This project apparently began as an attempt to mirror Eyes Wide Shut - director Gaspar Noé wanted to explore a marriage by filming a story acted out by a real life thespian couple, in this case Cassel and Bellucci. Somehow he ended up making the most compelling advert for escaping to the countryside ever made. (Though Peckinpah showed in Straw Dogs that even the rural idyll has a demi-monde and that nasty things happen to your loved ones there too.)
This was the most walked-out-of film of 2002, a distinction the director apparently strove to achieve. The first half hour has a background noise with a frequency of 28Hz (low frequency, almost inaudible), reportedly similar to the noise produced by an earthquake which in humans has a tendency to cause nausea and vertigo.
'Controversial' won't quite cut the mustard here. These are the most frank depictions of rape and murder you are ever likely to witness from a position of relative comfort. Definitely a movie to watch on your own. You would have to be a very self-confident sort indeed to take a date to see Irréversible. Noé was himself inevitably accused of outrageous posturing by critics, and it's hard not to look beyond the brute honesty of the facts on screen to the motives of the filmmaker, who deliberately chose for his subject matter that which is most likely to simultaneously fascinate and revolt us.
Irréversible re-deploys a technique that Memento familiarised smarter audiences with - starting with the end; represented here literally as the end of all decency, meaning's shithole - the RECTUM club. It just about manages to find a way of scraping a conclusion out of the beginning by ending up with Bellucci reclining with a book in the midst of a summer scene of rather contrived innocence. Unlike Memento, Irréversible delivers its biggest twist in mid-retreat. (Though this is quite easily missable, rather like the sudden switch to Guy Pearce's face on the mental patient in Christopher Nolan's film.)
It's worth seeing the film 'blind' as I did, with no prior expectations and not having seen the trailer which undermines Noé's efforts to take measured steps backwards from hell. Crucially we are shown little of Monica Belluci's face and learn nothing of her character Alex's personality before we have to watch her being sodomised. If the violation scene in Straw Dogs offended because Susan George looked as if she might actually be enjoying it, Noé strives to make sure that we depart this film with life-lasting comprehension of the full meaning of Rape. (Though you suspect that poor Alex might have saved herself a lot of trouble if only she had left the party wearing the sweater that she arrived in and ignored the advice of the hooker that advised her that the subway was safer than the pavement above ground.)
There are patches of rather heavy symbolism, which in my view don't provide that much additional explanatory power. While the narrative toys with our sense of linear sequence, the titles play with the appearance of inversion, and the swirling camera technique (and accompanying soundtrack) plus the spinning objects its occasionally dwells on seem to suggest a treacherous wheel of fortune motif.
Yet "Time destroys everything", a stress on more linear nihilism from the short prologue sequence, is repeated for good measure at the end. Alex herself talks of reading up on determinism and reports a dream that by then we know is a clear premonition of her own fate. In the background the Adagio from Beethoven's fourth symphony underscores a growing sense of relentlessness, perhaps ironically because we are experiencing the narrowing of possibility in reverse...which arguably makes the logic of determism that much starker. Noé also appears to have a fixation on anal penetration worthy of an Argentine. (PS: this morning I discovered that his father was Argentine - mystery solved!)
Irréversible joins the ranks of stories that show us what Johnnie Surfer refers to as the "soft underbelly". After Hours was a more gentle, comic treatment of the theme, but left you with a powerful sense of the chaos lurking in the urban penumbra. Blue Velvet directed its suspicions at the suburbs. In other tales like Malcolm Lowrie's Under the Volcano and more recently Roger Dodger, the gaping jaws of the underworld open up to those whose psychological state is already in descent.
Maybe the shark metaphor isn't so misplaced - Latin Americans alone and illegal in foreign cities that have suburbs instead of shanty-towns often describe their status as bajo agua, underwater. We affluent city-dwellers are lying on the surfboard of civilisation waiting for our next thrill. If we take the time to gaze downwards we can glimpse the fleeting shadows of the myriad life-forms that inhabit this element beneath us. An unlucky few of us though will end up with bite marks from passing predators.