When my mom refers to a movie as "terrible" she usually means that she found its subject matter unpleasant or upsetting, and she isn't addressing in any way its technical or artistic merits. I've now seen three of the four feature films from Argentine director Gaspar Noé, and each one has been equal parts "terrible" and brilliant. As I would never watch a Gaspar Noé movie with my mother — and I'm sure she would have no interest in any of them (unless she's reading this and feels like I'm daring her to watch one. (Mom, don't. (At least, don't tell me about it afterward.))) — I can only imagine that Noé would run her atypical definition of "terrible" through a stress test. Irréversible, his second and most famous movie to-date, is aggressively, intentionally and masterfully harrowing for most of its first hour, as it tells, backwards, a graphic tale of rape and revenge.
Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel star as Alex and Marcus, a couple whose night out ends in blood, trauma and despair. After a brief reference to Noé's debut film, I Stand Alone, Irréversible begins with Marcus stretchered, broken, out of a seedy gay nightclub. Noé presents the scenes leading up to this grim result in reverse order, culminating in the middle with Alex enduring the brutal assault that drove Marcus and her ex-lover Pierre (Albert Dupontel) on a reckless quest for vengeance. However, a director with only exploitation on his mind would have stopped there; Noé goes back even farther into the night, revealing the lovers' pre-trauma relationship with the dark spectre of the future hanging over every argument, every joke, and every moment of tenderness. It's a smart and meaningful construction, but if anything gets Noé into trouble it's, ironically, not his carefully excessive violence but his lazier handle on his own cleverness.
The scenes of violence in Irréversible are astounding, technically, requiring unfathomable commitment from both actors and crew. Bellucci's performance during the rape scene — and Noé's steady, unflinching direction — is confrontational cinema at its most bracing and irreconcilable. Each scene in Irréversible appears to consist of a single, long, hand-held shot that is perfectly choreographed and yet possesses the rough immediacy of cinéma vérité. If multiple shots have been cut together to simulate long single takes, as has been claimed, that in itself is technically impressive sleight-of-hand. The special effects — particularly injuries to faces and arms — are seamless and shocking. Without Noé's compelling point-of-view, both behind the camera and as writer, however, Irréversible would likely be unwatchable slime, like the infamously sleazy I Spit on Your Grave; but there's an undeniable sense of integrity to its many transgressions. Throughout the entire intense first half, the combination of Noé's lurching camera and moaning sound design create a nightmare of discombobulated rage; the palpable sense of relief at the end of each scene is immediately replaced by a fresh sense of doom as the next (previous) scene begins. Without the imminent momentum of fear, the second half of Irréversible takes a surprisingly effective distanced approach, allowing the small details of the evening's earlier casual interactions to create their own sense of unease. Every interaction between Marcus and Alex carries a tension on the spectrum between aggression and defense; he's a pushy and drugged-up lout who would cheat at the first opportunity; she's a tease around timid Pierre and second guesses her misgivings about Marcus, puncturing her false front of self-determination; her sexuality is a constant presence, both in how she is spoken about by others and how she presents herself. In normal circumstances, these interpersonal conflicts might appear innocuous; in Irréversible they feel momentous. However, without the driving howl of anguish that fuels the first half, Noé finds his temptation toward excess less disciplined and, where the in-your-face assaults actually benefit from the strain of endurance, the latter segments feel baggier and Noé less sure of himself. The final four minutes are superfluous, belaboring an otherwise provocative ending with a misfit flourish.
IRRÉVERSIBLE is "terrible" to behold, and cinematically gripping in a way that magnifies rather than mitigates the sense of disgust; that being the intention, it's undeniably brilliant to behold, for anyone who can stomach it.
Irréversible was brought to the Potluck Film Fest by Wade McCormick. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #162 / 2884 (94%), making it his third favorite out of 46 Revenge Movies. It ranked on my Flickchart at #778 (81%), putting it at number 20 on my chart of 67 Revenge Movies.