Director Gaspar Noe continues to solidify his reputation as a provocateur with 2002's Irreversible which, like his previous film I Stand Alone, seemed to court controversy everywhere it played.
It is a tragedy told in reverse, quite literally beginning with the film credits and unfolding from the end. The opening (or closing) line of the film is spoken by a flophouse resident, "You know what? Time destroys all things." What we then see are two men, Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel), being taken out of a nightclub called The Rectum. The clubs gay s&m denizens sneer and chide them. Marcus is laid out on a stretcher and Pierre is in handcuffs. Next, filmed with an unnerving looping camera shot, we see what led them to this. Marcus and Pierre enter the club and scour every hellish corner for a man called Tenia. A fuming Marcus stalks through the club like a bull. Pierre pleads with him but is unable to calm him down. They are finally lead to who may be Tenia, and they fight the man, the result of which is Marcus having his arm broken and Pierre pummeling the man's head with a fire extinguisher, crushing the mans face and skull to a pulp.
As the film continues we see why the two were brought to this delirious state of animalistic revenge.
Marcus and Pierre leave a party only to find Marcus' lover and Pierre's ex, Alex (Monica Bellucci), brutally beaten and comatose on a stretcher. Informed by two local hoods, they try to track down who was responsible, eventually getting the name of a pimp, Tenia, and his whereabouts at The Rectum. We then witness her harrowing rape in a street underpass, a nearly ten minute sequence that doesn't shy away from the disgusting attack. We see them at a party. Alex is a beautiful vision and is upset at Marcus taking drugs and bouncing off the walls, being childlike, and obnoxious, so she decides to leave. The we see the trio hanging out, taking a train, comically talking about sex. Then we see Marcus and Alex waking in bed naked, playful, sensual, content in each others arms, talking about Alex's dream, meeting Pierre later, and their future. And so the film ends with an idyllic begging, the comfort of two lovers heading into the promise of a new life, and it makes the outcome we have already seen even harder to stomach.
Noe has been called everything from a nihilistic genius to a mean-spirited art snob, and considering his chosen subject matter and willingness to disorient and disturb his viewers, it is understandable. The reactions to his films are often as extreme as the films themselves. Noe's camera doesn't flinch. His visuals and sound design facilitates and increases every shocking terrible moment. While it makes the scenes like Alex's rape and the fatal beating almost unbearable, these are unbearably cruel acts and Noe is unwilling and probably artistically unable to dilute his vision. Because he doesn't flinch it makes the scenes neither sensationalistic or exploitative and all the more brutal and devastating.
The backwards narrative makes the simple revenge tale enhanced by introspection. At the beginning of every story, things are impersonal as we get to know the characters. With the film's reverse viewpoint this takes on a whole different meaning, still unfolding like a normal story in that we gradually get acquainted with the characters, but by knowing their fate it makes every detail in every new scene all the more revelatory and heartbreaking. And, that is what Noe aims to do, to break your heart, and make you think differently about time and consequence.
The performances are fantastic, loose, and natural with an improvised feel. Cassel and Bellucci were married at the time (and I believe they still are), and their ease with one another enriches the film (unlike say, Tom And Nicole). Bellucci is so often overshadowed by her jaw dropping beauty, so it is easy to forget that at her best she is a formidable actress. And such is the case here, not only in her casual friendly conversation on the subway with Pierre about the elusive female orgasm, but also in her wince-inducing rape scene that makes Jodie Foster's assault in The Accused look like an absolute emotional cakewalk.
The DVD: Lions Gate... Now, I know people will ask whether the film is uncut or not. You find various runtimes all over the internet (and we all know how solid info is on the internet). From all I read, Lions Gate released it uncut in US theaters and this version is unrated and runs just over 93 mins. Therefore I assume it is uncut.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Each scene is composed in handheld/crane shots, in seemingly single takes, and are dizzyingly mobile, leaving one to wonder just how in the Hell Noe did them. In the begging it is a dark film with a dark look, composed with very heavy shadows. As it goes into the more tranquil times, it is bright and full of some beautiful imagery. Sharpness and color details are rich. Contrast is quite deep, though in some of the films early scenes it could maybe be a tad more black. No edge enhancement or artifacts. A very good image transfer.
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 French with optional yellow English or Spanish subtitles. The sound is key here and adds just as much emotion as the acting or any visual. Whether it be a looping bassline at the club or the fx of a skull crushing, the audio is crisp and clear. The mix is quite good, realistic, like Marcus and Alex's dialogue in the house party, straining, nearly drenched by the party music, yet still audible. The techno score by Thomas Bangalter (of Daft Punk) is appropriately nightmarish.
Extras: Chapter Selections--- Teaser Trailers for the film (3:07)--- Soundtrack Trailer--- Two videos "STRESS" (4:37) and "OUTRAGE" (4:19). Featuring music from the film, both are looping camera shots, the first of the red underpass hallway, the second inside the house party. I'd say they are guaranteed to induce motion sickness.
Conclusion: A horrific film- or I guess it is fairer to say a film about life's horrors- not for everyone's tastes. But, although disturbing and an experience most viewers wont want to repeat, it does have merit, both in being technically stunning and thought provoking. The basic extras are a disappointment. This is a film that cinephiles would love to see just how Noe pulled off some of the shots as well as the actors feelings about the formidable material. However, it seems that even in other regions there aren't any English–friendly editions with loads of extras. The presentation by Lions Gate does a great job in the audio/video department, making it well worth a purchase for the curious and brave filmgoer with a strong stomach.