After notorious walkouts at Cannes and the controversy around the difficult, long, unrelenting rape scene, this was high on my must-see list of the last year. Not for voyeuristic reasons, but because, like A Clockwork Orange before it, the most controversial films are often those with the most to say.
This is not a date movie. Nor is it a pleasant, enjoyable experience. It is, however, pure cinema from a director working at the highest technical level, with the camera, with lighting, with makeup, with scripting and with performance.
Irreversible is that rare beast, a self-contained experience which goes beyond the cinematic and aesthetic to show something real, both touching and frightening, beautiful and horrific, simple and innovative. The first twenty minutes are among the toughest you will encounter on the screen. The sound whines and hums, the camera spins in all directions, disorientating and showing glimpses of the scene. Dialogue is sparse, the same lines being repeated over and over again. The subject matter is unpleasant, taking place in a seedy gay club, the protagonists (Dupontel and Cassel) searching for someone called the Tenia (named after a tape-worm). And when they find him, there is a sequence which lasts maybe two minutes which is incredibly difficult to watch, yet difficult not to watch. Almost in disbelief, you cannot believe what you are watching is happening, yet marvel at how real it is, both technically and in terms of human character.
Beyond that, the film does not let up for about another half an hour, as the backwards-played story begins to piece itself together, leading to an act of provocation unrivalled in cinema history. My second viewing of the film was with a 21-year-old female who found it the hardest scene she had ever watched. It is the details of the rape that make it so shocking - her constant crying and squirming, his inherent joy at her discomfort, his pinning of her arms and gagging her mouth, the passer-by who sees the scene and walks away, unbeknownst to either of them. And when the long, unsettling scene is over, the greatest act of destruction occurs - the destruction of purity and beauty. Yet, as the film is told backwards, when the rape is over, we know there is more to come as we have already seen the aftermath. The brilliance is in naively praying it won't happen, resigned to the knowledge that it will.
My co-viewer demanded that we stop the film there but i had to insist that she finish the film. Without following the film through to the end(or the beginning), we would not know the reason that the director put these scenes in front of us. For me the greatest scenes are those that follow - the party scene, the subway journey of the three main characters, the post-dream awakening of the central couple - because they lift the film out of enfant terrible provocation and into a place of simultaneous beauty and pessimism, making sense of the journey all three characters are about to embark on. In particular the significance of dreams is a key theme, along with the linear, destructive power of time which the whole film is playing around with.
The film ends with the most difficult sequence to watch, the spinning beautiful image of Monica Bellucci prior to any of the events of the film followed by a strobe light effect which is physically difficult to watch, burning images and words into the brain.
Clearly Noe is a director intent on provoking a reaction and - thank God - it is impossible not to react to this film. You may hate it, you may admire it or you may be disgusted by it. All of these are perfect reactions to it. You cannot be indifferent to it. While it is undoubtedly a hard film to sit through, if you put in the effort it rewards in dividends. And it not only deserves but really requires multiple viewings, if you can stomach it. There is far more than can be taken in on the first visit, much to decipher and interpret that I will not spoil here.
While it does seem to reference the controversy of the aforementioned Kubrick classic - taking the violence and sexual abuse aspects to new levels, updating for a new generation - and even directly tips its hat to Kubrick - panning down from a poster of 2001 as classical music swells, before going into a psychadelic head-trip - this is a much harder, yet more humane film than Kubrick ever achieved. There is unpleasantness here, do not be fooled, but there is also insightful comment on the nature of humanity, instinct, violence, even love and relationships which alone makes the film worthy of appreciation. It is not a film all will be able to sit through - for a start, its subtitled! - but it is a film which deserves to be seen at least once by anyone with an appreciation of cinema. It is among the finest examples of modern French cinema available and one of the most intelligent and original films from anywhere in the last five years.
Finally, it wouldn't be right to hail the film without mentioning the performers. Monica Bellucci is outstanding in an undoubtedly difficult part, conveying the beauty, intelligence, womanliness, emotion and despair of Alex in a way that never screams "Moviestar!" and is always believable. Dupontel is wonderful in perhaps the film's most interesting role, a complex intellectual who, it is often overlooked, gives in to his most primal urges. He is sad, smart, witty and ultimately disturbed. But highest praise goes to Cassel, one of the most interesting actors working, who carries most of the film, emitting charm, energy, fear, shock, humour and weakness. It is hard not to focus on him in any given scene and impossible to catch him acting, high praise indeed given the other subjects which often fill the screen (not least the stunning Bellucci). Together, they are prime examples of true actors giving themselves over completely to their characters in a way that the likes of Nicole Kidman simply can't. They may be stars, but they are first and foremost brilliant performers.
Take caution, but do not miss if you get the chance.