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irreversible - a movie review

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my full summary and review of gaspar no's 2002 film irreversible, presented at the cannes film festival

in my humble opinion, a beautiful poster
cannes preview poster

Gaspar No's Irreversible is a masterpiece tragically obscured by the cloud of controversy. It may take many years for critics, scholars, and moviegoers alike to view the movie objectively without looking at hype and negative publicity. However, as I am writing this review only a few months after the movies premiere, and as it is certain that controversy will flare up again as the movie is released in more countries, I find it necessary to address the outcry before the actual movie. In my opinion, the negativity is ridiculously overblown.


At the Cannes Film Festival, where the film had its world premiere on the 24th of May, the reactions were instant. Critics called Irreversible the most controversial movie ever to be screened at the festival. While we can debate the truth of that statement ad infinitum, at the movie's press conference Vincent Cassel stated that the reason for the uproar was that, the scandal has come about through the Croisette perhaps because the Croisette needs a scandal, essentially stating that the journalists and the public at Cannes need a hype and a controversy, and Irreversible was this year's answer. While I am not inclined to be as dismissive, the statement is, in my opinion, largely accurate. I fully understand that some people needed to leave the movie theater because the violent beating of a man with a fire extinguisher and then nine-minute long rape scene may have caused them to become physically ill. However, I firmly believe that only a fraction of the viewers who stormed out of the theater and called the film evil and immoral did it for reasons of disgust. I believe that they stormed out to attract attention because while this film was indeed shocking, these were film audiences who had, I assume, seen A Clockwork Orange and Peckinpah, and perhaps even Miike, in which case an exodus would not have been necessary. A few of those who left might have been rape victims, or acquainted with rape victims or simply very sensitive to violence, in which case, I completely understand the need to leave. Yet I believe that a majority simply chose not to watch the entire film and immerse themselves in its depth and beauty, choosing instead to be provoked by a scene of brutal realism. Grgory Valens asked in Positif whether it was possible to discuss the aesthetic qualities of a film that brings forth such morally reprehensible ideas and In the Tlobs Cinma, it was written that watching the movie was a form of complicity and that it was necessary to leave the theater and the movie, the sooner the better. These opinions came immediately after the film was released, and were surely influenced by the controversy. Nevertheless, I am still surprised by the fact that professional film critics called this film morally comprehensible and called the viewer an accomplice in a crime. It is clear to me, and I hope to make it clear to the reader, that the film is as far as it is possible to be from exploitation and immorality. There is not a second in which the violence and carnage are advocated or supported. This is as strong a condemnation of violence as you are likely to see in a movie theater. Finally, when Jim Gilchrist of the Edinburgh City Council demonstrates his outrage at the film's intended exhibition at this month's festival by stating that, "You really have to ask what kind of tastes they are trying to satisfy with something like this. I can't see how it can have any kind of artistic merit whatsoever. I don't think the Film Festival should be promoting something like this at all," I begin to wonder why people who have not seen a movie and who clearly do not understand its morality and complexity have the right to make negative comments that could affect other people's decision to watch it. My advice to Mr. Gilchrist: Keep your mouth shut until you have seen it, and if you have the same feelings after seeing it, please criticize and complain all you want. However, it is doubtful that Mr. Gilchrist will attend the screening because ignorance is more convenient than knowledge. With my rant out of the way, my review follows.


Before I watched the film on July 28, I had read more about this film on the internet than I had about any other film that I had ever seen. The combination of one of my favorite actors (Cassel) and his wife (Monica Bellucci), whom I consider to be an exceptional talent in her own right with No, the director of one of the most unique and interesting films that I have seen, I Stand Alone, led me to attempt to inquire everything that I could about the film. Therefore, by the time I entered the theater, I had a detailed knowledge of the plot, including spoilers at the very end and the constitution of some individual scenes. However, this did nothing to ruin the movie for me. If anything, it made it easier because I could focus on style and content without having to pay such close attention to the action and the language, which was French and which I had trouble understanding. That being said, I would like to write a rather detailed summary with spoilers because I honestly believe that it has no impact on the viewing experience, but since some may not share my opinion I will write two summaries, one cursory and one detailed. The brief one follows, but if you plan to read the detailed one, read the short one first, as well.


Spoiler-free summary

The idea behind the film is Time destroys everything, which was included in the press kits and most summaries for the film. The movie is about a married couple named Marcus (Cassel) and Alex (Bellucci), and Alex's former lover and the couple's close friend, Pierre (Albert Dupontel). The story focuses on Alex's horrific rape and Marcus and Pierre's revenge on the rapist. The movie is told backwards, so the viewer sees the revenge and the rape before the events that lead up to them.


