Irredeemable. There’s a difference between a work that uses strong words and harsh images to enlighten and one that’s just grossly unpleasant in order to shock and enrage; and while some will argue that Gaspar Noe’s strident, graphic, structurally inverted “Irreversible” is a powerful statement about the cruelties of modern life, in actuality it’s just a pointlessly nasty violence-and-vengeance tale told backwards for “effect.” It packs nowhere near the wallop that Sam Peckinpah’s tale of a husband’s vigilante justice, “Straw Dogs,” still carries after more than thirty years; its cinematic progenitors are instead exploitative stuff like “The Last House on the Left” or “I Spit on Your Grave”–except that it’s like those pictures watched in rewind mode.
“Irreversible” begins at the end, with the closing crawls delivered in reverse and slowly skewering to the right to induce a sort of vertigo effect. (The body of the picture will generate a different variety of nausea.) After a brief prologue (about which more later), the story proper starts with a pair of men being carried out of a nightspot by police. We then see them somewhat earlier: one, a raging young man named Marcus (Vincent Cassel), is maniacally tracking somebody in the hellishly-lit gay club called The Rectum. He’s accompanied by Pierre (Albert Dupontel), a sad-sack guy who’s trying to assuage his wrath. The pair work their way through the grim establishment until a fight breaks out; it results a brutal murder. The film then proceeds to show us how the duo made their way to the bar, accosting a transvestite hooker for directions and brutalizing a hapless cab driver along the way, and then traces their path back to a street where Marcus was horrified to find his girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci) being carted into an ambulance, raped and savagely beaten; some local vigilantes offered aid in finding the perpetrator so that Marcus can deal with him. Another counter-clockwise cinematic swipe takes us to the assault itself: in a ghastly episode shot almost in a single take inside a ghoulishly-lit underpass, we watch as the beautiful Alex is cruelly abused by a sleazy thug called The Tenia (Jo Prestia). Cut back again to the party where Marcus irritates Alex and Pierre with his drunken, drug-fueled behavior, which causes her to leave for home alone, and once more to the events preceding the party–a train ride in which the trio talk about sexual matters, followed/preceded by a long bedroom sequence in which Marcus and Alex snuggle and coo before linking up with Pierre, a former beau of Alex’s (during which it becomes clear that Alex is pregnant). The picture ends with a bucolic shot of Alex in a park, glowing with health, a blissful portrait of well-being and promise we already know will be unfulfilled.
If you want to read the picture in the most favorable light, you could say that for an hour or so it assaults the viewer, aurally and visually (with banging music and gritty, swooning camerawork), with scenes of the most explicit violence, so that the later/earlier sequences of domestic happiness will be more emotionally resonant and painful when viewed, as it were, retrospectively. From this perspective the reverse structure isn’t merely a trick, but an artistic necessity. What sounds plausible in theory, however, doesn’t work in practice. We’re certainly disgusted by the first half-hour, which includes a death (shot in such a way as to both reveal and conceal) that’s among the most revolting such sequences even put on film; and the extreme viciousness of the rape-and-torture scene is palpable, and can’t help but have an effect. Where “Irreversible” fails is in the earlier sequences that “follow” all this. Simply put, the characters of Alex, Marcus and Pierre aren’t drawn with much nuance or shading. The woman is beautiful, but little more, and Pierre is at best an amiable schlub, so that while one can admire Bellucci’s courage in doing the assault scene and Dupontel’s comic timing, they don’t bring much to the proceedings beyond that. But the fatal flaw is the character of Marcus, who–as Cassel plays him, in a one-note turn–is quite simply a macho jerk. Even when we know the tragedy that that’s going to befall these people, it’s difficult to feel the kind of cathartic horror that we’re obviously meant to; if anything, the latter portion of the picture actually mutes the impact of the earlier one. Whether or not Noe had a higher purpose in mind beyond simply bludgeoning us, therefore, he hasn’t succeeded in achieving it. (On a side note, it’s deplorable that he’s reported to have described his picture as the one Stanley Kubrick should have made in “Eyes Wide Shut.” The remark, the truth of which seems to be bolstered by the presence of a poster from “2001” in one scene, is a sign of the kind of adolescent bravado characterizes the film as a whole–and an insult to the memory of a truly great and visionary director.)
Besides, whatever message “Irreversible” is designed to convey isn’t at all clear. The particulars of the killing at the beginning (which you’d better take care to observe closely if you want to have a clue, no matter how hard in might be to watch) suggest that it might be intended as a statement of the absolute futility of human affairs–hardly a profound notion. On the other hand, there’s that creepy prologue, set in a room outside The Rectum where a group of men are apparently servicing themselves, in which one old fellow portentously intones the view that “Time destroys everything.” That simple existentialist statement of gloom is apparently intended as the film’s mantra–after all, over the course of a single night the lives of three people are shattered and that of another simply ended. If that’s the thought we’re supposed to take from “Irreversible,” at least we can take some comfort from it. At least it means that if we only just wait long enough, the passage of time will eventually deal appropriately with this example of wretched Gallic excess, too.