I’ve made mention before how some films have a reputation that precedes them. Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible is yet another great example. I will lay it all out before you, should you have the inclination to give this one a try: this film features two very graphic scenes, one where a man’s face is beaten to a pulp with a fire extinguisher, and another unflinching single-take shot of a rape sequence, in all its… ahem, glory. Now, if that doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, I can completely understand. But, in this rare instance, you’d be missing out on a hell of a film if you were to merely glance at the surface level and dismiss the film based on its content. This is more than a film; this is an experience, and Noe achieves his goal with such intensity that I was bowled over by it. This is my first Gaspar Noe film, and I have a strong feeling it will not be my last.
What makes this especially notable is the structure of the story; the entire film, a la half of Memento, is told in reverse, with each scene preceding and leading up to the scene before it. The story is simple: two men and a woman go to a party, and afterwards a despicable act is committed (you can guess what), and the two men go out in search of vengeance. But, if it’s not already clear, this is not a film to watch for the plot. This is a film to watch for how the film is presented to us. Reverse chronology is only the tip of the iceberg; the first 15-20 minutes, for example, are, aside from the opening dialogue, nothing but a spinning dervish of whirling colors and incomprehensible, fleeting imagery mixed with black screen. And that’s the point; the disorientation is precisely Noe’s goal. Noe wants this film, both in content and in structure, to make you feel queasy, uncomfortable, nauseous, and to say that he is successful is to wildly understate the fact. Damn near the entire film is shot with red or otherwise hot hues of color, and the whole film is handheld, with the camera deliberately whipping around and spinning on all three axes so you never are able to put down where people are or which side is up. I should make it clear; this isn’t shakycam, where the camera is otherwise properly oriented but looks as though the ground it is set on is undergoing a massive earthquake. These are giant, swooping motions in all three dimensions, an intentionally-designed cinematography style, and it’s even more impressive that every scene in the film is a single unbroken take (though, for a very few of them, post-production wizardry was needed to make this happen). In an additional aside I couldn’t help but notice, it was entirely unnerving that the only time the camera is virtually still is during the rape scene itself; the cameraman apparently setting the camera down on the ground to achieve a quiet stillness not possible with the film’s otherwise all-handheld look and feel, and I can only conclude that this unnerving aspect was intentional as well. And it’s not only the visual; Noe makes what can only be described as excessive use of low-frequency, reverberating tones throughout the opening scenes, specifically to get you even further on edge. It’s an amazing cinematic experience, and I can and will fully support the placement of this one on the list for that alone.
Sure, if you look at the film linearly, the story it tells isn’t very involved, or even rudimentarily complicated, and the characterization is almost nonexistent. But this film isn’t about the narrative or the characterization; this is entirely about the experience, the sensory overload that Noe structures the film as. This is a film designed in every conceivable way to disorient you, to make you feel uncomfortable, and it couldn’t have succeeded any better. I think it’s this that makes the second half of the film such a letdown compared to the first half; since the story is told in reverse, all the climactic violent bits are at the beginning, and once we’ve successfully lasted through them, what should have been the buildup to the climax instead comes off as more of that feeling that one has when they are coming down from a climax, except without the satisfaction that everything has been wrapped up, because the story is told in reverse. I’m pretty sure that if the film had been structured regularly, then it wouldn’t have been nearly as well received. But, it’s not, and it’s the decisions that Noe makes to make the film as impossibly disorienting as it is that makes it such a must see. You may not like what you watch with this one, but there is every reason in the book as to why you should.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10