Gaspar Noé - Irréversible (2002)

[moncia bellucci] In the 1998 I Stand Alone Gaspar Noé remade Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver contextualized not as an aftershock of the war in Vietnam, but as an aftershock of class war, a war which, so Leonard Cohen sings it, "everybody knows the good guys lost." Instead of liberating a child prostitute he checks his mute daughter out of her asylum (it really is some pseudo-Plathian "we use bars and straightjackets cuz the paranoids think plexiglass and sedatives proof we're witches" pre-modern slam) and, in a sequence skirting a scene Tim Roth just straight out shot, shags her.

In his 2002 Irréversible Noé remakes Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Or, he doesn't. He remakes Kubrick's 2001. No, not that either. He remakes both, but remakes neither. Confused? That's because time's not linear, and that's what Irréversible is: the first piece of temporal art to acknowledge the non-linearity of time.

Linear equations only recognize a single value for x. Irréversible is/describes a binomial, an n-nomial, an x-nomial. More on that.

Noé admittedly and self-consciously set out to make his very own Eyes Wide Shut, from casting the Tom and Nichole of France (Vincent Cassel and Monica Belluci, co-stars of such consummate kino crap as L'Appartement and Méditerranées, and real life husband and wife) to shooting a mind-blowing (and walk-out inspiring) surrealistic orgy, complete with crowd control audio to emulate the nausea a hundred open colons would induce. But while Eyes Wide Shut was about that most sacred of sexual covenants, monogamy, Irréversible is about that holiest of sexual grails: heterosexual anal intercourse. More on that, too.

Irréversible is 2001: A Space Odyssey from the Strauss-inspired tympana that punctuate each opening credit, to the strobing stargate homage finale. And more on that.

While its story is told via an inverted sequence of vignettes, like Memento (though lacking the Aristotelian Unity of Time you'd get if you chopped Memento up and put it back together) or Lee Chang-dong's Peppermint Candy, milking the same potentials for dramatic irony, its ending (or its beginning; like Douglas Adams says, the biggest trouble with time travel is tense) problematizes such simple comparisons.

It ends—the story begins—with a shot of Alex (Bellucci), lying in bed, one hand over her belly, one hand over her vagina (we have just learned that she will learn that she is pregnant). She falls asleep, and we cut back to earlier that day; she is in the park, reading J.W. Dunne's An Experiment With Time, the camera gyres out and up, shows some kids playing in a sprinkler, then cuts to a monochromatic strobe montage of what could be nebulae and pinpoint stars, then the title "Le temps détruit tout" ("Time destroys all").

The movie begins with Philippe Nahon, the jobless butcher Bickle from I Stand Alone pontificating (as is his wont) about having stuck it to his young lady instead of his old lady. His friend reassures him: "There are no bad deeds, only deeds."

The diegesis begins with the first of two deeds, represented in what are now two of the most infamous scenes in cinema. Marcus (Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) run into a GWM S&M club called The Rectum, Marcus in violent pursuit of The Tapeworm (a pimp, not a Tick villain), Pierre trying to reason him into "visiting Alex at the hospital."1 Marcus finds the Tapeworm (played by kickboxing champ Jo Prestia) by simply asking everyone present whether or not they be he. The Tapeworm tries to calm Marcus down; the Tapeworm's friend picks a fight Marcus soon loses. Pinned to the ground, the crowd egging him on "to fuck him up the ass," he takes his penis out of his leather jeans. Before he's within several inches of penetration (or several seconds of erection) Pierre shouts "hey!" and slugs him in the face with the accounting dept. end of a fire extinguisher. He hits him again, and again (thrice now), scared he might get back up. Marcus, on the floor under his slumped body, yells "kill him" and Pierre does so, in what is probably the most gruesome application of cinematic special effects ever seen. Yes, I saw Clean, Shaven. Yes, I saw Ichi the Killer. Most. Gruesome. Ever. The Tapeworm grins his fool head off and we jib (not a cut, not a dip) to black.

(If there's any doubt they got the wrong guy, Noé stuck a band-aid on the Tapeworm's nose. If you missed the band-aid, Noé's told the French press: "They got the wrong guy. Jesus! How'd you miss that?")

Roger Ebert's argued that the revenge preceding the crime makes Irréversible unassailably moral; the revenge is not punishment, or justice, or karma (karma the way white people use the word, i.e., as a synonym for poetic justice). It's meaningless, stomach-wrenching violence. End of story. Jib to black.

If, however, you're the kind of guy who supports the death penalty and therefore, by extension, don't care whether or not they got the right guy, then they did indeed get justice for what had been a nine minute (or so, Judith Butler can sit down with a stopwatch) anal rape sequence in an all-red underpass shot to look like a colonoscopy. Deliverance was an admitted influence, "Is that blood or cum" replacing the infamous "squeal like a pig." But no Burt Reynolds with his bow. In silhouette, perfect black, we see a man come down the stairs in the background, stare at the mis-en-scène's foreground, realize Oh shit, I'm in the shot and head right back up.2

The Tapeworm cums, cleans up, announces "I'm not finished with you yet" and proceeds to bash Alex's face into the concrete floor of the underpass. "Now I'm finished with you."

