reviewed by Greta Christina
Irreversible isn't about sex per se. Not in the way movies reviewed in the Spectator usually are. It doesn't have much to say on the subject of sex; nothing new or brilliant or appalling or funny, nothing outrageously false or ringingly true. What it does have is an unusual way of seeing sex, not philosophically or politically, but cinematically. The way Irreversible looks at sex -- literally, where and how the camera is pointed -- is different from any serious-movie depiction of sex I can remember.
The plot of Irreversible is extremely simple. Unremarkable, one might even say. But the movie does three things that set it apart. It runs the reels backwards, in reverse chronological order (a la Memento), so you see the outcome of the story before you see what led up to it. In addition, each individual reel consists of a single tracking shot with no cuts. Most importantly, it tells the story in graphic, prolonged, unflinching detail. It shows you whatever it's showing you, it fills the screen with it, and you have no choice but to either drink it in or look away. This includes the violence, of which there is a fair amount. But more to the point for this review, it includes the sex, of which there is also a fair amount -- and it includes the sexual violence, of which there is more than I ever want to see again on a movie screen. For the rest of my life, if possible. Please.
I'm going to go ahead and give the plot away now; since the plot unfolds backwards, it kind of doesn't matter (although it kind of does -- it's hard to explain). Alex (Monica Bellucci) and Marcus (Vincent Cassel) are a mostly happy couple who quarrel at a party when Marcus gets coked up and acts like an asshole. Alex leaves by herself, and is viciously raped and beaten in a tunnel on her way home. Marcus, accompanied by Alex's friend/ex-lover Pierre (Albert Dupontel), goes on a vengeful rampage, ending in the murder of her rapist, La Tenia (Jo Prestia). Because the reels are run backwards, you see the murder first, unexplained, and you find out as the movie unfolds who's doing it, and why.
If you already know about this movie, you've probably heard about two things: the murder scene, in which the victim's head is gorily caved in by repeated bashings with a fire extinguisher, and the rape scene.
I'm not sure what to say about the rape scene. It's not like there's any new information in it. If the point is to convey the message that rape is bad... well, yes. It does convey that. Like, duh. But to be fair, there's more to it than that. It conveys what it must feel like to be raped, forcing you to feel what Alex is feeling, more vividly than any rape scene in any movie I've seen. While the rest of the movie is filmed in a constantly-moving hand-held style, the camera holds completely still during the rape, not allowing you to be distracted by anything, even the minimal relief of a camera pan. The motionless camera doesn't allow you to look anywhere else, think of anything else, experience anything else -- just like Alex's rapist does to Alex. And it goes on. And on. And on. For... ten minutes? Fifteen minutes? I know that doesn't sound very long, but trust me. It feels like... I don't know how long. Very. And while it's happening, you have no idea how long it's going to go on. Again... just like Alex. The rape is the center of the movie, the fulcrum on which the story turns; and the implication is that it's now the center of Alex's life, framing not only everything that happens afterwards, but everything that happened before, negating any joy or peace she's ever experienced. (For the record, I suspect that a lot of actual rape survivors will be seriously pissed off by this implication.)
But as vivid and central as it is, the rape isn't the only piece of explicit sexuality in Irreversible. And while it's easy to hone in on it exclusively, doing so would be a disservice. In particular, there's a scene, later in the film but earlier in the story, in which Alex and Marcus have just had sex and are now doing some post-sex schmoozing and flirting and afterplay. They're lying in bed naked, and padding around the apartment naked, gossiping, talking about sex, talking about the party they're going to later, rubbing against each other like they might be going for seconds and then getting up to take a shower instead. In other words, they're acting the way couples do. And again, the camera doesn't turn away. The couple has a loose, easy intimacy, a comfort with each other's bodies that people only get when they've been together awhile -- and it's an ease and comfort that the camera echoes. The film doesn't turn away from their flesh, it's gentle but it's not coy; as a result, it does a very unusual, very real job of capturing how loving sexuality feels in an ongoing romance.
I'm not sure if I like what Irreversible has to say about sex, especially about sexual assault. I'm not sure if it even has anything to say about it, if it has any perception or understanding to offer, about sex or anything else, other than just "These are some things that happen" (and its cockamamie cheap-French-philosophy tagline about how "Time destroys all things"). But while it does lack much of what you might call content, its relentless, fearless, eyes-open presentation of the "These are some things that happen" thesis is actually pretty damn refreshing. If you can stomach it.
Copyright 2003 Greta Christina. Originally published in The Spectator.