Gaspar Noé Retrospective: ‘Irreversible’

Gaspar Noé’s second feature is crafted with excellence pushing the boundaries of the filmmaker’s early filmography.

CREDIT: Les Cinémas de la Zone

This article is not going to be easy to write. Irreversible is not an easy film to talk about. On a rewatch, it does not get easier to sit through. This was the second film I had ever watched by Gaspar Noé. I was still attending my second university, so I bought the film through Amazon Prime Video. I watched it late at night because, at this time, I was still having a hard time getting sleep but also knew that this film had a difficult rape scene. I rather not explain to my parents why it was integral to have something like this in the film. At this point, I had only watched Love I did not know what to expect from Gaspar Noé’s second feature film. I mean for the longest time I thought this was his feature debut until I learned about I Stand Alone. One thing was certain after I watched this film there was no doubt in my mind that Noé was of my favorite directors of all time.

Born on the cusps of promising a film told in reverse much like Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Irreversible is written and directed by Gaspar Noé just as most of his work is. The film marks Noé’s first collaboration with his longtime collaborator, director of photography, Benoît Debie. Though Debie did not handle the camera operating, that was all Noé with some help from cocaine as stated in an interview. The film stars Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel, and Jo Prestia, who are credited only through their last names. The film also includes a cameo of The Butcher (Phillipe Nahon), who was in Noé’s previous film, I Stand Alone. The film’s score is composed by Thomas Bangalter.

Irreversible is composed of 14 scenes that are presented in reverse chronological order. In the film, we follow Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel), who are looking for the assailant who brutally raped and left Alex (Monica Bellucci) in a comatose state. The film starts with them finding who they believe to be the assailant and ends with Alex sunbathing and reading a book. The story told in reverse chronological order is paired with rotating camera movements and a low-frequency noise meant to cause nausea and anxiety. The film is most known for containing a long rape scene that Monica Bellucci was solely in charge of directing. Remember when I said this would not be easy to write? In 2019, Gaspar Noé premiered a newly restored version of the film with a ‘straight cut” version of the picture aligning the events in chronological order. I own this version but cannot watch it as it is a Region B blu ray, but when I eventually get the chance to watch it, I will update you all with thoughts.

It is hard to call this a masterpiece, but that is what this film is. This is a film that only artists like those involved in the film could create. I cannot picture this film having any other director at that time or portrayed by any other actors at the time either. There is so much that I can say that is important about the film, but I will reiterate what I have always said about the film, “nothing can be left out of this film, and everything needs to stay the way it is.” I don’t love this film because it gives me a sense of enjoyment. I love this film because it shows what cinema should be. Cinema should break barriers, challenge all conventions, and dare to be something different. That is what Irreversible is to me, and you all could say that means I appreciate the film but do not love it. I love this film. Every time I finish it, I may not want to rewatch it, but I want to discuss it with someone.

“Time destroys everything” is the first phrase you hear and the last you’ll see on the screen. Before I continue any further, I want to bring up two well-done analyses of this film, the first being my friend Taylor Baker of Drink in the Movies’ Letterboxd review and the second being a film essay from the YouTube channel, Spikima Movies. At first, it may be difficult but pay attention to the floating camera. It moves counterclockwise like the narrative structure of the film. It also rotates like those police sirens represented in the film. Taylor puts it perfectly in his review that every one of us knows what happens before we get to the rape, but the rotating camera gives us the actual scope of the crime. We are being told that something truly sinister and primitive has happened before we get to the event. Those actions are one of the most important things to analyze here. It is easy to say La Tenia is the only one acting primitively since he is the person who commits such an inhumane and grotesque crime as assaulting Alex. Marcus and Pierre are behaving just as primitively before and after the traumatic events of the film. Marcus taps into his inner animal, ready to behead anyone in his way that does not help him find who hurt the woman he loves. Pierre is hell-bent on helping but also fighting his animalistic feelings of lust. Before the two ever went to the party, Pierre kept discussing his sexual history with Alex in front of everyone as if he is flaunting the fact he made her orgasm. It brings up an honest question about whether Marcus and Pierre love Alex. While in bed after having sex with Alex, Marcus discusses that he may not want to see Pierre because he stole “his wife” from him, to which Alex replies that basically, she is no one’s property. Who of these two sees Alex for who she is, Marcus or Pierre? Is Marcus tearing the streets apart because he loves Alex, or does he feel his ownership over Alex was stripped away when she was assaulted?

Time is not allowing us to move forward here, but it specifically allows us to be put into the shoes of the victim. Gaspar Noé reminds us that Alex was not just a woman. Alex is a future mother, an ex-lover, and a reader, but most importantly, she is someone with agency. Time destroys everything, of course, but it is also what allows trauma to live forever. We don’t know if Alex will wake up from her current comatose state, but we do know that, if she does, trauma will live with her for an extended period. Time destroys so much of Alex’s future. Time and that trauma destroy her agency.

Gaspar Noé raises the question, who sees Alex as a human being worthy of respect and agency? That would be us, the audience, who are watching this film that views Alex as who she truly is. It is not the police, mobsters, La Tenia, Marcus, or Pierre but us who see her for who she is. Time will destroy everything, but it will also reveal everyone’s true colors.

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