Most critics, confronted with the toxic structural exercise that is Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible, have tended to zero in on the film’s two most notorious moments of savagery, which arrive twenty and forty minutes into the proceedings, respectively. While certainly disturbing and repulsive at times, Irréversible is about more than garden-variety shock or cleverness (the story, about an enraged man seeking revenge for the brutal rape and beating of his girlfriend, is told backwards á la Memento). Indeed, the moments of horror take up only about one-tenth of the entire film — about ten minutes or so. Nine of those minutes, though, feature a literally unblinking, unbroken shot of a seemingly unending and vicious anal rape.

We’ll get the nasty stuff out of the way first. Irréversible begins on a note of vertiginous disorientation, with the closing credits scrolling upward and eventually tilting to the side, forcing the viewer to literally lean to the right, a fitting political omen for what follows. We see two thugs sitting in a room, one of whom, Philippe Nahon, was the star of Noé’s previous merdiste lightning rod for controversy, I Stand Alone. Sitting naked in bed, Nahon delivers the film’s epigram: “Time destroys everything.” Yep, sure does. The camera swirls and tilts away from the thugs, out the window, and down to the street outside a gay S&M club called The Rectum. We see one man on a stretcher with a broken arm, another being taken into verbally-abusive police custody. Then the movie begins its backward, downward spiral: we transition to the scene before this one, which explains the broken arm and the police.

The men are shown delving into the darkest, scuzziest corners of gay fetishism, demanding to see “Le Tenia”; we don’t know why yet. Eventually they find a man they take to be Le Tenia; what follows brought me close to vomiting, and not just because of the flashing lights and incoherently spinning camerawork (the style redefines “assaultive,” and I gave silent, nauseated thanks that I hadn’t seen the movie on a big screen). Simply put, metal fire extinguisher meets skull; skull loses. With the aid of CGI, which enabled Noé to create a seamless blend of real, latex, and digital heads, we see, from beginning to end, a man’s face bashed in — caved in, really — and it’s the sort of thing Martin Scorsese might show us if he didn’t have to worry about getting an R rating and were really sadistic.

What’s the motive for this horrifying assault? After a while we see it: the beautiful Alex (Monica Bellucci) — girlfriend of one of the men, Marcus (Vincent Cassel), former lover of the other, Pierre (Albert Dupontel) — has been brutally raped and then beaten into a coma. Here, the camerawork is as arrogantly nailed-down as it was arrogantly chaotic before; we are trapped on the floor along with Alex and her rapist. For nine minutes or so, we’re in hell as Alex’s assailant, the pimp Le Tenia (Jo Prestia), rapes her anally while she emits muffled screams and cries. Our knowledge that Marcus and Pierre exacted gut-wrenching revenge for this crime comes as no comfort, especially because of Noé’s wicked little twist in the narrative (unrevealed by me). The rape, for me, is made even more horrifying by the addition of little everyday details like the way the rapist, once finished, rolls off of Alex and wipes his brow as if he’s just gotten done with a particularly strenuous jog.

If a viewer survives the first fifty minutes, the rest of Irréversible chills out considerably, with nothing more violent in store than a little sexual debate. Noé knows exactly what he’s doing: Tensed and ready for more atrocity (dreading more), we instead get elegant long takes in which we see the comparably peaceful and pleasant part of the day for Alex, Marcus, and Pierre. We learn that Pierre used to be Alex’s lover and still carries a torch for her; still haunted by what he sees as his sexual inadequacy, he drills Marcus on whether Alex has ever orgasmed with Marcus, and if so, how did he do it? The characters are not terribly fleshed out, and the acting, while fresh and credible, is obviously ad-libbed (Noé gave the actors a three-page outline of the story, leaving the dialogue in their hands). But we also get a sense of the past these three share (Bellucci and Cassel were a couple in real life during filming), and why Alex prefers the more instinctive and elementary Marcus to the philosophical Pierre, who’s too sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.

Rather cruelly, Irréversible runs backwards into an idyll, ending as sweetly and joyously as it began so hideously and hatefully. The cruelty, of course, derives from our knowledge of what’s to come for the three friends and lovers. Watching Alex and Marcus recline lazily (naked) in bed — with golden light and pensive framing that proves Noé isn’t just an ADD whiz with a camera — becomes unspeakably sad when we reflect on what later happens (or, to us, has already happened) to them. Irréversible also has a clever bookending effect: It begins with incestuous talk, homosexual fetishism, and gory murder; it ends with love, life, happy children, and the affirmation of heterosexual values. (The movie’s early scenes set a new record for the number of anti-gay epithets in one film. The movie itself isn’t homophobic, I don’t think; it just reflects the sordidness of a particular gay-fringe milieu and the average hetero’s recoil from it.) Irréversible‘s first thirty minutes are a special endurance test solely on the basis of style, with its loop-de-loop camera and grinding, headache-inviting soundscape (which needs a Dolby Digital 5.1 playback for the full bowel-loosening effect). Noé is a confrontational master, no question — a filmic martinet whose control over his effects and our responses is like an iron fist. Shoved where it’ll do us the least good.

I came away shaken yet oddly refreshed — it’s always comforting to know that a movie can still shock me, and even scare me. As a horror-movie fan, I’ve seen just about every trick in the book, and so horror movies for me are more fun rituals than actual scary experiences. Irréversible, however, frightened me, the way Oz on HBO used to frighten me — humanity in extremis, the proof of barbarism in our DNA, the intimation that the only difference between a sensible, socialized person and a rabid murderer is one bad day. A bad day that can begin, as one character describes it, as “a special day.”

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