There's a quote I quite like from Chan-wook Park that goes, "I don't feel enjoyment watching films that evoke passivity. If you need that kind of comfort why wouldn't you go to a spa?". I may not agree with him 100% of the time, I love the odd mind numbing movie, but I certainly love me some dark, dark stuff as well. I get a certain type of enjoyment when I can feel emotions that I don't ever want to experience in real life within the safety of a film. Once the film is over and the emotions wear off you have either learned a valuable lesson, seen a different worldview or just had an experience that isn't easily duplicated (and in Irreversible's case, thankfully so).
Noe does all in his power to assault the audience with his film. There is an ever moving sweeping camera seemingly designed to induce vomiting, a sound design laced with white noise that police use to end hostage situations and a script with atrocities committed with and without consequence. But behind these shock tactics is a filmmaker with something to say. Life isn't fair, and neither is Irreversible.
The film starts in chaos (following a little cameo by our friend The Butcher from I Stand Alone and Carne. Why wasn't he in Enter the Void Noe!?) as we enter The Rectum, a gay S & M sex club, and our 2 crazed male leads hunt down "The Tapeworm". What follows isn't for those with weak constitutions, but anyone who entered the film by accident (I remember when I went to see John Hillcoat's The Proposition, there was an old couple beside me wondering why Kenneth Branaugh hadn't showed up. I guess it happens) hopefully will have fled by then. There be mucho gay S & M sex before any of the really rough stuff starts.
We soon realize the film is being told in reverse (so it is reversible!) and what we have is essentially a rape/revenge film viewed in a different light, where we see the revenge before we see the crime. That's a pretty cool idea in it's own right, but add to that Noe's distinctive, though nihilistic voice, tons of style and great performances and you have a must see in my humble (that's fuckin' right, humble motherfucker!) yet correct opinion. The three central characters are Alex (Monica Bellucci) who is dating Marco (Vincent Cassel) and the third wheel and Alex's former boyfriend Pierre (Albert Dupontel). The viewer is meant to sympathize with Pierre, the sensitive ex boyfriend, as he tags along with macho and prickish Marco and Alex. He obviously still pines for her, but hides it in order to still be with her even if it's only as a friend. And it's obvious he is so much better for her than that Marco cretin! Sounds like something out of a romantic comedy, don't it? With Noe's expert handling of the material and all the actor's great performances it seems very real and not at all manipulative. The way their stories end (which is at the beginning, but I'll still avoid spoiling anything) is heartbreaking as more and more is revealed about their characters. We see them at their worst at the beginning of the film, and the more that is revealed on how they got there, it becomes clear that the way the story is being told makes perfect sense. Unlike most stories, once the crime is committed, the character essentially becomes their crime, where in this, their crime becomes a character (hopefully that makes sense).
Much has been said about the long and unflinching rape scene and I really won't add much more than to say I definitely admired Noe in his attempt to give the audience absolutely no thrills during the scene and it's a troubling and disturbing scene to watch. With no edits and a single wide shot, the audience suffers through the scene, which seems right. It is rape after all (well... pretend rape, but in the context of the movie).
At the screening I saw at the Toronto Film Festival, it seemed that a lot of the audience I was overhearing sounded more like they were going on a roller coaster ride rather than seeing a film. Irreversible's reputation seemed to precede it and it sounded like some people were there more to test their stamina and endurance rather than having a genuine interest in the subject matter. I believe that though Noe did his best to command your attention, when an audience member goes in already resisting getting involved with a film it also makes a film harder to like. If you watch any film as an outsider I don't think you can get the same out of it, though it is completely understandable why people would be trepidatious about losing themselves within this film.
Noe set out to make a film that was about darkness, hopelessness and the meaningless of all our suffering and he did so in such an interesting, cinematic and sometimes heartbreaking way and that is quite an achievement. I really believe that this film will be remembered for a long, long time as masterpiece by one of the true innovators of cinema. But it won't be remembered forever, time does destroy everything.