Irréversible is one of the most notorious films in recent memory, and marked the international breakthrough for Gaspar Noé. Over the years Noé has made a name for himself for being one of the most daring and divisive filmmakers in the world with his subsequent films Enter The Void (his masterpiece), Love and, more recently, Climax. Irréversible premiered at 2002 Cannes film festival, where three people allegedly fainted and the audience was in such shock that according to witnesses, they just sat in silence till the next film played. The French DVD release makes the claim that 200 people walked out, of the 2,400 in attendance.
Noé is a filmmaker who relies on gimmicks, and that’s a complement. This one has three: the reverse chronology; the nine-minute, single-take rape scene; and the infamous head smash, which would go on to influence the elevator scene in Drive. It is a pretty basic rape revenge film, but the victim’s boyfriend and ex-boyfriend are the ones to seek the revenge. The rape scene is right in the middle of the film no matter which cut you see, which is very deliberate because it’s the moment which breaks apart the film’s two very deliberately different halves. It’s as horrific a scene, as you can imagine. it starts after Alex (Monica Bellucci) tries to help a transgender prostitute who is being beaten by her pimp in a pedestrian underpass. He then anally rapes Alex and goes on to beat her to within an inch of her life, all in this unbroken take. One of the touches Noé adds, which just makes the sequence even more horrific, is a man in the background who is completely silhouetted. He lingers, processes what he is seeing, and walks away. The fact that he shoots this all in a single take it makes the audience feel complicit in the rape, making the scene even disturbing.
Like all of Noé’s work, Irréversible owes a great deal to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, because it’s a film that starts with a murder and ends with a birth, something Enter The Void also does. Noé is also a total edgelord, and the entire film is a provocation targeted at the audience and critics. The critic David Edelstein has said that “Irréversible might be the most homophobic movie ever made,” and yes, the film starts with a jaw-dropping sequence in an underground Parisian gay BDSM nightclub called The Rectum that is depicted as such a hellscape that it would make Hieronymus Bosch blush. Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) are out for vengeance and using the most vile homophobic slurs imaginable. However, Noé himself is seen masturbating in the club—he has said the reason he decided to appear in that sequence was to show “I didn’t feel superior to gays.”
Bellucci gives an obviously fearless performance, eventhough she admits that she has never seen the full rape scene. It took six takes to get it right, and at the end of the theatrical cut there is really tenderness between her and Cassel’s character, Noé’s initial concept was to make a study of a committed relationship, and many years later Love would be that film, although not much of that intention remains in the final 30 minutes or so. The underrated performance is from Dupontel, who is Alex’s ex-boyfriend in the film and probably has the most interesting character arc. Dupontel isn’t well known in the the UK or US, but he is huge in France for his surrealistic comedies. He is Terry Gilliam’s favourite contemporary director and Gilliam often appears in small cameos in Dupontel’s films. None of his films except See You Up There are available in English-speaking countries, and that’s only as paid digital rental or purchase—some UK company really should get the rights and release them.
Over the years Irréversible has remained a litmus test for cinephiles. It’s not quite as impressive as I remembered, and the reverse chronology feels more and more gimmicky. I think Climax would probably be a better entry point for Noé for the uninitiated.
The release includes two cuts, the theatrical and the “straight cut,” which takes a few minutes out and reverses the chronology (the film was actually shot chronologically.) Noé’s 2003 commentary track is included, along with a recent 44-minute retrospective documentary where all the main players are interviewed, and some audio recordings of talks Noé gave at the BFI in 2002 and 2009. Other extras are a 2003 interview with special effects supervisor Rodolphe Chabrier, a new video essay from Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, a one-minute deleted scene, a short and two music videos directed by Noé, image gallery and various trailers and teasers, including one for the Straight Cut. It includes an 80-page book with a new essay by Anna Bogutskaya, an archival American Cinematographer article on the technical aspects of the film, a BBFC case study, an overview of contemporary critical responses, an archival ‘for and against’ article by Nick James and Mark Kermode, a look at the creation of the Straight Cut, new writing on Intoxication and an exclusive double-sided poster.