Friday, August 17, 2012

Savage Friday: Irreversible (2002)

It used to be, in some circles, anyway, that if you announced you were a lover of French films, people would assume you were some kind of “elite” with a "snobby" superiority complex.  

But “The New French Extremity” movement in that nation's cinema has, perhaps, altered this perception to some degree.  Grotesque, visceral films such as High Tension (2003), Them (2006), Martyrs (2008) and Irreversible (2002) are all decorum-shattering, convention-busting, transgressive works-of-art and legitimate heirs to the Savage American Cinema of the 1970s. 

So when people ask me about the future of the horror film, I tell them: look to France.

Today’s “Savage Friday” film is Irreversible, an absolutely uncompromising, ultra-violent French film from director Gasper Noe that, like the best of the Savage Cinema, depicts disturbing imagery for a pro-social reason, in this case to forge an argument about human nature, about violence, and about the way that we view our world. 

In a sense, Irreversible is a rape-and-revenge film in the spirit of I Spit on Your Grave (1978). But the tenets of the genre are deconstructed so thoroughly that -- by our sense of the viewing experience -- cause no longer precedes effect; and therefore, importantly, rape no longer precedes revenge.  Specifically, Irreversible crafts its disturbing tale in a manner that we would term “backwards,” starting off with the fall-out of bloody, murderous revenge and working back, chronologically-speaking, to the brutal rape, and, at film’s end, to the peaceful days before that violent assault.

On first blush, this “backwards” approach to storytelling seems like a stylish gimmick. But Irreversible is anything but gimmicky. Instead, the film’s oddball approach to structure distills the narrative down to basic human truths about the nature of existence. The movie reveals, specifically, how our actions are all universes unto themselves, separated, in essence, from the complicated chain of motivations and reactions we rely upon for "interpretation" because we experience time in a linear fashion.

Because cause and effect become thoroughly untethered here, Irreversible’s structure reveals to the audience who the people involved really are, rather than the characters’ self-images, or their visions of who they are.  Actions become paramount; motivations for those actions become secondary.

In a way, then, Irreversible represents a God’s eye view of human life here on Earth.  Each and every act is a moral universe unto itself.  We are judged not by "why" we do something, but the fact that we do it at all.

As a responsible reviewer, I must note for the record that the on-screen violence in Irreversible treads far beyond what most viewers would consider mainstream or acceptable.  One scene early in the film (though  late, chronologically-speaking…) finds a man literally pulping another man’s face with a fire extinguisher.  This horrific on-screen bludgeoning goes on and on and on, beyond reason, beyond mercy, and beyond the parameters of good taste or typical cinematic standards.  We watch  for what seems like a horribly long time as the victim’s bruised facial structure shatters and crumbles before our very eyes.  The term "unflinching" doesn't begin to accurately get at the blunt brutality of this moment.

The film’s central rape is similarly disturbing because it goes on for merciless duration, for a span approaching ten minutes. The actual rape scene in The Last House on the Left (1972) went on for scarcely a minute by comparison.  In Irreversible, the extended rape sequence is followed by yet another brutal beating, one every bit as monstrous and upsetting as the fire extinguisher murder.

And yet, despite these absolutely uncompromising moments of extreme violence, there’s something oddly and unexpectedly cathartic -- and perhaps even transcendent -- about Irreversible. This apotheosis is expressed, in part, by the prominent placement for a poster of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in the background of one composition.  That poster features a vision of 2001's “Star Child,” and a tag-line that describes the Kubrick landmark as the “The Ultimate Trip.” 

In some counter-intuitive fashion, Irreversible lives up to Kubrick's tag-line descriptor, and the horror film's final, strobe-like montage serve as our trip through the “star gate” of human existence...and time.  The film’s opening and closing thought is that “Time Destroys Everything,” a declaration which can easily be counted as a negative or pessimistic conclusion, but I suggest an alternate interpretation. 

If you gaze deeply into Irreversible’s unique chemistry, the point instead seems to be that it is actually our (linear) perception of time that destroys everything, and that if we attempt to countenance reality in another, non-chronological fashion, all moments will exist simultaneously.  Thus there should be no fear or dread about life and death, creation and destruction.  All such things exist side-by-side, instant to instant, if only we register them.   And if we can boast this awareness outside the moment-to-moment continuity of our lives -- if we can simultaneously see our endings and our beginnings -- wouldn't we  also choose, consciously, to be better to one another?

“Blood calls for revenge.  Vengeance is a human right.”

Told in chronological order, Irreversible’s story goes something like this:  A young man, Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and his girlfriend, Alex (Monica Bellucci) are deeply in love, and enjoy an afternoon together in bed.  That night, they are going with Alex’s former boyfriend, Pierre (Albert Dupontel) to a party.  Alex reveals she may be pregnant, and after Marcus leaves the apartment for a time, she confirms this fact with a pregnancy test.  She is happy.

