Unrated - Cinema of the Extreme

I could probably count on one hand the number of films whose on-screen depictions of sex/violence have caused me to flinch. Usually that is down to the skills of the director and not the SFX crew. IRREVERSIBLE, Gaspar Noe’s riveting account of the destruction of lives, and the random events that lead up to two scenes of unrelenting violence, joins a list of movies that includes CUTTING MOMENTS, SCHRAMM, SCRAPBOOK, THE DEAD MAN 2: RETURN OF THE DEAD MAN. All have succeeded in their intentions of shocking both audiences and censors alike. However, IRREVERSIBLE differs from the above titles in that it remains the only film to obtain a BBFC rating, and it is commendable that our “moral protectors” have rightly seen that Noe’s unflinching movie is a thought provoking examination and condemnation of violence and its effects, and not a glorification of vigilante style retribution.

Utilising buzzing strobe effects and spinning camera shots that hover in front, above and beneath its characters like a insect; the audience become “fly on the wall” witness to events which are all the more disturbing due to convincing characterisations and situations. The film is also strengthened by central performances by three of French cinema’s finest actors; Vincent Cassell (LA HAINE, DOBERMANN), and his real-life partner Monica Bellucci (BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF, and Albert Dupontel (PETITES MISERES, MONIQUE).

IRREVERSIBLE employs the same story telling technique used previously by directors Harold Pinter, Quentin Tarantino, and Christopher Nolan by presenting its chronological sequence of events in reverse. We are briefly introduced to two guys in what appears to be a prison cell ruminating on their crimes, one announces he slept with his daughter – the only thing he ever loved, “Time destroys all things” he mutters. His roommate is more upbeat, “We all think we’re Mephisto. It’s no big deal. We fuck up and they say it’s bad news. It’s tragic. Can’t forget the pleasure, the joy. There’s no bad deeds. Just deeds.” We then hear the whirring of police sirens outside and follow an excellent overhead tracking shot over their heads, out of the building and into the yard of a nightclub where a man is arrested and another being carried out on a stretcher. The film backtracks to events shortly before and we see the same two men, Marcus (Cassel) and Pierre (Dupontel) angrily pushing their way through a gay club in search of a third man, known as ‘La Tenia’. The mood is dark as we are submitted to an onslaught of stroboscopic red lighting flashes and high pitched sound effects that accompany shots of gay men, hustling, fucking and indulging in various S/M activities. They finally come across a man they believe to be La Tenier and a fight ensues in which Marcus has his arm smashed and is about to be buggered. At this point Pierre lifts up a fire extinguisher and smashes it onto the face of their victim a nauseating twenty three times until it is reduced to just a pile of flesh and gristle. Subsequent scenes reveal that the two men had gone to the club to avenge the rape and brutal beating of Marcus’ beautiful girlfriend, Alex (Bellucci) – a woman who Pierre once had an affair with and still loves.

The rape scene when it arrives is gratuitous and lasts nine harrowing minutes, and culminating in a vicious attack on Alex’s face. The horror takes place in a subway, again lit red, and is filmed in one long take by a stationery camera. There is no nudity involved, as Noe wisely avoids the possibility of titillating the audience and sinking into exploitation. The result is horrific, and has reportedly resulted in audience members worldwide fainting, or walking out.

Earlier events leading to the crime suggest an underlying theme that our fates are mapped out in advance. A series of incidents are shown, each of which is significant in defining the fates of all the protagonists; each character acts in a way designed to enliven their own enjoyment of the evening but which ultimately signposts the way to dreadful events. Alex wears a revealing designer dress to a house party, which shows off her figure beautifully, but when she leaves alone, she immediately assumes an air of vulnerability, which makes us fear for her. Marcus is intent on having the best time he can and takes far too many drugs, his foolish antics result in an argument with Alex, which results in her leaving the party without him. Their mutual friend, Pierre, plays it cool in an attempt to win over the affections of Alex, but it is his philosophical rambling and laid back personality, that moves Alex to ponder on her relationship with party animal Marcus, and mindful that he still loves her leads Alex to turn down his offer of an escort.

Other occurences also seal Alex’s fate. Pierre was due to take them to the party by car, but it breaks down, which means they all take the subway. No doubt they would have left together had he driven. When Alex leaves the party, she tries to cross the road to hail a taxi, but a passer-by informs her that it is safer to use the underpath. When she is assaulted in the subway Alex fails to scream rape in order to avoid the rapist’s threat of a beating, (subsequent sequences reveal that she is pregnant, and naturally would do anything to avoid causing harm to the child she is carrying). A man who enters the subway mistakes the sobbing groans as the sounds of a couple making love, and he exits the way he came, with both the rapist and Alex oblivious to his presence.

The idea that fate is inevitable is further endorsed by recalling the words of one of the jailbirds “We all think we’re Mephisto”. We believe that we can control our destinies, and obtain the objects of our desires through our actions, or become heroes, but like Faust, we are doomed to our fate. This is again touched on with Alex citing the book she is reading which claims “the future is already written” proof of which “lies in premonitory dreams”. Another scene has Alex awaken from a dream, in which she “was in a tunnel… all red” that she believes is accountable to her late period – though she is actually pregnant. It is believed by many cultures that a woman can have psychic visions of the future at the time of their menstrual period.

Further foreshadowing of cataclysmic events include Marcus awaking with a numb sensation in his arm, and being accidentally kneed by Alex in the privates, the pair indulging in playful sex banter; the couple playfully spit at one another leaving Alex with a sore eye, “I wanna fuck your arse” Marcus jokes, echoing the rapist’s actions later.

By presenting the events in reverse, Noe transforms what could otherwise have been another rape/revenge vehicle eliciting cheers from the audience. Instead, by depicting the murder of the assumed rapist first, the act is shocking. We don’t even know what crime he has committed. By placing the rape itself in the middle of the film, we are given time to contemplate the entire horror of both attacks. This is not exploitative filmmaking it is a confrontational depiction of rape, and its effects. There is no let-up for the audience, for Noe refuses to engage in fantasyland filmmaking. A poster on Alex’s bedroom door shows a comic cover for a 60s edition “Captain Marvel”…. “Out of the Holocaust, a Hero” it proclaims, unlike the “comic-book” pay-offs perpetrated in most films there is no let off for the vigilantes, and to make matters worse the director introduces a double-bluff, when it later transpires that Pierre has murdered the wrong man. For the remainder of his life Pierre, like the characters at the film’s beginning, will be left to ponder on the significance of his actions, and the realisation that playing the role of Mephisto, stealer of souls, can be a double edged sword.

Carl T. Ford

Directed by Gaspar Noe

French language with optional English subtitles
France / 2002 / 95 mins

Cast and Director Filmographies
Original Theatrical Trailers
Film Notes
World Cinema Trailers

A Tartan Video Release

All region. PAL. Stereo 5.1.
Widescreen 1.85:1 Original Aspect.


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