Sometimes you watch movies to be entertained, to relax and take a peak into some different mode of living. This is not a movie for those times.Irreversible (2002) is artistically uncompromising, the violence portrayed in it is visceral and difficult to distance yourself from in a way that will most likely leave many a viewer nauseous and ill at ease. It is supposed to, that is the whole purpose.
The story is told in reverse order, starting at its most brutal and bloody point. It is not the catharsis of justified violence that you can sometimes find in action and thrillers. The way the viewer is introduced into the narrative seems so random and incongruous that your curiosity is awakened along with a sense of foreboding, even if things are already about as bad as they can get.
The scene is set for the unraveling of something inevitable. The only question left is what has led up to this point. The key players are Alex (Monica Bellucci) and her boyfriend Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and their friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel) and the bad guy Le Tenia (Jo Prestia). When when enter the action a man has been beaten to death in a local gay fetish club. As the event unfolds themselves in reverse the viewer is led through the inferno of the the club through a mad search through Paris for a man called Le Tenia and further back to the brutal assault on Alex and then even further back to a party and the evening before the party. The end, which is the chronological beginning, is actually a beautiful idyllic setting in a park where Alex is sitting in the sunshine surrounded by children and families, reading a book. The very last scene, the coda which is the beginning in reverse order, states simple “Le temps detruit tout”, time destroys everything. It seems like a pretty trite piece of wisdom, but after having been through the descent into the very nethermost regions of hell and the lowest representation of human nature, it is still poignant.
The camera pans wildly every time the scene is about to change, every time the viewer is taken back one step in time, in a dizzying three hundred and sixty degrees spin. It is not pleasant to watch, rather it becomes a harbinger, something that heightens the sense of dread and foreboding. The reverse order of events also means we start at the meanest, darkest point and move toward lighter better things. That does nothing to soothe the sense that things have gone awry in an irreparable way, that the three main characters lives are never going to be the same, that something has been so badly broken that it can never be put back right again.
That is what the violence does, in this particular narrative. The vicious assault on the lovely Alex, played excellently by Monica Belluci, is definitely one of the most difficult rape scenes I have ever seen. The static camera is unrelenting, as is the violence, and it doesn’t give the viewer any reprieve in a tactful averting of eyes. Not only is the viewer asked to bear witness to the violation, the aggressor Le Tenia also beats Alex to a bloody pulp before he is done with her. It might seem like this could be gratuitous, but the problem, or the brilliance of it, is that it is too realistic, or maybe even naturalistic, to be in any way something that caters to an objectifying gaze.
The resulting chase through the underbelly of the French gay scene in search of Le Tenia shows an increasingly fraying Marcus followed by Pierre, who starts out as trying to be the voice of reason, though that ends up being a terrible miscalculation. The fact of the matter is that revenge is a loser’s game, not surprising, and it’s so utterly pointless in this particular narrative that there really is no reprieve for neither the characters, nor the viewer.
Not all movies mean to tie up everything in a nice big bow of morality and easy lessons. This is a brutal, dark, harrowing tale that shows how something can be so thoroughly broken that it will never be put right and that events can turn even the most unassuming protagonist into what he himself despises. The fact that the story is told with such passion and artistic daring only drives that home. And it is daring to make something as provocative and unpleasant as this, something that intends to upset and nauseate the viewer through its use of camera angles, a grating, harsh soundtrack and an unflinching approach to brutal, sadistic violence.
This is a difficult movie to watch, both in content and in artistic style, and it stays with you once the screen has gone dark. Thought provoking and controversial content means you have to be willing to take on the task of sitting through a narrative that is not going to leave you unmoved, but that is in no way easy fare. If you are willing to do that, though, this movie will richly reward you.