Firstly, let me say I am glad that I came to this more than a decade later than everyone else. What I knew about the film beforehand (up to a couple of hours ago) could be summed up rather succinctly. Not much, in essence. Having now seen the film and then gone back to see what everybody else made of it, both at the time and since, has been something of an eye-opener. From the majority of things I have now read about it (I’m sorry, I don’t normally, but on this occasion I just simply had to), I get the distinct impression that a cinephile (I am not referring to myself as one, you understand, but just using the term as an example of one that that watches alot of films and would notice the somewhat gaping differences in opinion and reaction given a long gap in between viewings) would get if they’d been on Mars for a decade and the film-making world had carried on regardless.
For starters, I didn’t even realise this was a Gaspar Noé picture until the opening credits gave it away. I was immediately reminded of Enter The Void which I saw when it was first released. I know, I know, I probably should have seen them in the order that they were unleashed on unsuspecting cinemagoers everywhere, but what the hell, so sue me. Like I said, I didn’t know it was a Noé picture at the time, so couldn’t have done what I clearly should have. Bridge, water, passed under.
What this late arrival to the party has proved, if nothing else, is that Irreversible has been vastly diluted by time. Since this was released, we have seen more from Noé in the form of Enter The Void, which is arguably more inciteful, not to mention a host of other films that have also not been shy about approaching very difficult subject matter. Even before this, in fact, there have been films that have pushed artistic boundaries, so it does rather beg the question as to why this film received such notoriety for what is essentially two scenes, albeit very harrowing on at least one occasion, that will really make you sit up and take notice. Also, would the reactions from those same people that found it so disturbing on an initial viewing be quite as pronounced as they were at the time if they sat through Irreversible again today?
The answer is probably not, if we’re honest. Nonetheless, show this to someone whose only experience of cinema is Marvel, Disney and the work of Judd Apatow, for example, and you will get an entirely different reaction. This isn’t the audience the film is trying to reach of course (although it really needs to), but just because that is the case, it doesn’t make the statement regarding shock tactics any less true. Some audiences can be stony-faced badasses with no feelings, just like some film-makers, it seems. They are the people that are most likely to see this, least likely to be surprised by it and also most unlikely to be moved by it. So essentially Noé is stuck with an audience he doesn’t really want to reach. Like Michael Haneke, he must quietly lambast marketing departments the world over.
As I mentioned several years ago when reviewing Enter The Void, Noé clearly does not hold humanity in high regard. Here, as in Enter The Void, the director plays the part of voyeur, as if distancing himself from the content, like the man that appears in the tunnel during the rape scene here. Not prepared to commit to responsibility, he disappears again as quickly as he accidentally arrives. Noé‘s liberal use of a sweeping, whirling camera, suggesting a spiritual feel to observed events dislocate the audience from events taking place, which is often something to be grateful for, but frustrating when we are left helpless and unable to engage, getting the impression we are nothing more than an uninvited, uncomfortable guest at a party we didn’t want to be at in the first place.
The decision to construct the film in such a way as to tell the story backwards is neither new or unique. Christopher Nolan had used a similar technique a couple of years earlier, to greater and more complicated effect in Memento. Tarantino too had been throwing the audience off balance for years with this method before Noe decided it might be a novel thing to do. With this in mind, you would have to ask why he chose to edit the film in such a fashion? Was it de rigeur? Well maybe, but it is unlikely that a visionary such as Noé would be moved by what his peers may have been doing. Opening with a statement that ‘time ruins everything’ is clearly more than just an offhanded quip in the form of the regrettable philosophy of a man recently out of prison for having sex with his daughter.
It is quite plausible to believe that if played in the correct order (ie, the order in which the events are alleged to have occured when pieced together from the content supplied), the film would have provided an even more depressing message about the vulnerabilities of humanity, and most notably, the fallibility of man, his fall from grace and loss of innocence (2001: A Space Odyssey poster on the apartment wall, giving us a pointed clue, but we could just be reaching there, he may just have liked the poster). Played backwards, it does throw the filth at you early on and then lets you deal with it afterwards, knowing that the worst is over and you can then contemplate the atrocities in relative safety. Also, this leaves the viewer on a relative high, given the previous unpleasantness. I’m not sure I personally buy into this theory, however, as there is no reason Noé would not want to let his audience leave without some foul and uncomfortable artistic resonance still ringing in their ears. Consequently, I wouldn’t like to second guess his reasons for playing it out in the order he chose, you’d probably have to ask him.
In summary, watching Irreversible now is not the same experience today as it doubtlessly would have been at time of release. It features some outstanding performances, most notably from Bellucci, but no-one is giving anything but their best efforts. The two scenes in the film that you wil have already heard about or be most likely to talk about after viewing it are indeed very brutal, with the nine minute rape scene very difficult to sit comfortably through. It cannot be denied that Noé is a visionary film-maker, which he has proved on more than one occasion, including here, but whether you want to hear what he has to say is up for debate. His work looks beautifully ugly, much like the subjects he features. All of us.