Full Summary with major spoilers

Note: these are all recollections, and they may be and probably are factually and chronologically inaccurate. I apologize for any incorrect information.

The film starts with a drum-roll, and, following that, perhaps the most inventive credits sequence ever made. It is the full credits generally shown at the end of a film, except these are moving backwards. They then tilt sideways, and, as I recall, the title flashes on screen, and the names of the actors and director are displayed in a style similar to the credits in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. The first scene that we see is Philippe Nahon's butcher from I Stand Alone naked, talking with another room. I must admit that I did not understand much of the dialogue, but the butcher does mention the idea that time destroys everything. Already, one can see No's unorthodox camerawork, with the camera moving in strange directions and in strange ways through the room. The camera then leaves the room and descends down to the sirens on the street. There, we see the chronologically previous scene where Marcus is being wheeled out of a building on a stretcher. At many points throughout the film, the camera revolves rapidly in a circular motion, usually during the cuts between scenes. The film is made to look like one take because each scene is connected through strange camera movements. These movements segue into scene at the sadomasochistic gay club, Rectum. The viewer sees the neon sign, and the camera then proceeds to travel the impossibly dark hallways of the club. The only colors are tints of red and black, and this is the moment of the most frenetic camerawork in the film. No does not remain in the same place for more than a few seconds, traveling through the hallways and showing men in sexual poses. The camera generally follows Marcus and Pierre, who are looking for the rapist. Marcus frantically asks the men at the club, regardless of what they are doing, if they have seen the rapist. None of the men says that he has seen him, but when one man does not answer, Marcus starts violently confronting him, falsely assuming that he is the rapist because he does not answer. The man strikes Marcus, who cannot retaliate, and Pierre starts hitting the man on the head with a fire extinguisher. This is an extremely violent scene, particularly aided by the use of exaggerated sound effects that mimic the blows of the fire extinguisher. The camera then does more of its movements after focusing on Pierre and Marcus's reactions to the murder, and the scene moves to a taxicab. Marcus is yelling incoherently at the taxi driver, who is not French, and the communication is extremely difficult. Pierre is trying to calm Marcus down, but he is unsuccessful, and, as I recall Marcus strikes the driver, or he steals the cab. Either way, they end up next on a street asking people where Rectum is. When someone finally answers, Marcus runs off down an alley, with Pierre reluctantly trailing him. The next, or, rather, previous scene concerns, as I recall Marcus, Pierre and two local criminals interrogating a prostitute about the whereabouts of a man who knows who the rapist is. The prostitute directs them to another prostitute a few yards down the street. As I recall, she speaks mostly Spanish, and Marcus attempts to rapidly interrogate her, but fails, with the questioning succeeding only when Pierre speaks to her in Spanish. She shows them that she is actually the man that they are looking for, and, after much hesitation, tells them that the rapist's name is Le Tenia. It must be noted that these scenes are all filled with a tremendous sense of dread, tension, and chaos. The camera's movements, although not as hectic as in the Rectum scene, are, nevertheless, unstable at best. The camera reflects Marcus's state of mind at this point in the film because he is the character that drives this first (or second) half of the film with his intense rage and feelings of vengeance, rushing from one person to another in his attempt to find the rapist. The following scene starts with Pierre sitting on the bumper of an ambulance, totally immersed in shock and grief. He attempts to respond to the questions that the EMT poses about the circumstances leading up to Alex's departure from the party, but it is often too difficult for Pierre to answer. He then leaves the ambulance and meets up with Marcus among the ambulances, police cars, and flashing lights. They stand speechless, unable to comprehend the horrible magnitude of the event. Then, the two criminals from the previous scene come up to them, and start to talk to Marcus. They tell him that the policemen will probably not find the rapist, and if they do, they will put him up in a comfortable cell with everything he could desire. They tell Marcus that vengeance is a human right, and that they will, for a fee, help him attain retribution for the rape. At first, Marcus is hesitant, but he slowly agrees. Pierre unsuccessfully attempts to reason with him, as he does in every scene that follows chronologically, except for the final burst of violence. The following scene features Marcus and Pierre walking out of the party. They are, as I recall, in good spirits, although Marcus is presumably still high. As they walk out, they see the ambulances and as they surround the scene, they see the bruised and bloodied Alex on a stretcher. When Marcus sees her, he immediately rushes to her and starts to ask what has happened, hugging her and trying to see if she is alive. As I understood it, she is dead, and Marcus's and Pierre's grief is tremendous as they witness this scene. At this point, there are no feelings of vengeance, simply anguish and tragedy. I believe that this scene segues into the notorious rape scene. This is the first time that we really see Alex, apart from on the stretcher, and she looks magnificent. She is elegant and beautiful, and carries herself extremely well. A woman on the street tells her that there is an underground passageway that leads to the other side of the street, where she needs go. She enters, and we see the famous red tunnel. She walks to the other side and is close to reaching the stairs to return to the street when Le Tenia comes in, and tries to rape a prostitute. This is the same woman whom Marcus and the thugs interrogated earlier in the movie. Alex protests, and the woman escapes, but Le Tenia sets his sights on Alex. She leans on the wall and starts to scream, but he threatens to kill her if she continues screaming. He gets on top of her and removes her underwear, and sodomizes her. The entire scene is shot from the front with her face visible, and with the rape taking place in the middle of the frame. At one point in the scene, a figure of a person comes into the background of the image, at the rear of the tunnel. The figure stands for a few moments, watching the action, and proceeds to leave. The scene continues with Le Tenia raping Alex until she tries to crawl away. At this point, he starts to strike her and beat her violently. By the end of the rape, he has escaped, and she is in a horrible state. The next scene is the most radical change of mood in the entire film. Marcus does a couple of lines of cocaine, and briefly kisses a couple of girls at the party. Pierre is with him, and Marcus attempts to get Pierre involved, but he refuses. After Marcus has enjoyed himself with the girls, he goes to the stairs and calls to Alex. She is downstairs, dancing and enjoying herself tremendously. She dances with her friends and dances with Marcus for a while when he comes, but Marcus leaves the room to party by himself, and Alex dances with Pierre. He is reluctant to dance, and she attempts to engage him. Marcus and Alex then get in a fight because she sees that he is high and is angry with him. Alex decides to leave by herself and Pierre follows her and attempts to make her take a taxi and not go home unescorted, but Alex does not obey. The next scene starts on the subway. This is essentially a conversation between Alex, Marcus, and Pierre. It mostly deals with Alex and Pierre's relationship before Marcus. They talk about sex, and it seems that Pierre feels inadequate while Alex simply feels awkward because of the entire conversation. Marcus does not seem to mind. The three also talk in the elevator, either before entering the subway or after leaving the station. The penultimate scene is probably the longest, and it is certainly the most romantic and sensual. Marcus and Alex wake up naked in bed and slowly get ready for the party in the midst of going back to bed. This is a sequence shot in warm tones that slowly drifts through the couple's roomy apartment, and focuses on a poster of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Alex then tells Marcus that she has not gotten her period for a while and takes a pregnancy test. The pregnancy test is positive, and the last shot in this sequence travels down a poster of the fetus from 2001 to Alex, sitting happily on the bed, blissfully awaiting a new life. From the descending shot of the fetus on, Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major plays over the action. The last scene is an overhead shot of Alex lounging in a park. She is reading and there are many others around her. The camera particularly focuses on the children dancing and playing around her, and the film proper ends with the recurring revolving shot circling above a group of joyfully yelling children dancing in a circle. The screen then turns either white or black, and while some may think the movie is over, No ends with the black and white rapidly switching, creating the effect of a strobe, with a loud noise getting faster is the strobe gets faster, and the words Le temps revele tout,  (Time destroys everything) flash on the screen.