While not the most disturbing rape scene ever seen (the attempted rape in Oasis is far more unnerving), Prestia and Bellucci's is certainly the grittiest, and probably the most brilliant (watch Bellucci's hands). And, like I Stand Alone, it's all about class war vis-à-vis recontextualization. The Tapeworm, a homosexual, lets Alex know he "doesn't normally" do women, but he needs to "teach a rich cunt a lesson." A personal, momentous crime committed to avenge an impersonal, systemic crime. (See: Irréversible and Class.)

Other relevant plot points: the Tapeworm (a pimp, remember) is going upside one of his hoes' heads; ve drops ver purse, including photo ID; first on the scene are—not the cops, not the media—the Arab mafia (remember, in France the Arabs are the Boyz and the suburbs are the Hood) who sell Marcus and Pierre the ID and their professional services in exacting revenge.

Noé definitely has some right wing baggage to declare: homophobic, Sinophobic, anti-Semitic and misogynistic rhetoric permeate both Irréversible and I Stand Alone. Much of the former is dramatic ironies positing what ifs. There's politically neutral stuff, like "What if Pierre's car hadn't broken down?" or "What if she took the near staircase instead of the far one?" (the camera actually tilts up to show that she took the far staircase). Politically ambiguous stuff like "What if she'd known that woman he was beating up had a penis?" (that's a spoiler, but so is women having penises). But there's some blame lain on Alex. Pierre warns Alex it's not safe to leave alone, but she refuses to let him see her home. She wears a sweater to the party but not home from. And there's two incidents when Bellucci and Cassel are rolling around naked in bed: one where Alex accidentally knees Marcus in the scrotum (j.c. used to do that to me), and one where Marcus accidentally jabs Alex in the eye with his fingernail; Self-Defense 101: eyes and balls. While feminist critiques have centered on the length of the rape scene (like to see 'em insist their boyfriends do in three minutes what Noé had Prestia do in nine) or the "fact" that Monica Bellucci is naked (where isn't she?) and attractive means guys will get off on seeing her naked even during the rape sequence (quite the opposite, I found it impossible to get off on seeing her naked in the later, non-rape sequences) as declaratives, they seemingly ignore the insinuations of culpability that are far more objectionable, and less incidental, as well as something more central to the plot: Alex left Pierre because he was a lousy lay.

Alex is Pierre's wife, separated, and Marcus's girlfriend, co-habitating. Pierre is the proverbial nice guy you want in your heat: loyal to Alex despite the futility, impotent (he gives Marcus one of his pills on the way to the fateful party) but fixated on giving her orgasms. Marcus and Pierre do a routine at said party, wherein Pierre tries to hook Marcus up with Alex, and Marcus tries to hook up Pierre (and himself) with anyone but (playfully introducing himself as "Vincent" to a girl with whom Alex is dancing). On the train, Pierre brings up the orgasm issue (one of many he's been harbouring), only to learn that, despite his never having gotten Alex off in umpteen years of marriage, Marcus does it regularly, like a clockwork blood orange. "You're too cerebral," Alex tells him. "An altruist," Marcus adds. He overthinks, they tell him. He's only worried about his partner's pleasure, they say. He needs to ignore that, they advise. Let go. Focus solely on himself. That's what Marcus does, that's what does it for Alex.

Marcus and the Tapeworm are in many ways the same guy. "Hey Alex," Marcus says at the beginning (the end) of the movie. "What?" "I want to fuck you up the ass." Pierre calls him an animal, a primate, a monkey (Cassel really does have Faith Hill tuggable ears), giving him a, um, zoonym. "You've never been reamed like this before. You've never been fucked like this before," the Tapeworm tells Alex, echoing (some sort of Feynmann echo, but an echo all the same) Marcus's admonishments of Pierre. Marcus snorts coke at the party (much to Alex's chagrin), makes fun of Pierre for not never snorting coke never; the Tapeworm snorts coke the whole while he's giving his Alex her bit of the old in-out in-out (hey, her name's Alex; bloody Clockwork Orange). If Pierre is the only sympathetic character in the whole of Irréversible, then there is a certain poetic justice to the whole affair: she left him cuz she liked it rough, she got it rough and then some.

"That's why I'm up here and you're back there," Marcus remarks, his arm around Alex as Pierre trails behind. I'm her future, he says. You're in her past.

We know which way the movie runs.3

Irréversible and Traumnovelle

coming soon...

Irréversible and 2001: A Space Odyssey

coming soon...

Irréversible and An Experiment with Time

coming soon...

Irréversible and Class

there's a pun here i know i'm just refusing to make it.


  1. Alex is referred to or addressed by name in every scene but two: the rape and the park.
  2. Giving the piss I just took back, an underpass is probably the easiest set short of a studio to enforce a lock-down, and therefore the most practical practical set in which to simulate a rape.
  3. This quasi-Nietzschean "revenge of the intellectual," while tenable at a subtextual level (what isn't) and formally predictable (it keeps the "revenge of the wronged" and the "revenge of the elephants" company), isn't really supported by either the naïve text or the overall emotional tone of the film. I personally don't believe it, it's just (sadly enough) the closest thing to a happy ending I can come up with.