IRREVERSIBLE (Irréversible) A
France (97 mi) 2002 ‘Scope d: Gaspar Noé
A film whose reputation precedes the first viewing, knowing in advance that something terribly ugly was going to happen right away, one can’t help but be dumfounded at the superb use of sound in the opening sequence. Mind you, from all the advance hype one is already in a state of heightened alert from the beginning, but far and away, this exceeded any expectations. Speaking as one who is easily squeamish, who could not watch the delight of the woman in AUDITION (1999), the fucked up, hateful beatings and the profanity-laced misogyny in DOG DAYS (2001), hell, even the last fifteen minutes of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000), all nightmares, nightmares...
...but I was transfixed here, as that truly ominous use of sound, those oscillating waves of mental mayhem which “preceded” the entry into the Hell of an underground male leather club called Rectum, adding those dizzying camera movements and a continuous stream of profanity, shouting, and terror as they move through one blurring act of perversity to the next, those waves of sound never stopped until a man was actually beaten to death. Can't speak for anyone else, but that's as gripping a scene as anything in cinema. It is that SOUND that sticks in your head, and the unbelievable energy associated with it, where the intensity level created by this scene is simply indescribable. There’s nothing else out there like it. It is intoxicating, almost like a film within a film, a scene that could easily stand alone as a work of an avant-garde or experimental film artist. The unique “thrill” from that opening never goes away, as those sound waves keep pounding in your head and keep driving the energy underneath every subsequent sequence. That opening sequence is simply unforgettable, where one never forgets that dramatically awesome power, that synergy of visuals and sound. As writer Jason Shawhan states in The Film Journal The Sense-Deranging Sound + Vision of Gaspar Noe's Irreversible “You find, in the sequence at the Rectum, a soundscape that meshes with the nervous system in a way that hasn't been done since Argento's work with the Goblins in SUSPIRIA. Sound and vision are so perfectly fused that it becomes impossible to separate them...here is a case of extreme sonic frequencies and visual disorientation as a necessary means to experiencing the film...the kind of experience that changes a viewer forever.”
Even a movie's being homophobic need not disqualify it from serious consideration, in my view. Gaspar Noe's Irreversible strikes me as most certainly homophobic, in the exact sense of "phobic" -- afraid of, even horrified of, homosexuality, and also of anality as a distinct phenomenon. (Consider the name of the leather club, The Rectum, and the repeated cry "Where is The Rectum?"; the name of the rapist, The Tapeworm; and that long symbolic tunnel where the rape occurs.) But Irreversible also strikes me as one of the most powerful movies of recent years. I was shaken by the film, but I did not find it hateful.
Well for what it's worth, despite the provocative controversy, this is one of the best films of the year as it combines such a powerful, boldly impactive film style with subject matter. While bowled over by that unforgettable oscillating sound loop in the opening sequence that just screams out waves of anticipated danger, a device that certainly remains under your skin throughout the film, a non visual device that is infinitely more powerful than witnessing the ensuing brutality, which happens so quickly, engulfed in a murky, barely lit, nightmarish dream world, where the gruesome reality of it, witnessing a man being beaten to death, can barely match the power of the menacing atmosphere that is simply overwhelming. In this case, the audacity of the artistic creation is indescribably brilliant, while the actions of men are equally gruesome and brutal, so the depiction of otherworldly eeriness is strangely in balance, artistically speaking. That opening sequence is one of the most powerful and intensely exhilarating sequences ever experienced.
That said, this sequence is strangely not the controversial, or so-called hateful or misogynistic scene, which comes shortly afterwards, where the lingering aftereffects of its power in some ways overshadows the subsequent shot-in-real-time rape scene, which instead of being engulfed in an extraordinary art design, is shown straight, exactly as is, where the nonchalance of the rapist is contrasted against the horribly agonizing sounds of the female victim, where again, it is the sound that provides the overriding sense of horror and brutality. The uncomfortable length of this sequence is stunning, as we keep waiting for it to be over, to cut to another scene, but the director stays with it for an interminable length, thoroughly reminding the viewers what an invasive, emotionally draining and physically exhaustive experience this is, as rape is overwhelmingly brutal, a parallel to the devastating opening sequence. Stylistically, the length of the scene recalls Terence Malick's THE THIN RED LINE (1998), where the audience is subjected to wave after wave of relentless military assaults, where the physically exhaustive accumulation of death and carnage takes its toll over time, as it was intended to do.
The first sequence is filled with the thrill of anticipation, what are they looking for, what kind of world is this, where the raw physical presence of a strange fascinating underworld guides our interest, culminating in a chilling act of violence which ends in a stunning silence. The second sequence is surprising by the complete lack of artifice, as all possible outside distraction is stripped away, leaving us helpless, forcing the audience to endure the bestial attacks that women around the world suffer daily, yet male-dominated societies barely lift a finger of outrage or protest. And if it happens to men in prison, or if they get HIV infected, well who cares? They shouldn't have allowed themselves to get locked up in the first place, ignoring the societal inequities that place 25% of young black males under 30 in prison. No, it would be hard to call the *film* hateful, not as hateful as reality is, war, torture, rape, the death penalty, but it's certainly provocative, as it stirs up the feelings of resentment and outrage.
As for Ebert's take (Irreversible Movie Review & Film Summary (2003) | Roger Ebert):
The fact is, the reverse chronology makes "Irreversible" a film that structurally argues against rape and violence, while ordinary chronology would lead us down a seductive narrative path toward a shocking, exploitative payoff. By placing the ugliness at the beginning, Gaspar Noe forces us to think seriously about the sexual violence involved. The movie does not end with rape as its climax and send us out of the theater as if something had been communicated. It starts with it, and asks us to sit there for another hour and process our thoughts. It is therefore moral - at a structural level.
In total agreement here on the backwards chronology, as it does change what would otherwise be a nihilistic, exploitive, and highly pessimistic film into one that at least allows for a differing outcome. It opens up the world of possibilities for people to eradicate so much of the needless and unnecessary pain that is inflicted upon others and gives us a chance to reevaluate ourselves in this light. The near Eden ending is really just the beginning, as each new life offers a new beginning, and in that there is an indescribable hope.