Ebert: Rolling Stone:1/2 San Francisco Examiner:
Warning, major plot points revealed! Do not read this review if you have not seen the film and want to retain your ability to be nauseated, disturbed, and shocked beyond belief.
Irréversible was like nothing I have ever seen before. It was a completely new movie watching experience. Regardless of how jaded and desensitized you may think you are this film is literally unnerving. There were at least 2 times during the movie when I felt overcome with nausea and 3 times when I had to actually force myself to keep my eyes on the screen. I am not joking at all. I have an extremely high tolerance for "movie violence" but this is not "movie violence." Irréversible does not just push the envelope, it ferociously bashes it to bits. Even after watching Gaspar Noé’s brutal Seul Contre Tous (I Stand Alone) which comes with a warning before it's infamous scene of cruelty and a countdown clock that encourages you to turn off the film or leave the theatre, I was still unprepared for the raw intensity of the graphic violence that is Irréversible. I have never witnessed anything more disturbing than the centerpiece scenes of this film.
I am not the only person who feels this way. Irréversible is probably the most controversial film of the last couple years. It was the controversy that drove me to see it and after witnessing it I now understand the uproar that it invoked. I hate to quote an enemy, but Ebert had this to say "Irreversible is a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable." He did give it a favorable review though and explained it's nuances expertly so I cannot say that he did not understand it. Reviews for this film were completely opposed. Some found it to be a piece of absolute revolutionary film making genius, while others consider it a base directionless exploitive abomination. I, along with Ebert, stand with the former.
The film is told in reverse chronology like Memento. It starts with the end credits running backwards and then unfolds as a series of single-shot vignettes. First we meet a man (The Butcher from I Stand Alone) talking to another man of his former incarceration for raping his daughter. "Time destroys everything." he says. Then the camera spirals out into the streets in front of an S&M club named the Rectum where bodies are being wheeled out on stretchers and wild eyed blood soaked crazed men are being arrested by the police. The scene then spirals back in time to the two men searching the club for a man named El Tenia. When they find him, or think they find him, they attack him savagely in a scene of violence so realistic and intense that people have been known to leave the theatre. Scenes then spiral back to a frantic violent frenzied search by the two men for El Tenia where they abuse a cab driver and a shemale street walker who may know the whereabouts of the pimp. The scene then spirals back earlier to an unrecognizably brutalized woman on a stretcher being wheeled into an ambulance as the two men, Marcus and Pierre, wail and despair for their near dead friend and lover Alex. After being questioned by the police, they are approached by street thugs who say they can help the men find the person who attacked Alex. The scene then spins back to the central scene of the film. Alex leaves a party alone and walks down a subway tunnel. At the end of the tunnel a pimp is bashing one of his whores. As Alex attempts to flee the scene the pimp attacks her, anally rapes her and then beats her to a bloody pulp. This scene, like the others is shot in a single agonizing uncut 11 minute sequence. The film then spools back to the party where Alex's boyfriend Marcus is shown obnoxiously drunk and high. He tries to get Pierre, Alex's former lover, to forget about Alex and take home or just have sex with one of the girls at the party. Disgusted and embarrassed by the intoxicated condition of Marcus, Alex decides to leave the party early. Time moves back and we see the three on the subway talking as they travel to the party. The scene then shifts to the playful afternoon sex of Alex and Marcus as they roll around in bed loving each other and then preparing for the party. We then see Alex as she takes a home pregnancy test which is positive and foreshadows an exciting new future for the happy couple. The final scene of the film shows Alex sitting on a blanket reading a book on a beautiful summer day at the park as children run and play in a sprinkler. Alex looks happily at the children as if she already knows that she is pregnant. At this point in time, her future is as bright as the day. The film ends with a fade to white that becomes a strobe effect that is almost impossible to watch without becoming sick or having a seizure.
The camera work in Irréversible is amazing. At first it is nauseating because it spirals and spins and dips and turns as if it is being guided at the end of a string. It becomes more and more stable as the film progresses back in time and adds to the discomfort level as the characters dissolve into rage filled madness. The camera itself seems to participate in the beating of the man in the club. The only time the camera stops moving is during the rape scene. This scene is shot as if mounted to a tripod and gives you an horribly voyeuristic vantage point to witness the crime.
The sound is also a major part of the film. It accompanies like the score and noise of an early David Lynch film like Eraserhead. This adds yet another disturbing quality to the movie.
The actors are fabulous. Vincent Cassel plays the energetic and wild Marcus. The transformation of his character from playful goofball to savage insane revenge filled maniac is brilliant. Albert Dupontel plays Pierre as a repressed intellectual who we also find has a darker side that is just beneath the surface and, when unleashed, a terrifying intensity. Jo Prestia gives El Tenia a raw thoughtless smirking ugly wickedness that represents one of the most deplorable characters in movie history. And finally, the stunningly beautiful Monica Bellucci (Persephone in the Matrix Reloaded) should have won an award for suffering through that excruciating rape scene. It is one of the best most believable performances I have ever seen. Additionally the love scenes between Bellucci and Cassel have an intimacy seldom seen in films that may be the result of their being married in real life at the time the film was made.
You don't just watch Irréversible, you endure it. It's a unique masterpiece.