It’s not an unfair assessment to say that one of the more controversial films of the last 25 years is Gasper Noé’s Irreversible. The 2002 film has divided audiences and critics for over two decades now. In the year of its release, Newsweek magazine alleged that the film was the most walked out-on (although its marketers’ claim that 2,400 viewers walked out at the film’s Cannes premiere is completely hyperbolic; the actual number was closer to 200).
Some viewers and critics have praised the film as high art while others have vilified it as base exploitation of the highest order. I’m here to argue for the former.
Irreversible, a film that stars then real-life husband and wife Monica Belluci and Vincent Cassel as lovers Alex and Marcus, is a film that is difficult to watch – that goes without argument. The protracted scene of Alex raped and subsequently beaten in a Parisian underpass is harrowing, unflinching, and barbaric. Furthermore, the film features a viscerally brutal scene of Alex using a fire extinguisher to beat a man to death.
However, the value of the film is not in the those two gruesome set pieces but rather in the structure that Noé employs. The film’s 13 scenes are presented in a non-linear, reverse chronological order; and in presenting the film as such, Noé forces the audience to examine three philosophical questions which elevate the film from exploitation to art.
1.) Choice and Consequence:
We are presented with the brutal finality of the stories of Marcus and Alex at the beginning of the film. Then, because we have omniscience as an audience, we spend the next hour examining the choices made and events that occur which result in the finality (the literal beginning of the story). As humans, we always think that things might have turned out differently, either positively or negatively, if only we had chosen to do something other than what we ultimately did. But would they really? Was the brutal sexual assault of Alex a senseless, random crime, or was it predestined? It’s no accident we see her reading a book that says the future is already written. Noé makes us question free will vs. predetermined destiny. Are we the true agents of change in our lives, or do our choices matter not because some unseen guiding hand has already figured out everything for us?
2.) The Conventions of Narrative:
If the film had been presented conventionally, in a true linear fashion from beginning to end, it indeed would have been a standard exploitation film where we get to know a character, view him or her endure an unspeakable act, and then watch with giddy anticipation as the hero gets their revenge. The reverse structure makes it resonate much deeper as a work of art. The audience first sees Marcus as a man beyond all limits of control, frantically searching for another to take his considerable anger out on. Why? Who is this guy? Could he be our hero? At this early point, we really don’t have enough information to know whom to root for. When we first meet Alex, we have no idea “who” she really is as a person. We then, almost immediately after meeting her, witness her brutal rape. As disturbing and violent as that act is, because we know nothing of this character, it doesn’t “hurt” as much. It’s just brutality with no underlying sympathy for the victim. It’s really not much different than the fire extinguisher victim. We don’t know him, so we just watch his destruction without any real sympathy or empathy. However, it is in the next hour when things truly get disturbing. For it is then that we get to know who the characters are and develop our sympathies toward them. We find out who Alex and Marcus really are/were, and our ties to and feelings for them coalesce. Unfortunately, we also have that terrible omniscience. We know their ultimate fates, and yet, we are powerless to do anything about it. And for that, we finally hurt.
“Time destroys everything.” The film is bookended with that saying. But are we looking forwards or backwards? The first scene depicts a disgusting man (the protagonist of Noé’s previous film I Stand Alone) drunkenly relating to his friend how he was arrested for sleeping with his daughter. The friend utters that same phrase and says there are no good deeds or bad deeds, just deeds. What does Noé mean by time destroys everything? Does it refer to the fact that life ultimately endures, no matter what. That no matter what unspeakable act we commit or that is committed upon us, we ultimately learn to heal, to rationalize, to cope, and to continue? That despite their respective tortures, Alex and Marcus will mend, both as humans and as a couple, and ultimately learn to live “happily ever after”? Or does time destroy all that is good and pure and innocent within us? That as time passes, our emptiness and despondency increase as we gradually become less alive and less human? That the Alex we meet at the end, the one who is lazily and contentedly reading a book in a park, the one who is ecstatic when she sees the results of her pregnancy test (the results of which we as an audience are not made aware of) will not survive her horrific ordeal, neither physically nor mentally? That she will end up metaphorically as the two disgusting men in the room above The Rectum? Thus, “Time destroys everything” could be interpreted as either extremely fatalistic and pessimistic or rather quite soothing and optimistic. The film allows the viewer to decide.
In the end, Irreversible is a film not easy to forget, nor is it easy to dismiss. According to the philosophy of aesthetics, great art art can be either beautiful or sublime, and in that context, “sublime” is defined as “affecting the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power; calculated to inspire awe, deep reverence, or lofty emotion.” Noé’s film is far from beautiful, but it is most definitely sublime.