Thursday the 27th of August, the year of our Lord 2020, wasn’t the best day for me. A combination of political turmoil, social isolation and romantic failure left me feeling listless, lazy and lonely all at once for the first time in weeks. I desperately needed a sign, something to lift me out of this purgatory. I knew that something would be Gaspar Noé’s 2002 revenge thriller Irreversible. And it worked like a charm.
It’s not unusual to be attracted to horror in times of distress. Whether its Dracula and the fear of industrialisation or the explosion of torture porn films after 9/11, horror tends to reflect cultural anxieties and traumas. However, despite this knowledge, something about Irreversible, –being a comfort film for me– as I’m sure will perplex (and probably concern) many in the know, demands more exploration. Hopefully, with this piece, I can articulate why, ever since I was introduced to it last July, Irreversible has the ability to turn my frown into, well—not a frown. Firstly, it’s worth knowing a little about the man himself.
Gaspar Noé is an Argentine filmmaker based in Paris, France, and is something of a character in the European arthouse scene, to say the least. Stating that he believes films should be divisive and make the audience uncomfortable and that he cares for no one’s enjoyment of a film other than his own, Noé has built an image as a relentless provocateur with Variety magazine calling him ‘an artist of scandal’. He reminds me a lot of Tyler, the Creator as someone with an offbeat persona and an endless list of hilarious quotes, but at the end of the day, a strikingly talented artist.
Prompting over 200 walkouts at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, Irreversible is seen by many as the iconic Gaspar Noé experience. Centring on a man’s (Vincent Cassel) descent into violent rage after the brutal rape of his girlfriend (Monica Bellucci), there are multiple formal aspects that immediately distinguish it. These include: the reverse chronology of the plot, the one-take aesthetic and its unyielding exhibition of violence and nudity. If you’ve ever wanted to see Vincent Cassel’s swinging plums, look no further.
If this film doesn’t sound particularly appealing so far, it only gets worse. With a long, infamously realistic rape scene and a nauseating sequence in a gay S&M club (during which 28hz background noise was deliberately added to destabilise the audience), for most viewers, Irreversible is an excruciating watch. Not for me though. Instead, I’m glued to the screen from start to finish.
Only 94 minutes long, there’s hardly a scene in Irreversible where high energy conflict isn’t taking place. Flashing lights, blaring music and absurd camerawork create a sensory assault. As someone who finds it hard to pay attention to films on their own, I usually have to leave my phone outside, use a big screen and sit in a nice chair (it makes me feel like I’m at the cinema). But with Irreversible, I have no issues watching it on my phone, in my bed and while my neighbours loudly fight next door; sometimes you need that.
Unlike most comfort films, Irreversible is less of a warm hug than it is a slap in the face. A reminder that life could be worse, and that the world is bigger than what goes on inside your head. It’s also a surprisingly thought-provoking film. Whether it’s the portrayal of sexual violence, the application of reverse storytelling or the normalisation of rape culture, I could spend hours trawling the depths of Letterboxd, looking at the various takes and debates without getting bored (and believe me, I have). It simply transports me to a different world where the camera’s moving all over the place and the underpass is most definitely not safer.
That all said, I should probably address the elephant in the room. The rape scene never gets any easier. Rape is possibly the most intense violation of another human being and I never get any other impression from this scene. There is nothing erotic about this scene and one would have to be truly sick to derive pleasure from it. The camera remains eerily still as you are forced to confront the reality of rape and considering the discourse regarding sex crime in recent years (and forever if we’re really being honest), a reminder of the horror does not go amiss.
Functionally, the rape scene punches you in the gut and makes you hypersensitive to how the men around Alex treat her and why rape culture isn’t just about the act itself. This is one of the ways that Irreversible benefits from its reverse chronology and why it is such a distinct film. The BBFC posted a useful article on their website explaining why they chose not to censor it. Plus it should be noted that in an interview at the 76th Venice Film Festival, Monica Bellucci stated she was ‘respected’ during filming and that it was an ‘incredible experience’ in which she felt ‘protected’ (which is more than a lot of Hollywood actresses can say).
I should also mention the common criticism of Irreversible that, for a film about a woman’s rape, the story is very male centred. And while I don’t think a male centred story about a woman’s rape is necessarily a bad thing (for me, the film’s exploration of toxic masculinity is one of its key strengths), I agree that the character of Alex is fairly one dimensional. I say this because I doubt women will identify with this film as much as men. I don’t think many women need to be reminded as much about how bad rape and toxic masculinity are, but that said, I have seen plenty of female fans of Irreversible online. Male, female or non-binary, Irreversible is not for everyone.
I think the best description of Gaspar Noé’s cinema is a quote from New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, proudly emblazoned on the poster of Noé’s 2009 effort, Enter the Void: “This is the work of an artist who’s trying to show us something we haven’t seen before.” While Noé isn’t a particularly strong writer (he began production of Irreversible with a three-page script!), his anarchic camera work and attention to atmosphere creates films in which we become one with the experience. And while there’s an endearing edginess to his later work (I personally love ETV and Climax (2018), while Love (2015) can burn in hell), Irreversible remains the dark cinematic cocaine that can shake me out of summertime sadness, at least, for a while. Also, I get to see Vincent Cassel’s swinging plums .