Challenging the very notion of why we go to the movies, Irreversible is a semi-improvised film revenge drama which, like Baise-Moi before it, has stirred up much controversy largely because of one pivotal scene. In this case it’s a no-holds-barred rape. But there’s of course more here – better and worse – than gratuitous violence, if you can make it past the first few gut-wrenching, near-unwatchable scenes. With the theme of time destroys everything, it’s a good thing Irreversible’s story is told in reverse order.
Real-life husband-and-wife team Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci play Marcel and Alex, a young couple very much in love whose everyday life ends in tragedy. His face is smashed repeatedly with a fire extinguisher in a gay dungeon while a selection of gimps and leatherboys gode on his attacker. Her face is covered in blood and she is thrust comatose into an ambulance. As the camera spins dizzingly (and maddeningly) around and the soundtrack and events conspire to unwind any sense of sequence and logic, we find the distressing storyline being unveiled, Memento-like, backwards, from the end credits at the start onwards, explaining how this shocking finale/introduction came to be.
Ever more context is added to the seemingly inexplicable and highly disturbing events until we get to the mid-point of the film, and that rape scene. And it would take a lot not to be moved by it as the camera resolutely holds station for something like seven minutes, in focus, and absorbs every horrific detail. Moments later we get Alex’s views on orgasms and men which, in retrospect, are particularly poignant. Here is a good-time girl enjoying life at a party, and in Marcel we have a boy off his head on cocaine. It’s their very ordinariness, and the audience’s foreknowledge of their fate, that makes their story compelling, and for this reason alone makes the reverse-order recounting justified.
But, shocking, stressful and reaction-inducing though it is, one has to wonder if such facets of filmmaking are enough to justify the end product. The film’s official website seeks to justify the project, giving many and varied reasons for why it should exist. Should such justification be necessary for a movie? Bellucci and Cassell both act out of their socks – and everything else – and the technical achievement of the improvisational long takes is impressive. It does make one consider seriously how tenuous fleeting happiness is. It does not titilate, nor is it pornographic. But the end product is as maddenning as the final strobe effects and the brazen contrivance on display. Irreversibly unwatchable, this film will lurk in memory like some obscenely graphic nightmare. But it’s certainly not a film to be loved.