Note: Plot spoilers, sort of. As the movie works in reverse, technically, you know the conclusion at the start.
Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible comes at you hard. Early scenes take you careening down dark twisty hallways, deep inside a sex club called “The Rectum.” As the camera passes men in mid-sex-acts, the soundtrack roars and grinds, dragging you down even further, into the mind of Marcus (Vincent Cassel), as he seeks out “Le Tenia” (the Tapeworm, played by kickboxing champion Jo Prestia). Their eventual confrontation, barely comprehensible, ends with Marcus’ rape and Le Tenia’s brutal murder, his head bashed in with a fire extinguisher.
While this early sequence is so overwhelmingly visceral that the specifics are sometimes illegible, the film’s much-discussed centerpiece — Le Tenia’s vicious rape and beating of a beautiful girl, Alex (Monica Bellucci, married to Cassel) — is plainly displayed. For nine minutes, the camera doesn’t move, just sets up on the floor of an underground pedestrian tunnel and watches. The scene is harrowing, visceral, uncommonly difficult, and it has educed vehemently polarized responses, from disgust at its explicitness, to awed respect for its nihilist daring and existentialist grandeur. Irréversible has nerve, that’s for sure.
It also has outrage, fear, and a severe, if skewed, sense of morality, at once uncompromising and irrational. For all its menace, for all its apparently scandalous cruelty, Noé’s film (much like Eyes Wide Shut, his self-declared inspiration) is primarily an indictment of narrative conventions and belief systems. Disdaining the ease with which violence is made thrilling and viewers identify with those who perpetrate it, the movie makes a case for the complacency and lack of self-reflection that stake most moral grounds. Judgment and entertainment are dangerously analogous. (Consider the U.S. news items titled “Target: Iraq” or “Showdown with Saddam.”)
Irréversible‘s first scene establishes the base for this indictment, as the butcher Philippe (Philippe Nahon) — the abusive protagonist of Noé’s first, also “controversial” feature, 1998’s Seul Contre Tous (I Stand Alone) — recalls his crimes for an impassive, chain-smoking listener: “I was in the joint,” Phillipe says. I slept with my daughter.” “Ah,” comes the bland and profound rejoinder, “The Western syndrome.”
The movie proceeds to unravel this syndrome — the guilt and desire, retribution and machismo that underpin so much myth and history. The plot unfurls in reverse (in 12 single takes), so that this first scene will become a kind of annotation on comes after. The next scene is the first to show Marcus and his fire-extinguisher-wielding friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel), specifically, the consequence of their punishment of Le Tenia, the man who raped and beat Alex into a coma: Marcus is carried out of The Rectum on a stretcher, Pierre is hauled away in handcuffs, grimly bumping along the street in a police van.
The events that lead up to this pathetic and devastating finale are rendered in images increasingly legible, increasingly dissociated from Marcus and Pierre’s internal frenzies (and so, somewhat ironically, easier to grasp and evaluate). It turns out that they share a sense of culpability, and act to redeem themselves, as boys tend to do in movies. Following a fight at a party where Marcus is inebriated and obnoxious, they allow Alex, currently Marcus’ girlfriend and formerly Pierre’s, to leave alone. Upset, she elects to walk through an underground tunnel rather than navigate the traffic on the street above. Here she runs into Le Tenia, a gay pimp, fuming for his own reasons. The film’s final moments, pre-rape, grant access to Alex’s experience, the secrets she withholds from Marcus, as well as her (frankly, rather conventional) embodiment of life and hope.
This backwards structure has inevitably drawn comparisons to Memento, but where Chris Nolan’s film sucked you up inside Leonard’s traumatized mind, Noé’s jumps from one character to another: the self-involved beau, jealous ex, the self-possessed object of their parallel affections. The very familiarity of these tensions makes the characters’ sensational fates all the more disturbing. Alex’s anger at the self-involved Marcus has a source that he can’t know; Pierre’s continuing devotion to Alex shapes his relationships with both his friends, in ways that none of them articulates. And each makes choices that are, in effect, irreversible.
Some of these choices — especially those made late in the film (or, early in the chronology) — appear quite ordinary. Alex, Marcus, and Pierre take the metro to the party, as Pierre’s car is unexpectedly unavailable. Marcus leaves the bedroom he shares with Alex (featuring a poster for 2001) to buy a bottle of wine, leaving Alex alone. She prepares for the evening, showering while the camera watches her with a detachment that’s striking after the too-closeness of the rape scene. Marcus acts out at the party, sloppy with some girls in the bathroom, as Pierre chides him for abandoning Alex. The lovers’ tiff seems inconsequential, except that you know it’s not.
The decisions taken by Marcus and Pierre are momentous, and they come in a rush. Standing alongside the ambulance, they’re encouraged to seek the rapist by a couple of brutish types, looming over them, implying they are “pussies” to count on the cops (“The police will do shit!”). The urgency of this moment, the realization that, as one thug insists, “Vengeance is a human right,” strikes Marcus and Pierre suddenly. Now their night, so confusing and awful, has a trajectory, one they might make. Moved by fury and frustration, they take what appears to be the film’s most overtly potent decision. But they also step into a moment that is almost unspeakably mundane, much like some other movie: they head off to find The Rectum, accost a tranny prostitute, beat up a cabdriver, their panic building all the while.
The majority of moments in Irréversible are less manifestly charged. It’s only after the plot per se comes clear that they take on significance. The emotional (and ethical) catch is this: though the characters are unable to see beyond their separate, present moments, you know the fallouts from jump. This makes Irréversible‘s most radical aspect not its depictions of havoc and ferocity, but its more gradual mindfuck, the vengeance it takes on viewers.
Delivering the end of the revenge tale first, the film undercuts any customary emotional payoff. Marcus and Pierre’s attack on Le Tenia doesn’t offer up the same satisfaction as a Willis, Eastwood, or Snipes tearing up his sworn enemy, as you’ve been permitted no investment in the mission or the characters. What you see at first is just violence, abstract and sadistic, only meanness and savagery and bloody pulpness.
Similarly, the rape occurs before you meet Alex, before you’ve even seen her face, except as it appears, ravaged and unrecognizable, on a stretcher headed to an ambulance. “Time destroys everything,” asserts a written title. Well, yes, but it also grants resonance and creates meaning. It provides readers with seeming distance and overdetermined perspective, lets you make (what you presume is) your own sense. That you rarely feel responsible for the sense you make is to the point.
If responsibility remains elusive, eventually, the context for Irréversible‘s horrors becomes obvious. (So does its non-causal timeline: the murder seems to result from the rape, the rape from a quarrel, the quarrel from a realization, etc.) This context is simultaneously cynical and melodramatic, more familiar and more traumatic than the initial, intimidating obscurity of that scene in the Rectum. Finally, you know, there is no sense to what happens, no moral frame, no cause, even if you want to make it. The only sense here is that Western syndrome, the meaning imposed on events by those with the capacity and nerve to interpret and own it. Control, however, remains impossible. And that’s what the Western syndrome will never acknowledge.