Because Pierre’s car is broken, the trio takes the subway to the party.  On the way, Alex reveals she has been reading a book called An Experiment with Time by John Dunne, one that discusses non-linear time. 

The triumvirate also discuss sex, and in particular, Pierre’s inability to help Alex achieve climax during lovemaking. She doesn’t experience this problem with the more macho, less sensitive Marcus, and Alex suggests that it is because Pierre is too much the cerebral intellectual.  He’s worried about making her climax, when he should just be thinking instead about seeking his own pleasure. He can’t do, she says, only think.

At the party, however, Marcus thinks about his own pleasure too much, and indulges in drug use and other bad boy behaviors, angering and alienating Alex.  She leaves the party alone, and decides to take an underpass to escape the traffic of a busy avenue.  In the dark red under-pass, however, Alex is viciously assaulted, raped, and beaten by a thug called Le Tenia (Jo Prestia). 

Pierre and Marcus see a bloodied, bruised Alex being taken to the hospital, and Marcus swears revenge.  They go together in search of a gay club called Rectum that Le Tenia is known to frequent.  Marcus enters the club, spoiling for a fight, but is nearly raped himself.  

Acting, not thinking, Pierre defends Marcus, but bludgeons the wrong man to death with a fire extinguisher.  Pierre and Marcus are arrested, and , finally, we listen in on a conversation between two strangers in an apartment above the club.  They declare that time destroys all.

“I’ve been reading the most amazing book…It says that the future is already written.   It’s all there.  And the proof lies in premonitory dreams.”

The key to a deep understanding and appreciation of Irreversible rests with the book that Alex describes in one scene, An Experiment with Time by J.W. Dunne (1875 – 1949). 

Published in 1927 originally, this book deals with the concept of non-linear time.  Specifically, Dunne believed that all moments are occurring simultaneously, side-by-side. Alas, humans are not capable of seeing or detecting non-linear time, and therefore only experience flashes of insight -- deja-vu or precognition -- and only through the auspices of dream analysis.   To describe this idea another way, the world of dreams allows us to detect, outside of waking consciousness, the future and the past, or the beginning and the end of everything.  It's all there, for us to see, but most of the time, we simply can't see it.

Your first key to Irreversible.
In the film, we learn that Alex is reading Dunne’s text, and we actually see her reading the book in the film’s final (earliest, chronologically-speaking…) sequence.  Alex also reports that she has experienced a premonitory dream, one in which she is trapped inside a “red room” and that something is torn asunder there.  That red room is pretty clearly the red underpass where she is raped, and what is torn asunder (or in two) could be Alex’s very life, her new baby, or maybe even Alex’s sense of blissful happiness.  Perhaps what is torn asunder is actually all-of-the-above.  She and Marcus will be torn asunder, for instance, by her wounds (if she dies), and by his presumed incarceration if he is sent to prison.

What Irreversible asks us to understand, finally, is that, since every moment exists simultaneously, side-by-side, all of time is pre-ordained, in some sense, from the Big Bang to the End of the Universe itself. Given this fact -- the birth and death of everything, side by side -- why would we as creatures with detectable and definable ends (mortality) intentionally inflict hurt and pain on one another? 

If our very births and our deaths, our sadness and our happiness, co-exist right now, and we can detect these moments through precognition, why should we choose to be bad to one another?  Why do we, in the words of Pierre behave “like an animal.”  “Even animals,” he insists, “don’t seek revenge.”  And yet, Pierre, finally, is the one who succumbs to violence and bludgeons the wrong man to death.  This brutality and like of analysis seems to run counter to his character as he understands it (a man who can’t stop thinking long enough to act on impulse), and reveals his true nature as, indeed, impulsive and savage.  Can Pierre blame his bloody behavior on Alex's rape?  Or is it a crucial part of his gestalt, of his very soul?

Another scene in Irreversible features two men sitting together in a squalid apartment (over the Rectum...*ahem*), discussing the vicissitudes of life and the things they have done “wrong.”  One man confesses a grotesque crime, and the other man soothes him by establishing that there are “no bad deeds…just deeds.”  This fact is true only if all moments exist simultaneously, and are not bound by time’s arrow, or time’s direction; if cause does not precede effect.  Instead, each act – bad deed or good deed – becomes an expression of a kind of eternal, essential “self,” independent of causality and motivation.  Violence is not a response to action, but an acting out of an essential quality of the soul itself.

