A celluloid memento mori that unspools in reverse from gut-wrenching violence to sweetly observed moments of sublime tenderness, “Irreversible” is a demanding but rewarding emotional odyssey in a challenging visual package. Certain to divide audiences as surely as the Wall once divided Berlin, pic, in which real-life romantic partners Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel portray an intimate couple, has been joined with the word “scandal” since its Cannes competition slot was announced. But except for the weak of stomach and the closed of mind, there’s nothing scandalous here — just sometimes abrasive bravura filmmaking skillfully applied to subjects that matter. Viewers must be 16 to see pic in Gaul, where it opened May 24, day and date with its Cannes debut. Other territories may grapple with ratings boards, but this is an uncompromising combo of sex and violence with which no alleged guardians of morals should be permitted to tamper.
Indignant at such a seemingly gratuitous assault on the senses, some viewers may be tempted to walk out in the early stages. In this reviewer’s opinion, that would be a mistake. Not because what follows will erase two acts of nauseating violence but because what follows adds layers of horror and melancholy that seal the film’s status as a work of art.
Viewers who prefer their love stories cute, their images attractive and their camerawork stationary may be appalled, but Gaspar Noe is in control of every frame.
Noe, whose winning 1991 Cannes Crix Week debut “Carne” and 1998 Crix Week winner “I Stand Alone” followed the fetid fortunes of a disenfranchised butcher, apparently approached Cassel (“Hate,” “The Crimson Rivers,” “Brotherhood of the Wolf”) and Bellucci (“Malena,” “Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra”) by asking if they’d like to make the movie Cruise and Kidman “should” have made with Kubrick. “Eyes Wide Shut” was framed as a dream; “Irreversible” is definitely a nightmare — one that enjoins its viewers to take nothing for granted: not love, not friendship, not hope for the future. While pic’s reverse structure is certainly a trick, it’s a fully warranted and smoothly executed one.
Pic opens with closing credits, which are practically impossible to read due to dense graphics and the fact that every N, R and E is printed backward. Noe, who wrote, directed and edited in addition to operating the dipping and soaring widescreen camera, wants us to know that the story begins at the end of a hellish night and works its way back to the start of the evening.
Pic is composed of a dozen or so long, intense and brilliantly choreographed continuous takes, each of which is self-contained and plays “start to finish.” These building blocks, however, are then strung together in reverse chronological order.
After a man in a sordid room (Philippe Nahon, the central thesp in Noe’s previous pics, here in a cameo) asserts that “Time destroys everything,” the camera swoops down to the nighttime street below where a dazed man with a broken arm named Marcus (Cassel) is carried out of a gay male leather bar called the Rectum on a stretcher. An even more dazed man named Pierre (Albert Dupontel), who is handcuffed and taunted by police, follows.
Our window into unsettling events is a seemingly anthropomorphic handheld camera which behaves like a brave and inquisitive voyeur prey to both epilepsy and vertigo. Swirling and bobbing lensing grows more stable and colors more natural as venture unfolds. Transitions between segs are cleverly blended into visual breathing space in which the lens floats into the heart of dark shadows or takes a probing trip along the ceiling.
Next sequence shows Pierre and Marcus barging into the Rectum. High-strung ultra-edgy Marcus accosts the sex club’s grunting and groaning customers as the camera accompanies him charging through an endless string of dungeon-like warrens. Pierre pleads for Marcus to get a grip, but Marcus continues to demand to know whether anyone has seen a certain man. He obviously has revenge on his mind. But an S&M club is not the wisest place to rile the clientele. Matters degenerate with shocking force.
Continuing to work backward, Pierre and Marcus are seen impatiently fishing for the information that will lead them to the Rectum. The justified tenor of Marcus’s fury, his relationship to Pierre and both their relationships to gorgeous Alex (Belucci) becomes increasingly clear after Alex enters an underground pedestrian tunnel 43 minutes in. Noe proceeds to do for underpasses what “Psycho” did for showers. Bellucci and the person she unexpectedly encounters deliver searing perfs in a horrifically convincing one-take scene during which the camera finally is poised on a tripod.
Camerawork — pic was lensed rapidly in Super-16, underwent extensive but imperceptible digital effects work over a period of nine months and printed to 35mm — is thrillingly fluid, sound design aces. Juiced up by the challenge of long takes, thesps — who improvised most of what transpires working from a four page treatment — are superb, with Bellucci’s responses to peril and joy particularly memorable. Cumulative impact is technically dazzling and emotionally devastating.