review by Cynthia
Fuchs, 14 March 2003
spoilers, sort of. As the movie works in reverse, technically, you
know the conclusion at the start.
Irréversible comes at you hard. Early scenes take you
careening down dark twisty hallways, deep inside a sex club called
"The Rectum." As the camera passes men in mid-sex-acts, the
soundtrack roars and grinds, dragging you down even further, into
the mind of Marcus (Vincent Cassel), as he seeks out "Le Tenia" (the
Tapeworm, played by kickboxing champion Jo Prestia). Their eventual
confrontation, barely comprehensible, ends with Marcus' rape and Le
Tenia's brutal murder, his head bashed in with a fire extinguisher.
early sequence is so overwhelmingly visceral that the specifics are
sometimes illegible, the film's much-discussed centerpiece -- Le
Tenia's vicious rape and beating of a beautiful girl, Alex (Monica
Bellucci, married to Cassel) -- is plainly displayed. For nine
minutes, the camera doesn't move, just sets up on the floor of an
underground pedestrian tunnel and watches. The scene is harrowing,
visceral, uncommonly difficult, and it has educed vehemently
polarized responses, from disgust at its explicitness, to awed
respect for its nihilist daring and existentialist grandeur.
Irréversible has nerve, that's for sure.
It also has
outrage, fear, and a severe, if skewed, sense of morality, at once
uncompromising and irrational. For all its menace, for all its
apparently scandalous cruelty, Noé's film (much like Eyes Wide
Shut, his self-declared inspiration) is primarily an indictment
of narrative conventions and belief systems. Disdaining the ease
with which violence is made thrilling and viewers identify with
those who perpetrate it, the movie makes a case for the complacency
and lack of self-reflection that stake most moral grounds. Judgment
and entertainment are dangerously analogous. (Consider the U.S. news
items titled "Target: Iraq" or "Showdown with Saddam.")
Irréversible's first scene establishes the base for this
indictment, as the butcher Philippe (Philippe Nahon) -- the abusive
protagonist of Noé's first, also "controversial" feature, 1998's
Seul Contre Tous (I Stand Alone) -- recalls his
crimes for an impassive, chain-smoking listener: "I was in the
joint," Phillipe says. I slept with my daughter." "Ah," comes the
bland and profound rejoinder, "The Western syndrome."
proceeds to unravel this syndrome -- the guilt and desire,
retribution and machismo that underpin so much myth and history. The
plot unfurls in reverse (in twelve single takes), so that this first
scene will become a kind of annotation on comes after. The next
scene is the first to show Marcus and his fire-extinguisher-wielding
friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel), specifically, the consequence of
their punishment of Le Tenia, the man who raped and beat Alex into a
coma: Marcus is carried out of The Rectum on a stretcher, Pierre is
hauled away in handcuffs, grimly bumping along the street in a
The events that
lead up to this pathetic and devastating finale are rendered in
images increasingly legible, increasingly dissociated from Marcus
and Pierre's internal frenzies (and so, somewhat ironically, easier
to grasp and evaluate). It turns out that they share a sense of
culpability, and act to redeem themselves, as boys tend to do in
movies. Following a fight at a party where Marcus is inebriated and
obnoxious, they allow Alex, currently Marcus' girlfriend and
formerly Pierre's, to leave alone. Upset, she elects to walk through
an underground tunnel rather than navigate the traffic on the street
above. Here she runs into Le Tenia, a gay pimp, fuming for his own
reasons. The film's final moments, pre-rape, grant access to Alex's
experience, the secrets she withholds from Marcus, as well as her
(frankly, rather conventional) embodiment of life and hope.
structure has inevitably drawn comparisons to Memento, but
where Chris Nolan's film sucked you up inside Leonard's traumatized
mind, Noé's jumps from one character to another: the self-involved
beau, jealous ex, the self-possessed object of their parallel
affections. The very familiarity of these tensions makes the
characters' sensational fates all the more disturbing. Alex's anger
at the self-involved Marcus has a source that he can't know;
Pierre's continuing devotion to Alex shapes his relationships with
both his friends, in ways that none of them articulates. And each
makes choices that are, in effect, irreversible.
Some of these
choices -- especially those made late in the film (or, early in the
chronology) -- appear quite ordinary. Alex, Marcus, and Pierre take
the metro to the party, as Pierre's car is unexpectedly unavailable.
Marcus leaves the bedroom he shares with Alex (featuring a poster
for 2001) to buy a bottle of wine, leaving Alex alone. She
prepares for the evening, showering while the camera watches her
with a detachment that's striking after the too-closeness of the
rape scene. Marcus acts out at the party, sloppy with some girls in
the bathroom, as Pierre chides him for abandoning Alex. The lovers'
tiff seems inconsequential, except that you know it's not.
taken by Marcus and Pierre are momentous, and they come in a rush.
Standing alongside the ambulance, they're encouraged to seek the
rapist by a couple of brutish types, looming over them, implying
they are "pussies" to count on the cops ("The police will do sh*t!").
The urgency of this moment, the realization that, as one thug
insists, "Vengeance is a human right," strikes Marcus and Pierre
suddenly. Now their night, so confusing and awful, has a trajectory,
one they might make. Moved by fury and frustration, they take what
appears to be the film's most overtly potent decision. But they also
step into a moment that is almost unspeakably mundane, much like
some other movie: they head off to find The Rectum, accost a tranny
prostitute, beat up a cabdriver, their panic building all the while.
The majority of
moments in Irréversible are less manifestly charged.
It's only after the plot per se comes clear that they take on
significance. The emotional (and ethical) catch is this: though the
characters are unable to see beyond their separate, present moments,
you know the fallouts from jump. This makes Irréversible's most
radical aspect not its depictions of havoc and ferocity, but its
more gradual mindf*ck, the vengeance it takes on viewers.
end of the revenge tale first, the film undercuts any customary
emotional payoff. Marcus and Pierre's attack on Le Tenia doesn't
offer up the same satisfaction as a Willis, Eastwood, or Snipes
tearing up his sworn enemy, as you've been permitted no investment
in the mission or the characters. What you see at first is just
violence, abstract and sadistic, only meanness and savagery and
rape occurs before you meet Alex, before you've even seen her face,
except as it appears, ravaged and unrecognizable, on a stretcher
headed to an ambulance. "Time destroys everything," asserts a
written title. Well, yes, but it also grants resonance and creates
meaning. It provides readers with seeming distance and
overdetermined perspective, lets you make (what you presume is) your
own sense. That you rarely feel responsible for the sense you make
is to the point.
responsibility remains elusive, eventually, the context for
Irréversible's horrors becomes obvious. (So does its
non-causal timeline: the murder seems to result from the rape, the
rape from a quarrel, the quarrel from a realization, etc.) This
context is simultaneously cynical and melodramatic, more familiar
and more traumatic than the initial, intimidating obscurity of that
scene in the Rectum. Finally, you know, there is no sense to what
happens, no moral frame, no cause, even if you want to make it. The
only sense here is that Western syndrome, the meaning imposed on
events by those with the capacity and nerve to interpret and own it.
Control, however, remains impossible. And that's what the Western
syndrome will never acknowledge.