Late in Irreversible, one character also states “you want to explain everything, but you can’t.”  This comment is an admission, I submit, that people don't always know why they act poorly, or violently, against other people.  Instead, if the universe is pre-ordained and unalterable -- or irreversible – then there is no easily understandable reason why horrible things occur, except that it’s the way of life itself.  Some people have viewed the film as anti-gay, for instance, because the brutal rapist, Le Tenia, frequents a very rough gay club.  Why would an ostensibly gay man rape a woman?  Why does his act make any sense at all?  Well, to quote the film, you want to explain everything, but you can’t.  The act was pre-ordained. It was destiny that Le Tenia and Alex would end up in that red tunnel together, and that he would rape her.  It was meant, for some reason, to occur.  Perhaps the essence of Le Tenia’s moral character -- outside of the confines of time and cause and effect -- is one of brutality and sadism.  Besides, rape is about power, not about an expression of sexual desire.

Irreversible attempts to embody Dunne's ideas about non-linear time through several unique applications of film grammar.  First, there’s the reversed flow of time, told in long, sustained passages (with few or no cuts). Each passage feels like a distinct and separate moment of time, connected tenuously to what comes next, and what comes before.

And secondly, the camera seems untethered from gravity itself, especially as the film opens and “revenge” is meted.  The camera literally sways and swoops, turns and rolls, never able to steady or anchor itself in a single place or angle.  For the first several moments, this technique is extremely upsetting, disorienting and perhaps, for some viewers, even deal-breaking.  But if you stick with the film (as I recommend you should), you begin to get the feeling that the untethered camera is expressing this idea of spinning through space, without the natural laws we take for granted.  In other words, gravity fails us, visually-speaking, because our concepts of time, are, similarly, failures in terms of understanding the movie.  The world's nature is not as we perceive it.

The film’s music also plays a significant role in fashioning the overall tapestry of Irreversible.  Beethoven’s (1770 – 1872) 7th Symphony is played at crucial points, and it is a composition notorious for its sense of spontaneity.  Some, in fact, call the 7th Symphony an embodiment of madness.  Spontaneity and madness exist, again, only if man exists in linear time; if the past, present and future don’t co-exist simultaneously.  

In other words, there can be no spontaneity (or rage, impulse, or madness, vis-à-vis Pierre and his brutal behavior...), if the shape and dimension of time is already diagrammed.  The 7th Symphony supports our (wrong-headed) idea that time is linear, and that we are spontaneous characters, susceptible to the whims of cause and effect.

Near Irreversible’s end, the film lingers on that poster of 2001: A Space Odyssey, asking us to consider “the trip” of this film, and also, deliberately, the meaning of the Star Child.  The film then ends with a strobing effect, a bizarre montage of indistinct images, and a final fade-to-black.  If time has destroyed everything, as the two strangers suggest, has it also, actually, destroyed the film itself?  

Or is the strobe sequence/montage revealing something else entirely.  Is the reverse momentum of the film actually taking us backwards all the way to the Big Bang and the moment of creation -- and therefore time -- itself?  It’s a fascinating idea to ponder.  When the Big Bang occurred, were all possibilities, all presents and futures, written in that very instant? Right down to Alex's rape and Pierre's act of murder?

Just as the Star Child represented the next step in man’s evolution and understanding of the universe in 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Gasper Noe’s Irreversible tries to push us to the next (possible) level of human consciousness.  What are we, if untethered from time and space?  Are we actually eternal souls, capable of seeing all beginnings and all endings?  Time may destroy everything, but if the future co-exists with us right now, right here, then it doesn’t matter.  In a sense we would all be immortal, because all moments exist forever, side-by-side.

Your second key to understanding Irreversible.
And if that’s the case, shouldn't we really be good and decent to each other?  Isn’t that the irrevocable, unalterable, irreversible fact of human life?   If we can’t blame spontaneous “bad deeds” or cause and effect for our actions, then what excuse do we have when we behave violently?


  1. Speaking as a gay viewer, I don't think that "Irreversible" is anti-gay in the least. I do think it expresses a horrified, but honest fascination with anality. Consider: the Club is called "The Rectum"; the rapist is named "Le Tenia" (The Tapeworm); the tunnel where the rape takes place has a symbolic anal character (and harbors the tapeworm). It's very rich material psychoanalytically.

    I think that "Irreversible" is a major film, one of the best of the last decade. I love the closing sentences of Roger Ebert's admiring review: "The fact is, the reverse chronology makes 'Irreversible' a film that structurally argues against rape and violence...The movie does not end with rape as its climax and send us out of the theater as if something had been communicated. It starts with it, and asks us to sit there for another hour and process our thoughts. It is therefore moral - at a structural level...It has been said that no matter what it pretends, pornography argues for what it shows. 'Irreversible' is not pornography."

    1. Hi Patrick,

      I'm glad to see that my barometer was not off in that regard. I have read that some folks felt the film embodied an anti-gay viewpoint, but I don't really see why that's the case. I also agree with you about the fascination with "anality." There's a lot of talk of going "into" the Rectum (a double entendre, clearly.) And there are the other touches you rightly mention too.

