This review contains major spoilers throughout.
At the time of writing, Irreversible finds itself in the half-enviable, half-pitiable position of being this year’s censorship hot potato, with the BBFC’s new president forced to make a choice as to whether he should ask for the film to be cut, to be passed as it is, or, most dramatically of all, for it to be banned outright. Given that remarkably few major films are ever banned in this country- let alone nominees for the Palme d’Or at Cannes- the last option might sound extreme, but Gaspar Noe, the director, has indicated that he would rather that the film be banned than edited in any way. Given the sheer nature of at least two scenes in the film, it is hard to imagine that the BBFC would not ask for cuts, on the grounds that a film such as Fight Club, which was nothing like as shocking as this, was similarly cut on its cinema release. Therefore, with the film unreleased in most English-speaking countries at the time of writing, it is necessary for many people to adopt a philosophical position on the film without having actually seen it, instead relying on hearsay and the defence of ‘free speech’; why, one might ask, should the intelligent adult not be in a position to watch a genuinely original and thought-provoking work of cinema, because he or she is told that it is ‘not suitable’?
The film’s plot is already fairly infamous; after the Cannes premiere, the papers were full of screaming headlines announcing the ‘9 minute rape marathon’ that the film features. However, the essential storyline is that of a rape revenge film, as told backwards, as Noe follows the descent of Max (Cassel) and Alex (Bellucci) from happy young lovers to, in the case of one, a rape victim in a coma, and, in the other, a psychotic would-be avenger with a broken arm. Although Noe’s decision to follow backwards chronology was attacked by some critics as little more than an attempt to ape Memento, the truth is that it comes as a blessed relief that, after the first 45 minutes, there is some light and shade; if the film ended after the sheer horror of the accumulated violence of the opening, it is hard to imagine the psychological effect on the average viewer. (Incidentally, in the screening I attended, one person fainted and six people walked out; Noe, in the post-film discussion, seemed quite pleased by this, announcing that it was less than at other showings he had been to.)
The attitude of most people towards the film might well be a kind of ‘Oh, it won’t be that violent, it’s only hype’, and it’ll be interesting to see if people who have actually seen the film announce ‘It wasn’t that violent, after all’. Certainly, in comparison to, say, the average action film there is little in the way of violence, just as Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (an excellent point of comparison) featured very little actual carnage. There are only three scenes of fairly extreme brutality, one of which (when a central character has his arm broken, prior to an attempted rape) is merely squirm-inducingly horrible, rather than actually disturbing. Likewise, the already infamous murder by fire extinguisher, although utterly vile in execution, is so removed from reality, in both action and context, that one watches with a kind of appalled fascination, even as the unbelievable horror unfolds. If the film never became any more effective than this, a great deal of the criticism that the film presents violence for the sake of it might well be justified.
However, the third scene, the extended rape and beating in the underpass, is where the film goes into deeply disturbing territory. The most hideous thing about the scene isn’t so much the actual violence, or even the evocation of the utterly random nature of the attack, but the immense, heartbreaking sadness of it, as the viewer is compelled to watch a young woman absolutely destroyed on every level imaginable, with no pity or mercy in the execution. There are no tricks of editing to make it more palatable, and no saccharine score to make us ‘feel’ something. Instead, the camera watches, in unforgiving close up, as a woman is mercilessly raped and then beaten into a coma, and the viewer is made to feel as much of an accomplice in the attack as an unknown figure who we see appear at the end of the tunnel, observe what is happening, and the silently leave. That, the film suggests, is what we have become as a society, people so desensitised to violence that we merely observe and then move on without implicating ourselves. If the film has one unqualified achievement, it is to re-sensitise one to the true horrors that the human is capable of, and, by extension, to challenge the viewer into re-assessing his or her own life. In a brilliant, and already lauded, juxtaposition, we are shown Max and Alex in a later, although earlier-set, sequence, where an apparently idyllic love scene is undermined by the fact that Max’s actions have hideous parallels with those of the rapist later on; the implication, and one that seems bound to outrage and upset many, is that the ‘normal’ relationships lived by people are only separated from the horrors that we have already been shown by slight degrees.