End of Summary


This film struck me in a way that few films have. While the impact may have had to do with my anticipation for it, I believe that I truly found the film to be great simply due to its quality. As far as non-controversial topics go, the filmmaking is undeniably brilliant. The cinematography is spectacular. While hand-held films shot with digital video such as the Dogme 95 films tend to have the desired effect of amateur video, Nos film clearly does not pretend to be a home movie. Even while the camera is swerving and descending madly through the club, the viewer sees and feels everything No intends him to. A feeling of chaos and madness immediately descends with minimum exposition, simply due to the cinematography. Similarly, in the quiet, reflexive scenes, the camera moves at a languid pace, echoing the sentiments of the characters. Finally, No's use of similar techniques throughout the film help to distinguish the shifts in mood. While the long takes at the beginning of the film evoke a tremendous amount of events within a short period and an atmosphere of hectic anxiety, the long takes evoke calm and peace at the end of the film. The revolving camera is also effective, as it projects a spiral into hell at the beginning of the film, but the final revolving shot around the park with children seems to indicate an ascent into paradise. In fact, Dupontel described the film as a voyage from Hell to Paradise. This is an apt description, and it works in two ways because while the Hell and Paradise are quite literal in the description of the setting, they also serve to describe the states of mind of the characters. Marcus and Pierre's boiling rage at the beginning of the film are a direct counterpart to Alex's glee at the film.

