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Around the World in 80 Films: Irréversible

There are certain films which leave you in a numb state after watching them. Films like the recent The House that Jack Built, Possession and Dogtooth, all left me feeling like I had been slapped in the face. However, none of these films left me in the same way as Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible did. This is a film which left me feeling nauseous, and feeling a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. There is no happiness in this world, I found myself feeling as I sat on the sofa in shell shock, only darkness and evil.

My partner turned to me with a blank expression that melted into surprise and bewilderment…”Who suggested that we watch that?!” He exclaimed as he shook his head in disbelief, ”That was so messed up and intense!” This is coming from someone who had watched Antichrist, A Siberian Film and all of the Human Centipede films, and had hardly batted an eyelid at. Adam is not a person to be easily shaken up by a film. It wasn’t a surprise to find out that Roger Ebert had called Irréversible “a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable.”


The film’s dark subject matter is only the tip of the iceberg of this depraved film. Told in reverse chronological order, Irréversible follows two men through the streets of Paris as they seek to avenge a brutally raped girlfriend. The film begins at the end, with two men being interrupted by their discussion about incest, by some commotion that has occurred in a gay nightclub called The Rectum that is next door to their apartment.

It is discovered that two men called Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) have killed a man who they believe raped Marcus’ girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci). The film is only a few minutes into its runtime and the viewer has already been subjected to watching a brutal and very violent murder take place in which a fire extinguisher is used to crush a man’s skull. If you can somehow stomach this opening scene, and decide to continue on with the film, then I am afraid to say that it only gets worse.

As the events of the night unfold, we find out what led the two friends to the club and to commit such an inhumane act. The film feels like witnessing a car crash in reverse, we know the fate of these two men and there’s little we can do but cringe as they make quick, rash decisions unaware of the consequences of their actions.

The film’s most infamous and perhaps most disturbing scene occurs within an hour or so into the film. After walking out from a party that she attended with Marcus and Pierre, Alex sees a pimp called “Le Tenia” (“The Tapeworm”) (Jo Prestia) beating a transsexual prostitute named Concha (Jaramillo) in a pedestrian underpass. Once the man sees Alex, he releases Concha and turns his attention to her, who attempts to flee, but Le Tenia catches her and threatens her with a knife. Le Tenia pins Alex to the ground and anally rapes her for several minutes of screen time, after which he brutally beats her into unconsciousness.

Irréversible tunnel

The brutal rape scene is shot from a distance away, and it isn’t filmed in an erotic fashion like Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (a film which I find very problematic in its depiction of sexual violence). The scene is shot in a single one take, there are no cuts away and we are left feeling like Alex from A Clockwork Orange, forced to watch horror unfold on-screen.

Watching this scene makes for the most uncomfortable viewing experience I have ever encountered. Le Tenia is skin crawling, a true depiction of how depraved human beings can be towards to those they consider below them. In fact, none of the male characters are very likeable in this film, which I think is something that is overlooked whenever the film is discussed. The film opens with a quote (‘time destroys all things’) but we know that it is really humanity which has the capability of destroying all things.

Many critics consider Irréversible to be part of the New French Extremity. This a movement that has been described as “[a] crossover between sexual decadence, bestial violence and troubling psychosis” (Tim Palmer, Brutal Intimacy: Analyzing Contemporary French Cinema). There is certainly a very extreme element to Irréversible which helps push the boundaries of what is acceptable on-screen, but without becoming too comical or melodramatic. Despite its flashy way of narrative telling, cinematography and nausea inducing soundtrack, Irréversible feels like it is taking place in our own sense of reality. Perhaps this is why the film is so hard to watch?

opening Irréversible.jpg

Noé is a director who understands how to cojur up a reaction from the audience, and he understands the power of film. His films aren’t always the easiest or the most enjoyable to watch, but I can appericate the work that has gone into creating them. I can also appericate the performances in the film with Bellucci giving an amazing performance (she really is the only character that is remotely likeable and what happens to her is heartbreaking). Honestly, I don’t know how I feel about Irréversible, but it has given me plenty to think and write about.


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