Home > Uncategorized > Gut-Punch Theater: Irreversible (2002)

Gut-Punch Theater: Irreversible (2002)

Film: Irreversible (2002)

Director: Gaspar Noe

Cast: Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel

Film is such an expansive medium with infinite possibilities in terms of content, theme, and execution.  Most of the movies that premier for the masses follow a ritualized structure based on a successful formula: character introduction, inciting incident, conflict presentation, second inciting incident, the low point, conflict resolution, credits.  It’s all well and good, but there are other options and ways of telling a story that don’t follow this industry pattern.  Take, for instance, this film I’m writing about, Irreversible.  I’m not recommending it to anyone, I won’t.  The film goes too far on more than one occasion, but for the right reason.

Let me explain.  It’s a French movie that allows the viewer a unique experience in brutality that is certainly not meant for the squeamish.  Ever cover your eyes during a movie?  Don’t watch this.  I’m going to get the tough parts out of the way so I can illustrate my point:  there’s a scene in which a man has his face literally beaten to a pulp by a fire extinguisher and an 8-minute sequence where a woman is savagely raped and beaten.  Neither of these scenes are fun, stylized, or easy to watch.  It’s how they’re presented that really upsets the viewer.  The fire extinguisher scene takes place within the first 10 or 15 minutes of the film, an opening that I might add leaves a queasy feeling in your stomach because the camera fails to sit stationary for even a moment.  And I’m talking about spinning, swooping, and swirling camera movement accompanied with a low hum heard in the background that apparently was intentionally placed to make the viewer uncomfortable.  Believe me, it’s all uncomfortable.  We follow two men who are looking for a man to exact revenge of some sort into a gay night club.  The audience is unsure of the circumstances because the film is told in reverse, essentially starting at the very last moment of the story and ending at the very beginning. Got it?  So once they find their man (presumably) one of our heroes beats him to death, and beyond, with that damn fire extinguisher.  At long last, the camera finally stops shaking and spinning, stations itself on the floor just a few feet away from the man’s face, and never cuts away for even a second while the bludgeoning takes place.  You almost FEEL every blow this man endures, even beyond his death.  Literally, the only thing left is some mush that used to be the skin on his face and his exposed skull.  My hands clenched up terribly out of sheer discomfort.  There’s no way to prepare yourself to see something like that, it’s visceral.

Now, the other scene, which many say is even more troubling (me included) takes place in a secluded tunnel beneath the streets of Paris.  Our beautiful heroine walks alone, encounters a man roughing up a female companion, and before she knows it the man has switched victims and she’s at his mercy.  My stomach is churning just thinking about it.  Now, for the record, this scene takes place only 15 to 20 minutes after the ghastly face beating in terms of the movie time, but actually takes place earlier in the timeline of the story. Still with me?  Much like the earlier scene, we’re forced to watch every single moment of the attack in one long, vicious shot that fails to cut away for one second as the camera sits calmly on the floor.  It goes on for 8 minutes, folks.  8 cut-less, brutal, nauseating minutes.  It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen on film.  I’m not sure how an actor acts that scene out for that length of time, but they sell it in a way that made my blood turn cold.

Here’s the catch: when the assault ends, you’re only halfway through the film.  “There’s another hour of this filth??” you might ask.  The answer is yes, kind of.  Yes it goes on for another hour, but the film switches it’s tone drastically.  We find out who these people are and how they came to be in the situations we’ve just witnessed.  We watch a party scene where the woman and the two men (her current and former lover) are hanging out together and the eventual confrontation with her lover that leads to her leaving alone.  I want to stop there for a sec.  A fight between a boyfriend and girlfriend at a party is nothing new, even mundane for storytelling purposes.  But an argument that leads to the woman walking out on her own when the audience already knows the outcome of that decision?  That amps up the tension and the foreboding feeling in the scene to the highest level.  You just want to grab her and him and say “What are you thinking???  Don’t let her leave alone!!!”  And that’s the beauty of this structure.  To have the film flow linearly would remove the context of the story and theme of the film, reducing it to pornographic terms of starting with pointless banter and ending with the proverbial “money-shot”.  Not so in this flick.

There’s nothing beautiful about the beginning of the film, it feels like exploitation to the highest degree.  But, by the end of the movie (the beginning of the story) we’re treated to some exceptionally tender moments between the two lovers as they lovingly caress and hold one another in an especially touching scene that takes place just a few hours before the mayhem that ensues.  Therein lies the heartbreak of the story.  An evening that began with such love and serenity ends in such a heinous fashion that the only way to stomach the story would be to watch it in reverse.  And as such, the film moves up to another level from exploitive to art.  We get to see the descent of these common people through the events of the story and decisions they make.  There’s something about knowing the outcome of the character before seeing the circumstances that brought them to that conclusion.  Especially when that conclusion is as unsettling and dehumanizing as it is.  These were human beings who had their humanity stripped from them through a series of moments and events that changed their lives forever.  I’m just glad I got to watch it in reverse.

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