Another brilliantly used device in this film is music. While it is generally unnoticeable, Thomas Bangalter's disturbing drones and rumbles play an important part in conveying the mood of the Rectum scenes and the scenes prior to the rape. However, it was Beethoven's No. 7 that towered over the rest of the music in the film. It is used to such brilliant effect that I find it difficult to find a better pairing of music with a scene. Listen to the piece and you will find a tremendous spiritual uplift that transcends Earth. This perfectly matches Alex's bliss at the end. Whenever I hear the music, I recall the revolving, rising shot at the end of the film.

This brings me to a point that would be rather hard to describe to someone who knows about the film solely based on its controversy and violence. As much as the violent and brutal scenes resonated in my mind, it was a feeling of life and spiritual transcendence that stayed with me as I left the theater. No has remarkably managed to tell a story backwards so effectively that while we know that the story will finish in tragedy, we focus on the beautiful, making the film that much more ironic. In an interview in the Guardian Unlimited, No states that, The last scenes are life-affirming you have at the end of the movie a scene that represents something that happened before the drama - a great moment that can never be reproduced again. In that sense, it's life-affirming. I am not sure that that is exactly how I would describe my feelings, but the idea is the same. The image that one is left with is the continuity of life, rather than its end, and this is even more tragic because I know that the beautiful life that these two had and that they would have brought into the world remains a dream that will never fulfilled.

An opinion on the rape scene is clearly necessary in any review, and the only thing I can really say is that what struck me the most about it was not the violence on-screen but the almost unendurable repetitive motions of it. There are no explicit images in the rape scene itself so what really hits the hardest is the horrible repetition of Alex's unanswered screams and cries. This scene conveys both the physical and emotional side of rape without showing the aftereffects on the character's psyche.

It was the subtleties in this film that truly made it powerful in my mind. The first brilliant element that shocked me much more than the rape was the presence of the person at the end of the tunnel during the rape scene. As Alex is being raped and is screaming, the small figure comes into the side of the frame and simply stares for what seems like an eternity. He then walks off. This is an unforgettable way to demonstrate societys much too frequent ignorance of domestic abuse and violence against women. The second subtlety that I liked was Pierres telling Alex to take a taxi and his offer to escort her and her rejection, minutes before the rape occurred. This adds dramatic irony, and the film is full of these touches, although I might have missed some due to the language barrier.

For me, the idea of time destroying everything was related to the reactions to the rape, both from the perspective of the characters and the audience. At first, Marcus's reactions are of grief and anguish. However, as the distance of time increases and Marcus goes further away from the event, looking at it through a veil, feelings of rage and vengeance start boiling up. Time has destroyed his original reactions and feelings. Similarly, time destroys the feelings of an audience member like myself because No veils the rape with idyllic images, thereby minimizing its purely visceral effect. This is not a contradictory statement because I believe that his intentions are indeed to make an ironic portrait of destroyed lives, but it presents the issue of how we look at events immediately, as opposed to after the fact.

The acting is superb on all fronts. This is a film very much about people and their interactions, and it would not have worked without the presence of three amazing performers. Dupontel perfectly embodies what No calls the brain in the film. At every point, he attempts to bring sanity and clarity into the events, until he finally releases his rage. I love Vincent Cassel, and this movie only reaffirmed my love. He bridges the full spectrum of emotions, from violent rage to unspeakable grief to unabashed love. He is convincing at every point and has a tremendous energy and charisma. Finally, Bellucci delivers another great performance. Of course, it is necessary to simply commend her for the bravery and endurance it took to be able to perform such a brutal scene, and her cries for help and of pain sound absolutely realistic, making her character's plight all the more heartbreaking. However, she also excels in her other scenes. She brings an amazing depth to the character of the mother-to-be at the end of the film and her interactions with Cassel are totally realistic. It probably helps that the two are married because their love seems totally unfeigned.

In conclusion, it is unfortunate that this film is associated with exploitation. The movie has nothing to do with it, and, over time, I am confident that critics will see the error of their ways. Already, one can discern the pattern of reviews, which started with resoundingly negative ones upon release of the film but were quickly replaced by more favorable ones as the weeks in release increased. This film is a powerful statement on the horrors of violence and its effects, both emotional and physical. It is, in my opinion, the best film of the year and it is one that will continue to have relevance and resonance for many years to come.

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