“Irreversible” opens slowly, quickly shifts into a chaotic but exciting series of events, before falling back down to Earth and eventually becoming dull. The French film opens with writer/director Gaspar Noe trying to prove that camerawork doesn’t mean you have to use a tripod, or even keep your camera at ground level. For the film’s first 35 minutes, the camera is continually whirling, swirling, circling, dipping low to the ground before rising high into the air, and back again. It’s the kind of technique that will either make your head spin or make you vomit from motion sickness, or perhaps both.
The movie opens slowly, showing a naked fat man talking about how he continues to dream about sleeping with his daughter, even after he’s been released from prison for doing just that. (It’s a French cinema thing. They love this stuff. Don’t ask.) Suddenly we’re dipping down to a gay nightclub underneath the fat man’s apartment. Here, we find a prone Marcus (Vincent Cassel) being wheeled out of the nightclub (called, appropriately enough, “The Rectum”) on a stretcher, while Marcus’ friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel) is being led out in handcuffs.
Cut to earlier in the day. Marcus and Pierre are in the Rectum and searching for a pimp nicknamed the Tapeworm. Noe’s camera once again plays havoc with our equilibrium, moving through darkness and picking up slivers of S&M taking place all over the club. When he finally locates a man he believes to be the aforementioned Tapeworm, Marcus assaults him, but despite his temper, proves to be an inferior fighter, and the man has broken Marcus’ arm and is suddenly anally raping him. Pierre enters the fray and in short order has used a fire extinguisher to (literally) demolish the man’s face. Cut to earlier in the day.
With “Irreversible,” director Noe is using the same gimmick that Christopher Nolan used in his murder mystery “Memento”. Noe’s “Irreversible” is leading us backwards scene-by-scene, and the film only has to rewind to the 35-minute mark for us to learn what’s going on. It seems Marcus’ wife Alex (Monica Bellucci) was brutally raped by the Tapeworm. Her face a mess of blood and flesh, Alex is being wheeled to the hospital when local toughs offer to lead Marcus to the Tapeworm for a price.
The hectic and gravity-defying camera works to put us into the mental state of Marcus as he rushes through a whirlwind of emotion and a need for quick revenge. The movie takes place within a single day, and as the film moves backward in time, the camera grows gradually more and more steady, until it’s no longer moving at all during Alex’s rape at the 40-minute mark.
The rape, incidentally, is quite brutal and violent, and even though not a lot of flesh is shown (the rapist doesn’t bother to undress Alex), the scene is rather disturbing in its frankness, not to mention its length. Noe shoots the rape in real-time, forcing us to suffer through every second of the rape along with poor Alex. When the Tapeworm decides she’s too beautiful for her own good, he begins to savagely beat her.
The rape and revenge is really the film’s Third Act. The Second and First Acts are devoted to the awkward relationship between Alex, Marcus, and Pierre. It seems that Pierre and Alex were ex-lovers, and has remained friends even though this isn’t exactly what any of them really wants. The tension and jealously continues to plague the trio as they make their way from Alex and Marcus’ apartment to the party (it is leaving this party that Alex is attacked).
This second half of the film is where things fall apart. If Noe thought 40 minutes of endless conversation about orgasms and the proper procedures to initiate said orgasms was enough to last half a movie, he was wrong. Whereas “Memento” couldn’t be finished without going all the way to the beginning, “Irreversible” was finished when we found out why Marcus went after the Tapeworm. The rest is just endless and uninteresting chatter.
The characters themselves, once we get to know them in the second half, adds tremendously to the movie’s problems. Pierre, the loyal friend at the start of the film, suddenly de-evolves into a creepy and pushy s.o.b still trying to get into Alex’s pants despite the fact that she’s already with someone else. Marcus is an irresponsible oaf and cad, not knowing how good he has things. As Alex, Monica Bellucci (“Malena”) is not in top form here; she’s been so much better in other films, that her performance here is surprisingly very weak.
The film’s last 15 minutes is devoted to Bellucci and real-life lover Vincent Cassel (“Brotherhood of the Wolf”) lying naked and rolling around in bed. Much of the dialogue and interplay here is obviously adlibbed. Unfortunately, once again, they’re uninteresting chatter. It’s obvious Noe is trying to make a point about the chaotic nature of the film’s first half and the slow, snooze-inducing pace of the second. It’s an obvious point, but that doesn’t mean it’s recommended.
Gaspar Noe (director) / Gaspar Noe (screenplay)
CAST: Monica Bellucci …. Alex
Vincent Cassel …. Marcus
Albert Dupontel …. Pierre
Philippe Nahon …. Philippe
Jo Prestia …. Le Tenia