'Irreversible': Move Over, Dante

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 11, 2003

It's pretty difficult to build a respectable case for Gaspar Noe's "Irreversible." It's a blasphemy wrapped in an atrocity. It's also stupid. And finally: It's all backward.

Please. If this is not your sort of thing, stop reading now. You're excused. It's better, really, that its contents not intrude on your life. Take it from me: Go away. Thank you very much.

For the rest of you -- and I assume that's a few other jaded movie critics who have seen too much too soon, a few morbid types hiding behind bourgeois appearances, a few adolescent boys who can't make the X-rating breakthrough, and some graduate students with strong stomachs and powerful curiosities -- what we have here is a genuine outlaw work of art.

They are to be treasured. From Louis-Ferdinand Celine's twisted tales of the perverse in '30s Paris to Henry Miller's examination of the extremes of heterosex and John Rechy's of the extremes of homosex, and Jim Thompson's bleak, nihilistic noir fables, to Sam Peckinpah's blood-spattered Götterdämmerungs, they are tough to sit through and impossible to forget. They get way deep inside, to the reptile walnut of brain still in the center of the head.

The stupidity: In true pretentious French style, Noe begins his trip with the following pronouncement -- Time destroys all things. Like, duh. How ridiculous and obvious is that? In essence it is saying that being destroys all things, that to be is to be doomed. True, and so what? Particularly so what since that's not really what "Irreversible" is about.

What it is about is the irreversibility of events. Again, stupid. Again, obvious, unenlightening, a truism rather than a truth. When things go catastrophic, it's certainly a fact that you can, as this film does, track backward through the day and note all the tiny whimsies of chance and circumstance that deposited you there then, when fate dealt you the steel fist in an iron glove. Yes, and so what; that same scheme of whimsy deposited you where you are at this minute, when nothing happened to you except you read this review. This is not so interesting an idea, and it certainly is not original.

"Irreversible" begins with Hell and tracks its way back to Heaven. Another way of saying the same thing: It begins now and tracks its way back to then. It begins with the police hauling two men away from some kind of dark Parisian chamber. One, Marcus (Vincent Cassel), is on a stretcher, the other, Pierre (Albert Dupontel), in handcuffs. But the true walking wounded is the cameraman: He seems to be in the grip of some kind of meltdown. His lens blunders and swings about as if he's been cold-cocked and is just about to go down for the count. Nothing makes sense, nothing is in focus, reality is scraps of information that refuse to assemble into a pattern and random noise scrapes everywhere. Yet we learn one thing, inferred from the intensity of the style: Something grotesquely violent has occurred.

Nine minutes into this, the screen goes black. Suddenly we are nine minutes back in time; that is nine minutes ahead of the start of the first nine-minute segment. That is the scheme of the film. .segments minute-nine in time in Backward

The two men burst into a secret club so disreputable its name may not even be printed in a newspaper. Both are in a frenzy of macho urgency, though one is slightly more in control than the other. Clearly, they've penetrated some sort of rough-trade homosexual gathering spot, full of boys in leather chaps and spike collars. The cameraman, by the way, is equally teed off, and he stays with them as they bully their way down through the floors, glimpsing trysts here and there, forcing his way through a tangle of red-lit bodies, a cacophony of blasphemous language. The two men are looking for someone; they find him. Blows are exchanged. A man's leg is broken. The lesser of the two hunters jumps someone and beats his head to pulp with a fire extinguisher. The camera doesn't look away from the last few seconds of the atrocity, and the biology of death by crushed skull is laid out in detail.

You can see where this is going, or, given the peculiarity of the backward-time gimmick, where this has gone. We track back to a grotesque crime: A beautiful woman named Alex (Monica Bellucci), crossing under a street through a pedestrian tunnel, encounters a pimp beating a whore. He spies Alex and in a sickening blast of rage, turns his fury on her. I will not describe it. I cannot describe it. The language won't go there. Take it from me, however, it is not something you will want to see. So it is the pimp the two men are tracking.

Then we go back further. We see how the woman got there, what forces put her in that tunnel that night at that moment, how her fate was the consequence of the emotional interplay between her and the two men, one her boyfriend, the other her ex-boyfriend.

Backward we go until we touch down in the cool of the morning of the same day. She lies barefoot in the green, cushioning grass of a park, dreamily reading a book, but more usually lying back, listening to the children play, looking at the families, thinking happily of what a beautiful life she's got and what pleasures await her that day. The cameraman is probably barefoot too, and he records this Edenic scene as if he, like her, has no idea what lies ahead.

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