Gaspar Noé doesn’t only not shy away from the grotesque, the disturbing, the shocking, he seems to revel in it. You can uncharitably view some of his work as mere excuses to show you things you never thought you’d see on a movie screen. A more fair way to look at it is that we have vices, and we often indulge in them—thoughtlessly—and Noe attempts to utilize shocking imagery laden with regressive themes as a confrontation. We like violence, or else we wouldn’t watch violent movies. We like to watch people have sex, or else the porn industry wouldn’t exist. By often taking these things to the extreme, Noe asks us to consider at what point we go from thrilled to disgusted.
Even by Noé’s standards, his 2002 film Irreversible is one of the more violent, depraved, and disturbing films, which tells you something. It also plays with convention—Irreversible not only plays out Memento-style, in reverse chronological order, but the 13 scenes it contains are almost exclusively done in a single-take. In 2019, Noé unveiled a new version, Irreversible: Straight Cut which presents the scenes in chronological order (which has been re-released and is currently on a nationwide screening tour).
The story is fairly simple if not ugly. Alex and Marcus, a couple played by Monica Bellucci (The Matrix: Reloaded, Spectre) and Vincent Cassel (Eastern Promises, Jason Bourne) go out to a party one night with Alex’s ex and Marcus’s friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel of Love Me No More). As the drunk and drugged Marcus takes “worst person at this party” to a new level, Alex decides to escape early. While heading home alone, she’s violently raped and beaten. When Marcus and Pierre learn of what happened, they go looking for the perpetrator.
The original cut of Irreversible, then, essentially begins with Marcus and Pierre (but mostly Marcus) frantically looking for someone in a gay BDSM club called The Rectum. Marcus is a homophobe, so as the camera swoops and dips and spirals amidst a sea of neon colors and naked men having sex, the slurs fly. It’s disorienting and disturbing, and then a man gets his face bashed in by a fire extinguisher. Right away we’re thrown into the muck, Noe almost daring you to turn it off. This reverses back to the film’s final scene, which shows Alex laying serenely outside, taking in some sunshine around happy families. The midpoint is the film’s most notorious scene, a near 10-minute, unbroken and mostly fixed shot of Alex’s assault. Irreversible: Straight Cut is a more conventional film; obviously the narrative takes place in order like we’re used to, and that lends itself to a more natural building of tension. We meet characters, characters do things, and we respond to it. In Irreversible: Straight Cut, we start with Alex, then meet her boyfriend Marcus while they’re in post-coital bliss/annoyance. We’re then introduced to Pierre and watch the trio converse (mostly about sex) on the train as they head to and attend the fateful party.
I wouldn’t recommend watching both films essentially in succession, but it is a fascinating exercise. (It’s like a depraved fantasy football snake draft.) That might be why Irreversible: Straight Cut presents so brutally. Irreversible was obviously conceived to be as much an exercise as a statement. By presenting everything in reverse order, it invites us to examine our reactions to violence—does the fact that we don’t know the intention behind a violent act on screen affect how we view it? How does that change when we do eventually learn what inspired the violent act? Your mileage may vary on the merits of these questions and whether the film earns the permission to ask, but Irreversible’s format at least invites this type of introspection. On the other hand, Irreversible: Straight Cut lays it out bare. The simplification of the storytelling framing doesn’t really push us to examine the violence and shock. It just makes us watch it. Yes, the long takes and the lengths Noe goes to in the violent depictions do carry their own provocations. The rape scene in particular is purposely distressing, and regardless of what comes before or after it, it’s going to make you feel something. (Thinking Noe overstepped his bounds for the sake of shock is certainly a fair reaction.) In Irreversible, this is our introduction to Alex. Crucially, we have seen the perpetrator already, and we know what becomes of him. It gives the violence and hatred we see at the beginning, perpetrated by Marcus, some heft. Though the scene is truly ugly and shocking in the original cut, it acts as the film’s fulcrum, where the reverse-chronological framework kicks into place.
In Irreversible: Straight Cut, we haven’t yet seen Marcus and Pierre attempt to avenge the crime. We’ve already been introduced to Alex. We’ve seen Pierre and Marcus treat Alex—to her face—like an object, a stand-in for female sexuality and desire. And now we watch this awful thing happen to her (and boy, do we watch it). When viewed in chronological order, the rape is set up as a defiling of innocence. But it also kind of lets Marcus and Pierre off the hook for their treatment of her. They’re bad men, but they’re not this bad. By the time we see them at The Rectum in their act of vengeance, the thematic juices of the film have already been squeezed out. A philosophical exercise has been replaced with an emotional one, and the overriding emotion is, essentially, depression.
I would pretty resoundingly recommend Irreversible over Irreversible: Straight Cut. But whichever version you watch, you’re in for a pure Gaspar Noé experience. That is, you’ll leave a little fascinated, a little confused, and, at least, a little bit angry.
Irreversible: Straight Cut has the following tour dates:
U.S. Theatrical Dates:
2/10 – 2/16 – IFC Center (New York, NY)***
2/10 – 2/16 – Landmark’s Nuart Theatre (Los Angeles, CA)
2/14 – PhilaMOCA (Philadelphia, PA)
2/17 – 2/23 Sie Film Center (Denver, CO)***
2/24 – 3/2 Alamo Drafthouse Mission (San Francisco, CA)***
2/24 – 3/2 Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar (Austin, TX)
2/24 – 3/2 Alamo Drafthouse Wrigleyville (Chicago, IL)
2/24 – 3/2 Alamo Drafthouse DTLA (Los Angeles, CA)
2/24 – 3/2 Alamo Drafthouse Manhattan (New York, NY)
2/24 – Alamo Drafthouse (Raleigh, NC)
2/24 – 2/28 – The Frida Cinema (Santa Ana, CA)
2/24 – 3/2 Central Cinema (Knoxville, TN)
***35mm Print of the Original Cut on Select Dates
More Cities To Be Announced Soon