Anyone interested in a good cinematic felching should look no further than Gaspar Noé’s notorious backward-moving revenge drama Irreversible (Lions Gate). The movie, the latest in a line of punky Gallic farts-in-our-general-direction, wants to violate you in the most lasting ways imaginable. First comes brutality so extreme that it borders on pornography: a man’s head being battered into mush in close-up, an anal rape of Monica Bellucci that lasts nine minutes—filmed in one take with a stationary camera. Eventually there are scenes of tenderness and beauty that constitute, in context, an emotional assault. This is a movie in which a final image of children in springtime, their gambols underscored by the plaintive second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, is unbearably cruel: You know by this point (if you’ve seen fit to stick around) that innocence can only be destroyed and the guilty left unpunished. Those children have a hell of a life ahead.
The movie comes on like a cyclone: a backward-sideways credit sequence, a blast of industrial noise (it sounds like someone turning a hedge-trimmer on and off outside your window while you’re trying to sleep), a camera that moves in on the action like a listing, drunken hang glider. After a prologue featuring a character from Noé’s last abrasive character study, I Stand Alone (1998), and such wearying existential sentiments as “There are no bad deeds, just deeds,” the camera plunges into a nearby gay S&M club called—with characteristic subtlety—”The Rectum.” A bloodied man named Marcus (Vincent Cassel) is removed on a stretcher; behind him, his companion, Pierre (Albert Dupontel), is hauled off to prison for an unnamed act of violence while the crowd around the building taunts him with homosexual epithets.
What’s going on? Well, Pierre is not a homosexual, as it turns out. He is a philosophy professor and former beau of Marcus’ lover Alex (Bellucci), who has apparently been viciously raped and beaten early in the evening by a Rectum habitué known as Le Tenia (Jo Prestia). Marcus has gone to the Rectum for vengeance, and Pierre has tagged along—ostensibly to talk him out of it but ultimately to assume the avenger’s role. Over the next 90 minutes the movie moves back in time in the manner of Memento (2000), each scene giving you a context for the preceding one, until at last, in the end (i.e., the beginning), the arc of the narrative is revealed—and the audience stares at the beautiful but wary face of Bellucci and grasps the full scope of the horror it has witnessed.
The 12 scenes of Irreversible—each shot in a single, semi-improvised take—constitute something of a tour de force. But so would being dragged through the streets by a wire noose. There is something to be said for violence that isn’t stylized and made to seem “fun”—that actually makes you feel like Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971) with your eyes pried open and no cathartic release. It could be argued that this is the only moral way to present violence, so that it hurts.
But there is nothing moral about Irreversible—only sneeringly superior and nihilistic, like Johnny Rotten at his most fatuous. Noé’s camera leers at Bellucci in her bodice-hugging dress as she moves through the underground tunnel in which she’ll meet her grisly fate: He’s on the verge of implying that such quivering ripeness can’t be left unmolested in a world like this, that by natural law it ought to be defiled.
It’s difficult to know what to do during those nine minutes in which Bellucci lies prone, moaning and weeping, while Prestia convincingly simulates a violent buggering. You can stare at her cleavage or at her long, extended leg. You can close your eyes and wait for the sounds to end. You can leave—although Noé would probably consider that a victory; he’d call you a bourgeois “pussy.” With all the heterosexual rapists of women in the world, Noé has chosen to make this one a homosexual who can’t help himself from wanting to sully and finally obliterate such beauty, even if it’s female. His portrait of gays and their lifestyle makes Cruising (1980) look like Philadelphia (1993). Irreversible might be the most homophobic movie ever made.
The scenes in the last third of Irreversible—before the climactic violence—are unfocused and repetitive, but by then your head feels as beaten in as the characters’. There’s a strange sexual vibe when Pierre quizzes Alex on the metro about her and Marcus’ sex life: The improvised dialogue is so fuzzy that it’s hard to get a fix on the subtext, but the whole movie finally seems rooted in sexual envy of Bellucci’s cover-girl splendor. The director is given to masking his true (if perhaps unconscious) intentions with pretentious placards like “Time Destroys Everything” and Nietzsche’s “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”—which he apparently picked up not from the original text but from the screenplay of Conan the Barbarian(1982). The publicity for Irreversible also includes the line “Vengeance Is Man’s Right,” which I’d like to think explains the tone of this review. I’m just doing what comes naturally.