In France, they have a lovely term for a certain kind of story. A plan incliné or downhill slope narrative is one in which the final outcome – usually sad, bleak or tragic – is known well in advance, and our supposed pleasure as spectators derives from seeing how, exactly, events lead up to this terminus.
Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible is the ultimate downhill slope movie. For it begins at the brutal, bloody end – but then does not simply flash back to an earlier point in time and then work forward, as in melancholic dramas such as Carlito’s Way (1993) or Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Noé takes the option occasionally explored in cinema history, for instance by Jane Campion’s somewhat clunky telemovie Two Friends (1986), the adaptation of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal (1983), Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy (1999) and, most popularly, the tricky thriller Memento (2000). Irreversible arranges the block-scenes of the storyline in backward order, so that each transition requires a mental rejig on the viewer’s part in order to keep track of each piece of narrative information and the significance of its placement.
So, it is no big deal for a reviewer to reveal here that the film begins with the horrific beating, in a gay night club, carried out by two friends, Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel). Tableau no. 2 tells us why: Marcus’ partner Alex (Monica Bellucci) has been viciously raped by a low-life character named Le Tenia (Jo Prestia). Irreversible thereby slots itself into what has been dubbed the rape-revenge cycle or genre.
If there was ever a film that can stir public discussion through its ambiguous strategies and mixed messages, this is it. After having watched it four times, I still have conflicting views abouts its level of intelligence, and the ethics of what it does to an audience.
One thing is undeniable: Noé is a masterful filmmaker in a modern, confrontational style. Very punk in his provocations – the movie is all crazy, vertiginous angles in tensely choreographed long takes (the cinematography is by Noé and Benoît Debie), plus throbbing techno-noise (composed by Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk) – he generates an emotional surprlus that is hard to shake off.
On the downside, there is a specious logic underlying Irreversible’s formal argument. The film partakes of a trend in cinema of the early 2000s that tries to milk profondity from the most basic, inherent devices of storytelling. For instance, in movies including Lantana (2001) and the early features of Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights  and Magnolia ), any coincidental meeting of disparate characters is trumped up as a cosmic sign that we are all connected.
Noé, for his part, plays the fatalism card. By telling a story with a grim ending – and then reversing the order so that this ending comes first – he can broadcast (at both ends of the movie, no less!) the tragic wisdom that time destroys everything. (J. Hoberman concurred: watch this film and your time is destroyed, alright: you’ll never get those 97 minutes [or 4 x 97, in my case] back again!) Of course, if he had started from a happy ending, Noé could have just as easily erected a sopabox to declare that time redeems everything.
Noé squeezes other, related, cheap dramatic effects from his backwards structure. Once you have seen the terrible fate that befalls Alex in the tunnel, then every little move that precedes it takes on a what if? poignancy and gravity. What if she had not taken the advice to walk in that specific direction? What if she had turned around when someone at the party calls her name? So many possible forking-paths of destiny!
But this is not a film about Free Will or bad luck. Portentously, it claims to be about malignant predestination – the ugly entropy of all things. Once again, this is a rigged game: since Noé has decided that his tale will progressively submerge itself into tragedy, it is easy for him to pretend that it could not possibly end any other way. That’s plan incliné with a nasty, sour, nihilistic vengeance.
On the other hand, a principal revelation withheld until near the very end – a withholding (which I won’t spoil here) made possible only by the reverse narrative structure – captures what, almost paradoxically, does work well in Irreversible. On paper, the idea sounds corny: start a movie in the Hell of violent revenge and horrific rape, in order to work backwards to an Edenic vision of the pure, beautiful love that will later be ruined.
But Noé is a man of cinema – of images, sounds, lights and bodies – rather than of intellectual concepts, and he knows the trump cards he has between his hands: Cassel and Bellucci. These two stars bring an extraordinary, vital presence and spontaneity to their roles. Thier banter captures the electric reality of a real couple [2023 note: they married in 1999 and divorced in 2014]. And the scene of their morning frolic at home is among the film’s best – nudity has never seemed so sublime as when Noe’s camera fondly frames these magnificent creatures.
Irreversible is one of several films at the dawn of the new century (another is Jean-Claude Brisseau’s wild Secret Things ) that shape themselves as homages and/or responses to Stanley Kubrick’s final masterpiece, Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – a movie whose significance grows more monumental with each passing year. As in that film, here we have a real star couple in a story of an interrupted, idyllic marriage. Noé even dares to link the ecstatic vision of these lovers with another Kubrickian icon: the Star Child from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), brandished unsubtly on a bedroom poster. Then again Noé cultivates the punk habit of thumbing his nose at the polite, bourgeois code of aesthetic subtlety!
Let’s pause on this imagery of Holy Childhood, though. Even here, Irreversible tends to ignite heated arguments. Is Noé really opposing an image of heterosexual (and reproductive) Heaven to the Hell of gay relationships, glimpsed during the opening scene in the colourfully named Club Rectum? Is he really proposing a queer villain (in the form of Le Tenia) who, in his ferocity and evil, easily outdoes the underworld denizens of (sometimes unfairly) maligned American thrillers like Cruising (1980)? (There is an especially savage irony concerning Le Tenia which is often lost on first-time viewers, so watch carefully.)
The mind boggles at this possibility of a dull conservatism of content and worldview existing at the heart of such vigorous boundary-testing and transgression at most other levels of form and treatment. But culture (popular and otherwise) is full of such paradoxes and contradictions.
You have to give Noé this: he has the courage to go all the way with materialising, on screen, his fantasies – no matter how icky, confused or simplistic they may, in the long run, turn out to be. In this, he joins the flank of in-your-face cine-provocation established in the 1980s, and embodied at subsequent Cannes festivals, by Lars von Trier.
Noé is already (after the pugnacious I Stand Alone  followed by Irreversible) more of a “total filmmaker” than Trier – in the sense that everything, from first strobe-flashing credit to final techno-burp, forms part of a completely designed structure, a conceptual dispositif (another link to the Kubrick legacy).
Let’s see where he goes next with his highly stylised contraptions.
© Adrian Martin February 2004