“Time destroys all things,” mutters an aged character at the beginning and declares the Godardian title card at the end of this infernal spectacle from 39-year-old enfant terrible Gaspar Noé. Provocative to a fault, violent beyond my ability either to anticipate or describe, and serious like a fucking tumor, the multiple atrocities visited upon the audience by Irreversible are a kind of visceral attack. It’s meant to leave bruises.

It works because it’s riveting on every level. Noé demonstrates breathtaking formal control, taking advantage of techniques pioneered in the American avant garde, and the film’s oddly ironic beauty seems to belie a longing for a world less ugly than the one of our own making, the one we humans are sentenced to. But Noé’s first and fondest subject is extremity, and viewers’ reaction to it. His previous I Stand Alone featured an intertitle that offered you 30 seconds to leave the theater before a particularly brutal climax. And everything in Irreversible is tuned for audience impact, from the disorienting opening sequence, which casts a gay S&M bar (whimsically dubbed “Le Rectum”) as nothing less debaucherous and dehumanizing than the seventh circle of fucking Hell, to the final strobe effect that threatens to shatter the very planet into pieces 12 times every second. Much of it is underscored by a recurring deep-bass thrum that Noé claims was mixed into the soundtrack specifically to make viewers uncomfortable.

The result is something much like an iron-man competition for film buffs. In its philosophy, which is partly borrowed from Nietzsche, and its brutal excess – not to mention a bizarre anal fixation that Noé turns into a philosophical point – Irreversible is unfailingly macho. The scene where an anonymous Joe gets his face smashed in by a fire extinguisher is engineered for maximum can-you-handle-this shock and disgust; so is the one where the camera stares forward from ground level as a terrified, screaming Monica Bellucci takes it in le rectum from a repugnant gay pimp over the course of seven, eight or nine (who times these things, after all?) brutal minutes.

The story has to do mainly with this rape and its aftermath; because it’s told in reverse, it begins in horrible violence and disorientation and becomes, slowly, more controlled. The mania of the early reels, with their restless, floating camerawork, disappears entirely in due course, as Noé concentrates instead on the as-yet-unsullied relationship between Bellucci and Cassel, and demonstrates how the small disconnections between them have frightening implications. As a whole, the film is a remarkably organic experience. Noé shot using 16mm film cartridges that run about 20 minutes in length, then pieced together different segments using digital techniques to give the impression that the film really does lurch backward in time – representing a fracturing of narrative form itself.

Despite Noé’s impressive level of technical control, there’s a lot here that’s problematic. Some of the dialogue feels labored and repetitive, verging on the ridiculous, as when Cassel shouts, over and over, “Where is the Rectum?” or whispers in Bellucci’s ear sweet nothings about anal sex that feel overtly cheap in context. I respect the rape scene itself, which is every bit as difficult to watch as it needs to be, though its length may actually work against it — even stuff this strong starts to feel gratuitously lurid in the sixth or seventh minute of screen time. More troubling to me are Noé’s sexual politics, which seem to prize child-rearing heterosexuality as life-affirming while associating gay sexuality with rape, misery, and the very asshole of the world. (For what it’s worth, Noé is aware of and rejects allegations of homophobia.) The character sketches, which pit (in largely improvised dialogue) Bellucci’s impotent old boyfriend up against Cassel’s swaggering, mannish party boy, recall Peckinpah’s famously off-putting Straw Dogs in their suggestion that even milquetoasts are capable of mixing love and lust for vengeance to devastating, life-destroying effect. Ho hum.

But what’s meant to sneak up on you as surely as the stuff about The Evil That Men Do is the sense of tranquillity and well-being that suffuses the final reels, when we see a nude Bellucci and boyfriend Vincent Cassel rolling around in bed together. The beauty and simplicity of their last afternoon together before things fall apart is unexpectedly touching; the sense of dread compromises their happiness, but it actually begins to dissipate. Yes, I think there are verbal flourishes that are meant to make us wince. But, deliberately and compassionately, Noé also loosens the vise a little. Finally, the shot where Cassel and Bellucci touch palms and lips, separated by the slim plastic barrier of a shower curtain – one of those little domestic moments that means nothing and everything in the context of a relationship – is devastating in its casual beauty and symbolism. It’s one of this often nihilistic film’s great ironies that it would earn redemption in scenes of quiet bliss that could pass for sentimentality.

“Time destroys all things” indeed. Noé has been accused of taking a sadist’s pleasure in horrifying his viewers, and I can’t argue. It takes a sadist and an egomaniac to contrive this sort of thing, to simulate human misery in a way that is likely to send viewers scurrying to the exits as the reels are still unspooling. Thus Noé attests that his violent tableaux are good for us, are the kind of unpleasant medicine that will enrich our experience of and understanding of the world outside the theater. That’s a useful metric for judging the value of a horror film – what does it teach us? – and Irreversible is a type of horror film. Noé has been accused of creating a film that qualifies as an attack on his audience, and it may also be that. As a matter of fact, it’s nearly unendurable, but it’s neither insensitive nor immoral. Crucially, this is a film that grieves.

Among all the other things it is, Irreversible is an unsparing harbinger of mortality, one that means to remind us that every life is spent edging day by day closer to the sad finality of death, every living body inching inexorably toward decrepitude. The purer our love and the more imperfect our behavior, the greater the tragedy of it all. These aren’t new ideas, but Noé makes something freshly stirring of them. Looking backward in time, he sees the character flaws and circumstance that lead inexorably to violence and personal ruin. He sees the bond that forms between a man and a woman coming together in a major European city at the beginning of the 21st century, lolling naked in one another’s arms. Before long, Noé is found exploring the implications of the conception of life itself – and, if the pointed 2001 reference can be taken at face value, the continued evolution/de-evolution of man. He wants to see all the way to the beginning of the universe, and he believes cinema can look ever further.

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