The notoriety that precedes Gaspar Noe's Irreversible doesn't do it justice. It received an infuriated reaction at last year's Cannes Film Festival, especially for its drawn-out rape scene, which is as brutal as any ever shot. Knowing its reputation, you approach Irreversible bracing yourself for a sequence akin to seeing a nine-minute snuff film.
In fact, Irreversible's first two-thirds are shot through with such relentless anguish and brutality that it's like watching a one-hour snuff film, with the latter third of "normal" behavior tacked on to the end. And even its mild, conventional scenes, focusing on attractive people, minor spats and everyday comforts, are retroactively stained for the audience.
That's because, like Christopher Nolan's film Memento and Harold Pinter's play Betrayal, Irreversible runs in reverse order. It even begins with closing credits that crawl backward. Noe's scenes take place almost entirely in long, uninterrupted takes with hand-held cameras, which play out and then flash back to the ones that preceded it. Knowing things the characters don't, the viewer's "omniscience" makes the bad events even worse.
In one of the film's earliest moments, we follow hot-headed Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and his more cautious friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel) into a Parisian gay club called "The Rectum." It's a dismal place, lit like a darkroom with moist, narrow walls and leather-clad men doing God knows what in the shadows. Marcus is desperate to find a man nicknamed Le Tenia, or "The Tapeworm," setting up Noe's tasteless joke: They're looking for The Tapeworm in the bowels of The Rectum.
The Rectum sequence isn't just homophobic but an assault of unnerving sounds and images, with the lurching camera inspiring both nausea and a creepy kind of intimacy. And it's just the opening act of a Dante's Inferno in modern-day Paris. Subsequently (that is to say, previously), Marcus hurled racist epithets at an Asian cab driver and physically threatened a prostitute. We gradually piece together that Marcus and Pierre are tracking a vicious rapist who earlier that night assaulted their friend and lover Alex (Monica Bellucci), leaving her comatose.
At the film's midpoint, we take up with Alex, dressed in a stunning, revealing gown, as she leaves a party and takes an ill-advised shortcut down a subterranean, red-lit corridor. When the attack occurs, Noe sets his camera on the floor, soberly recording Alex's seemingly endless violation, which includes grotesque verbal abuse. At one point, we glimpse a bystander who sees the crime and retreats without offering help, and it's like Noe is daring the audience to look away.
Noe undeniably has technical ability, and his actors prove willing to confront the ugliest material imaginable. But putting aside the value of shocking allegedly jaded moviegoers, can Irreversible justify the extremes to which it goes? The answer is no, given how pedestrian its ideas turn out to be. Pierre, for instance, is a professor who repeatedly calls Marcus a "primate" and similar names, and Cassel plays the "natural" man with bouncing-off-the-walls method acting. Yet the one who commits an act of orgiastic, unspeakable violence is the so-called "civilized" one, which isn't nearly as startling or meaningful as Noe seems to think.
Irreversible's backward perspective and choice of scenes suggest that mankind is defined by its worst possible impulses, and that redemption and decency don't belong in the equation. The film gets under your skin -- you'll consider hypnosis to rid your memory of some of its imagery -- yet Noe's misanthropy ultimately feels cheap. Irreversible flashes the words "Time Destroys Everything" at the audience, but its message really adds up to little more than "Revenge is self-defeating," "Bad things happen to good people" and "Hindsight is 20/20."