“Le temps détruit tout. Time destroys everything.”
Few films balance the tightrope between art and exploitation as effectively as Irreversible, which ironically simulates highly graphic violence to make a statement against violence. The film is often named among the most disturbing ever made due to its realistic presentation of one of the most heinous crimes a human being can commit against another: rape. While the director’s intent is certainly to shock viewers, Irreversible makes the distinction of doing so while delivering powerful anti-rape and anti-violence messages.
Our protagonists are Alex (Monica Bellucci), her boyfriend Marcus (Vincent Cassel), and her ex-boyfriend Pierre. We follow these three throughout a tragic night in Paris which claims them all as victims in one way or another, and then we backtrack to find out who these people are and what these events could mean for their lives. Decisions are made that could have been made differently, but after the events are set into motion it is too late for our protagonists.
There are two scenes in particular that Irreversible is known for. Since I feel that outlining these scenes would be more of a public service announcement than the divulgement of spoilers, I will briefly describe these scenes for the purpose of providing context. In the first scene containing graphic violence, a bad guy is beaten to death in the face with a fire extinguisher. Though this scene was largely composed of CGI, it looks as realistic as one can imagine. There is no cutting away, just seamless editing. The second violent scene in the film is the most disturbing I have ever seen: the brutal rape and beating of Alex in an underpass. I read a good deal about this film before I watched it, as I wanted to know what I was getting myself into. The rape scene was described as one of “security monitor-like unflinching observation,” though after seeing the film I found this to be a gross understatement. A security monitor implies distance and depersonalization, but this scene was a stationary medium shot – a range used to show facial expression. For over nine minutes Alex is assaulted, and once again the camera did not cut away. It is an extremely difficult scene to watch, and many times I had to look away. However, after these traumatic scenes are weathered, the film makes itself worth your while.
The film is structured in reverse chronological order, which is brilliant for a number of reasons. First, it allows for the message or statement of the film to be taken seriously by not having violence as the payoff. In this movie, there is no payoff. The viewer is pushed into this highly disturbing chain of events at the very beginning, while the exposition and character development comes only after the worst has been seen. The characters’ misfortunes are unbearable to watch even before the viewer comes to know the characters. Had these violent events been shown after the character development rather than before, the film would have failed at making a statement by crossing the line into exploitation. The second reason for the film being told backwards is the fairly obvious one of showing what was at stake for our characters at the time of their downward spiral. There are surprising facts we learn about each character, which add entirely new dimensions and meaning to what happens later in time (or previously in the film).
The third, less obvious benefit of the film’s reverse chronology is that it does an excellent job of piecing together the consequences of a random act of violence. Our society is filled with random acts of violence that are treated far more lightly than they should be. It is a taboo subject, but victims of rape and violence are often regarded with the dispositional attribution of “they must have done something to deserve it” or “I’m too smart to let something like that happen to me.” The truth is, victims of such atrocities are strictly situational victims, and we really do not know what we would do in that situation unless we are in it. Alex did nothing to deserve what happened to her, she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Director Gaspar Noé put a face, a story, a plausible scenario on an act of violence – ones that are similar to those of real life events. We saw Alex treated like a piece of meat for her assailant to exert power over, followed by her acting playfully with her boyfriend and having open, natural conversations with her friends. She feels like a real person, which is what is so crushing yet effective about this film. I’m not sure if watching Irreversible would make someone as sick as a rapist think twice about doing it again, but it certainly provides perspective about the respect that human beings are all equally deserving of.
Like other films by Noé, there is a visual style present that serves a purpose as opposed to simply looking snazzy. There is a balance of style and substance that makes the director’s unique vision apparent while never distracting from the story. In the beginning when tensions are high, the camera work is nauseating and bobs wildly up and down as if it is mounted to a boat in the ocean. I have never seen this done in another film and I do not think there is a specific term for it. The camera movement (or lack thereof) precisely complements the mood of the scene. As the movie progresses from high tension to relaxed moments, the cinematography becomes steadier. Toward the end of the film and the chronological beginning of our narrative, there is dreamlike vertical panning and airy upside down sequences that make the blissful ignorance of the scenes painfully tangible. Perhaps the most somber scene is at the end, as we observe the characters in their happiest states, completely unaware of what is yet to come.
The film is a study in the human condition – a piece of art that shocks, and then redeems as its message becomes apparent. Irreversible will haunt you as you piece together the cause and effect nature of traumatic, life-altering events which every person will experience in his or her lifetime.