watched, any of the ultra-violence. It just looked like a dark black-and-red blur to me for 20 minutes. (And it REALLY pissed me off.)

    Besides all of that, I actually do respect the film for what it does, especially on a technical level. When you realize it's a collection of 15-20 minute single takes played in reverse order, it becomes a marvel. And after the rape scene happens, I think it turns into a pretty interesting drama/thriller.

    So I pretty much loathe the first 20 minutes, but after that, I don't mind it all that much. I'd actually give it another watch some day to try it again.

  2. My buddy Mike recently told me about this film, which I'd heard of but had never seen.

    "(this scene takes place in a gay BSDM club)"

    OK, now I'm reminded of Kirk telling Gillian in "Star Trek IV" that, back in the Sixties, Spock had taken too much LDS.

    1. @Kevin--I will fix the typo. Thanks for spotting it. Good reference, too.

      @Nick--Strangely, after the rape sequence, I found my interest actually waning a bit, like the big moment happened in the middle. I'd say I'll try it again, but I'm not sure when (or if) that will happen.

    2. I think what helped keep my attention was my fascination with single takes. The scene at the party, for instance, was crazy. I like the little tidbit where the character is asked his name and the actor gives his real name on accident, but in order not to ruin the last 15 minutes of the single take, they just improv off it and turn it into a joke. And that's the shot they used in the film. I love that kinda stuff.

    3. The more I think about it, the more I come around to having something like respect for it. It's a daring choice to put the violence and the extreme, awful, nasty stuff in the first half of the film instead of building up to it. It's almost like it's desensitizing us for worse, but worse doesn't happen. I'll keep thinking about it, I'm sure.

  3. I thought it was an utterly vacuous piece of shit. The "reverse" structure had already been done in far more interesting manner by Christopher Nolan, and it didn't actually add much to the storytelling, except to try and disguis just how little was actually going on in the film (if it actually played in proper chronological order no one would've given a shit about the film). As for the infamous low-frequency noise on the soundtrack, I presume that may have been J.W. Dunne turning over in his grave...

    1. I'm not sure Memento is that interesting in its chronological order, or that it would be much of a film without the reverse-order mindscrew.

  4. Years ago I picked this movie up for a buck or two from a rental store that was closing and it's the biggest blind buy regret I've ever had. Even though I spent close to nothing for it I still overpaid for it.

    The director has been quoted as saying that his whole goal with this movie was not to entertain or to create art, but to irritate the viewer as much as possible, hence the camera "work" and a constant low tone he included in the soundtrack that is supposed to also induce vertigo.

    I read your responses above to Nick. Please do not drink the Kool Aid. There is absolutely nothing about this movie to respect. It does not take skill to produce what is on screen in this movie. All it takes is a camera and a healthy disdain for the viewer.

    Would you respect a shopkeeper who sold rancid food and hurled insults at you? Would you respect a kids' coach who humiliated your children for her own pleasure? Why, then, should we respect the equivalent actions from a film director?

    1. "Would you respect a shopkeeper who sold rancid food and hurled insults at you? Would you respect a kids' coach who humiliated your children for her own pleasure?"

      Can I cite Andy Kaufman as a defense?

  5. I don't know if you go back and look at past comments, but I was interested on your take on this one. I pretty much agree with most of what you said, but I can certainly understand the comments by Chip Lary and others that had nothing but disdain for the film. Grudging, unpleasant respect is what I have for Irreversible and I am very unlikely to ever watch it again. I did wonder who the two guys were that were in the first scene in the film, and apparently they were characters from Noe's previous film. If you'll excuse me, I need a stiff drink now.

    1. Yeah, I'm pretty much on a par with you here. This is one I doubt I'll watch again any time soon.

      I do miss comments now and then, but I check for older comments a couple of times a week. Sometimes I miss one on a movie that's about five days old, but I try to respond to everyone.