The transformation Audition made from romantic comedy to relentless torture mechanism was Takashi Miike’s way of commenting on the unsteady balance of power between the sexes, while Memento’s backward narrative was Christopher Nolan’s attempt at forcing the audience to take on the role of his troubled protagonist. Gaspar Noé’s controversial Irréversible shares the former’s flair for cruelty and the latter’s reverse storytelling but its stylistic excesses are just that. Curiously, it’s not the film’s grueling, near-suffocating first half that will shock audiences as much as its lazy second half, when this glorified snuff film de-evolves into a pretentious comedy of manners.
The film begins at the end: The closing/opening title sequence falls to one side as if the print were slowly unraveling itself from a projector. Every sequence begins as such, with the camera maniacally moving from side to side, recording objects from below: apartment complexes, ceiling fixtures, even a poster of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (yawn). Noé swoops down on a city street outside a leather gay club called The Rectum. It’s there that Marcus (Vincent Cassel) is escorted out via ambulance while his friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel) is cuffed by local police for committing an unspecified but supposedly heinous crime, implied not least of which by the gratuitous string of gay barbs thrown in Pierre’s direction.
Irréversible continues to move backward: to Marcus and Pierre brutally descending upon a man inside The Rectum; to Marcus’s girlfriend, Alex (Monica Bellucci), being brutally raped by a supposedly gay pimp; to the trio of friends discussing cock sizes inside a Paris train; to Alex taking a pregnancy test; and so on. While the film’s slow regression into playful comedy at first seems interesting, there’s ultimately little to the film beyond its facile shocks to the system and ridiculous philosophical pronouncements. Where Ferrara, Haneke, and Miike are provocateurs who frequently and carefully hide their morality tales behind torture chambers, Noé is a guttersnipe with nothing to say.
Noé positions Irréversible as a structuralist countdown, but a structuralist wank job is more like it. The film lacks the many intricacies of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (a film Noé is clearly trying to remake) and laughably vies for profundity via a proverb (“Time destroys all things”) commonly attributed to African philosophers. Noé’s audacity is admirable insofar as he dares the spectator to look away from his visceral shit storm. But the overall result is remarkably mundane and not unlike watching Mannequin in reverse, inserting a nine-minute rape sequence somewhere in the middle and slapping a title card at the end that reads, “Love is in the eye of the beholder.”