It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to notice that a vast amount of the pornography in the world today is based around themes of bondage, submission, domination and ‘deviant’ sexual practices; however, these are intended, supposedly, for ‘normal’ people. The film suggests that, much as we might consider ourselves to be normal, none of us are able to resist the possibility of a decline into insanity and violence if a certain series of events came into play, just as we might be turned on, on the most superficial level imaginable, by the image of a very beautiful woman (Bellucci, in this case) without any clothes on. Then, once it has been established that we find that sexually attractive, the film confronts us with the image of that woman being brutally raped, in a fashion only a few degrees removed from the kind of fantasies that pornography thrives on. Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs attracted, and may well continue to attract, a vast amount of controversy for suggesting that the Susan George character in some way ‘enjoyed’ being raped; however unpleasant such a suggestion might be, at least it is more psychologically honest than a piece of mainstream filmmaking presenting a character’s rape as a kind of piece of erotic stimulation, or, at most, as a kind of incidental act of violence that will be happily avenged by the end credits. What Irreversible presents is the bleak motto ‘Time destroys everything’, and that motto is both deeply depressing and impossible to argue with; while Thomas Gray might have told us, in his Elegy in a Country Churchyard, that ‘the paths of glory lead but to the grave’, a more favoured interpretation is the pious Victorianism of ‘Time heals all wounds’. It is for the viewer to decide which is preferable, and, perhaps more pertinently, which is more accurate.
On a technical level, the film is a tour de force. Noe shoots the film in around 9 long takes, of 10 minutes apiece, and stages the film backwards; thus, the debts to such works as Rope and Memento become obvious, although the film’s vast difference to those works is never in doubt. Intelligently, Noe varies the camerawork throughout, in order to give insight into the mental state of the central characters; the opening 20 minutes are shot with a kind of hyperactive, swaying effect which, coupled with the hideous nature of what is happening, is likely to make many people feel profoundly uneasy and unsettled. Of course, this is precisely the point that Noe is attempting to make. As the film proceeds, the filmmaking style becomes more and more conventional, until the exquisite beauty of the final shots of a pregnant Alex, which only serves to emphasise the bleakness and poignancy of all that will happen to the characters. There are numerous references to the work of Stanley Kubrick throughout the film, both in terms of the obvious (there are posters of 2001 and The Killing in early scenes, Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’, as used in The Shining, is heard at the start of the opening credits, which are in themselves very reminiscent of those in Kubrick’s films, and one of the central characters is named Alex, as in A Clockwork Orange), and the less immediately apparent, such as the heartbreaking use of Beethoven’s Symphony number 7 at the film’s close, which reminds one of the similarly poignant use of Handel in Barry Lyndon, amongst other things. The performances are excellent, as you would expect; Cassel deals superbly with his character’s reversed journey from psychotic avenger to loving boyfriend, Bellucci is warm and utterly sympathetic, and DuPontel is strong as Alex’s oh-so-civilised former lover who, eventually, ends up murdering her imagined rapist. (Incidentally, a key argument is whether he kills the ‘right’ person or not. While I’d leave it for you to decide for yourselves, it’s worth noting that the film’s ‘message’ is vastly altered by one’s perception of his actions.)
A question that hasn’t really been answered by this review is whether the film is actually any good. I’ve given it 10/10 less from conventional artistic merit than because I believe that it is, for better or for worse, a film that every single intelligent adult should be given the chance to see, and that it is utterly essential viewing for anyone who is at all interested in the power of cinema to shock, challenge and provoke. However, it is not a piece of entertainment in the way that something like, say, Spiderman or Minority Report is, nor is it the sort of literate, intelligent European drama that Cassel and Bellucci have established their reputations making. This is genuine, no-holds-barred filmmaking with the safety belt off; I would also hesitate to recommend it to anyone who goes to the cinema for entertainment, as it is anything but ‘fun’. (It is, at all times, horribly gripping, but that is hardly the same thing.) Certainly, the film can be described as a successful piece of filmmaking on a technical level, but, thematically, it will affect most people in vastly different ways. Some may feel that they do not need to see a film of this kind, and that their lives will not be in any way benefited by watching it. This is not a ‘wrong’ point of view; it is perfectly acceptable to avoid this film like the plague, and there is no shame in admitting so.
One can but hope that Quentin Thomas and the BBFC pass the film, so that you are given the choice of whether to see the film or not; such a decision is one that every single rational adult should be allowed to make, and it is a test of the intelligence of a classifier’s board as to whether they accept the intelligence of the average viewer. In a sense, it’s a shame that the film has attracted so much controversy, as it will now attract the prurient and underage teenagers looking for cheap kicks. However, this is not the film for them; it is, without a doubt, the single most disturbing piece of cinema that I have ever seen, but also one of the most emotionally affecting and thought-provoking. If the BBFC see sense and pass the film uncut, I leave it up to you as to whether you ignore the inevitable media hysteria and judge it for what it is, or whether you go and see Men in Black 2 once more. I know what I’d do.
And, on that note, this is the final review I’ll be writing for Times, mainly because I don’t have enough time to write for it any more; thanks for reading my reviews over the past year or so, thanks for occasionally agreeing with me, and thanks for all the feedback, positive, negative or just utterly bizarre, that I’ve had. As Vinnie Jones once put it, ‘It’s been emotional.’