Irreversible arrives with the kind of reputation for shock held by Salo and Baby of Macon. Its early brutality involving a fire extinguisher and a later eight minute rape sequence are already famous. Bluntly put, this isn’t a movie for the squeamish. Like Memento, the story is told in reverse, starting with Marcus (Vincent Cassel, Brotherhood of the Wolf) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) rampaging through a gay nightclub called The Rectum and working back to how they got there and why: Alex (Monica Bellucci, Malena), Pierre’s former lover and Marcus’s current one, was viciously raped and beaten into a coma mere hours before.
Irreversible evokes extreme ambivalence. Even as director Gaspar Noe’s vivid, long take, fluid camera style startles in its bravura moves, writer Gaspar Noe’s content infuriates. The crux of evaluating the film for many will likely be dependent on the answer to why eight minutes of in-your-face, on-camera anal rape? Why seven or eight bashes with the fire extinguisher instead of two or three? Certainly, they are in the service of the film’s themes, but is that sufficient rationale for the scenes’ audacity? Actor Philippe Nahon, in a nod to his role in Noe’s previous feature, I Stand Alone, comments at the beginning of Irreversible that "Time destroys all things," a statement needlessly reiterated with a written quote at the end. If the movie is just about that banal statement, then its viciousness is hardly justified.
Noe utilizes a poster of 2001: A Space Odyssey for additional allusions. Both movies point to the underlying savagery in civilization. Bones kill, as do super-computers, and in Irreversible, so do ordinary, middle-class white males, the key word here being "ordinary." As the film regresses in time, it becomes increasingly about the preciousness of life and how tenuous moments of gentleness and intimacy can be. The enormous impact of the earlier violence is meant to contrast with the scenes of a friendly subway conversation and bedroom playfulness between lovers.
But can one show anything at all on the screen and justify it with abstract intellectual defenses? Obviously, the hordes of patrons, primarily women, who walk out of this movie during the rape scene would say no, and they are likely disturbed by something more than the scene’s content and the unflinching way it is shot. There is a tinge of a smug, in-your-face quality to it. Perhaps the scene can be thematically justified, but the way it exists can’t wholly be attributed to artistic intent. After all, this is Gaspar Noe, the guy who put a 30-second countdown warning the audience to leave before the "shocking" ending of his last feature. Shock is his proud forte and there is at least one clear motive for that – controversy sells, especially on the art house circuit.
Noe has said that with Irreversible, he wanted to make a film that would be banned. He might just be channeling his inner-Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark), but he has clearly calculated how his movie will impact cineaste culture as an attention-getting conversation piece. The opening title sequence and its accompanying soundscape are openly self-conscious provocations. So, sure, the violence and the rape go toward explicating his thematic interests, but there’s also an exploitive element to them. Noe doesn’t have purely artistic motivation in the manner that he shoots these scenes. In the full context, he is a blatant, deliberate provocateur, and the film’s sound effects editing is revealing. The soundtrack emphasizes each smack of the extinguisher and each kick to Alex’s face far beyond the objective of realism.
Whether this damns the film and the filmmaker is dependent upon the individual viewers’ threshold as to what constitutes gratuitousness. Oscar Wilde wrote, "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written." Maybe that applies to films too. Given Irreversible’s many plot contrivances – it has an implausible accumulation of coincidences – it may just be that Noe doesn’t earn his shocks.