      I appreciate reading Roger Ebert's viewpoint, and I agree with it. The film is not immoral or pornographic. It is violent, but I would argue the violence serves a moral point.

      Furthermore, I also agree with your assessment that Irreversible is one of the best films of the last decade, if not the best film of that span. I was deeply moved by it, and I have not been able to stop thinking about it. I think it honestly deserves comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

      Thank you for a great comment, and for adding to the discussion about it.

      (And I've got your ASK JKM a Question coming up Monday afternoon...Thanks for sending it!)


  2. Great thoughts. I love the depth of philosophy that can be discussed from this film. I watched this awhile ago and still shudder at the mention of those scenes, but that let's you know they had the impact that they were intended to. Thanks for expounding on the overarching ideas that are not so easily accessible.

    1. Hi Zach,

      Thank you for the comment!

      I agree with you about this film and philosophy.

      Irreversible is open to some rich analysis and interpretation, and some of the symbols have multiple meanings, even.

      The violence is, indeed, absolutely brutal. The movie is not for those with a weak stomach, and the violent scenes have tremendous impact. But, there is also tremendous beauty in the film, as I hope the review indicates in some fashion.

      All my best,

  3. As usual, you've crafted a fine examination of film, John. One that places a great many things in context, and describes what is around us. That said, I've no interest in seeing the film. Mostly, because I'm only too aware that I'll be unable to un-see it (given the number of the reactions out there concerning it). My memory can be too good (the downside of what I inherited from my mother). I applaud you, though, that you could, and dissected it with such precision and veracity for your readers. But, I guess at my age, contrary to the things I thought and dared when younger, there's a line I won't cross nowadays. Thanks for this.

    1. Le0pard13:

      I totally understand and respect your decision not to watch Irreversible, my friend.

      In the end, this is a call we all have to make for ourselves, based on our tolerance levels and other factors (like memory, as you note).

      In fact, this is the very subject of a question a reader asked me (coming up on Monday).

      I found the film immensely upsetting, but also cathartic, in some sense, in the way I describe in the review. For me, I'm glad I saw the film and took this particular journey...

      All my best, my friend,


    2. Thanks so much, John. Just for completeness, and the fact I cited you in the piece, here are more of my thoughts regarding that decision I posted last year in a discussion of morality and filmmaking (and another poster's thoughts on 'Irreversible').

  4. Anonymous12:23 PM

    I encountered this film in a somewhat sideways direction, referred to it by an off-hand remark in a video game review. I became curious, but also had an idea what I was getting myself into after doing some reading.

    So there it was in my Netflix streamables - and I watched it. Saying the film is an intense one would be doing the word an injustice. The wheeling, untethered, nausea-inducing camera during Marcus' headlong and almost mindless invasion of "The Rectum" (ahem) was so monumentally disorienting that I did nearly put it down, but I soldiered on through.

    With that said, however. I did watch the film in two discreet chunks. After the rape scene in the tunnel I simply turned the film off and let my mind process it for a week. Then once I was ready for it, I watched the rest.

    When I was done I had a very strong feeling that I had seen something very important - and I also have the very strong feeling that I never ever wished to see it again.

    I'm pretty sure that feeling hasn't changed. However, I must say thank you once again for putting words to paper that I can fit many of my gut feelings into. I feel that your take on it fits, and makes sense.

    Thanks as always for an insightful and compelling review of a very difficult (and significant) film.

  5. I appreciate this pondering on the film and the mere fact that you've given so much thought to a film deserving of it, and much more. I have to say I can't swallow a central part of your point, though Now very well might have been aiming at the same thing as you're suggesting. Your three major points are variously contradictory and incompatible with one another. If everything is pre-ordained, and determinism is a correct interpretation of existence, then there's no function to suggesting that we should be decent to one another. We won't be, or we will be, and our coggish actions are merely present, unalterable.

    You could say "oh, but his making this film is also part of this pre-ordainedness of 'time' and therefore it's just as naturally part of the existence of everything that Noe should make this film and people will learn from it," notwithstanding that all of this learning is part of the plan and couldn't have not happened anyway. But how facetious and circular would that be? But that brings me to the second point, that you cant (or you can, but it wouldn't work well) argue that time is not linear and all moments are happening at the same time but they are also unalterable. It's possible, simply because from what physicists (/don't) know if the universe anything is possible, but it's fruitless and meaningless, it doesn't successfully bring you from "everything is terrible and beautiful at the same time and it's all happening now and simply a part of the universe" to "be good to each other."

    Without a doubt, Noe was trying to make us better, and maybe he was suggesting the same thing you were, but even if so, I don't believe that's where the powerfully compelling aspect of this insanely powerful film is coming from.

    Anyway, my two cents, but I'm genuinely grateful for the thoughtful read and the close look at an amazing film. Cheers.