Need reminding? Okay, Irreversible is that movie with both the one-take rape sequence which (Chinese whispers permitting) lasts nine minutes, and the messy disagreement between a fire extinguisher and a man's rapidly non-descript face. Irreversible is the type of movie designed for the sardonically pronounced 'that' escaping from the agape mouths of the clearly intrigued; preferably in italics, sometimes in capitals. That dress that Liz Hurley wore to wherever. Because where doesn't matter. That Lou Reed album, the one with the headache buzzing and feedback fetish. The name? Machine… Music… something. That film, the one with the rape and the fire extinguisher. Oh, THAT film. Is how the script goes, and that's essentially how a film like Irreversible works, little flickers of excitement every time you catch a snippet of conversation, a nonchalant mention on a TV show, or on an Internet movie site. You sometimes try and slip in a reference or two yourself, hands rubbing impatiently in anticipation of that click, that intonation, that response. But, why dwell on a facet of the film that doesn't even require a viewing? Why not use terms like 'extreme', 'confrontational', 'fucked-up' and 'Michael Jackson's Soul Disturbing' already? Because, you are watching Irreversible right now. You have been since you first heard about it. If sinister whispers from momentarily mangled mouths got you queasily excited and psyched for when this film hits your local theatre or video store, then you are already part of the game. Even if you ultimately pull out, and choose to watch Julia Roberts fall in and out and in of love again, Benicio Del Toro try and nestle into every conceivable ethnicity, or even choose to twiddle your thumbs for two hours, you are still watching Irreversible. The screen may be dim, small and remote, but somewhere inside you, it plays. Until you die. You see, a film like Irreversible is all about the anticipation and the pay-off, the gasped squeals of before and the gushed revelations of after, the lifetime-seeming climb to the top of the summit, and the plunge thereafter. This is inescapable, you walk into the cinema with sweaty, possibly guilty eagerness of seeing something nasty, cruel, inhuman, shocking. You want to see shocked faces, walkouts and moral outrage. You pray that the headlines are true this time. Before this, similar, slightly lesser thoughts went through your mind as you checked your wallet for money to pay to get in, made a note in your diary, told friends how you were seeing this notable film in a week's time, and so forth.
I only dwell here because this sets the bar so high, (or so low). Irreversible needs to be either as vile as your imagination can fester, an experience up there with French-kissing the corpse of Chris Farley during the next heat wave, or do something utterly unexpected The smashing news is, Irreversible is like a manic, flying taxi cab ride through the Hell that exists down poorly lit alleys, in the dull, terrifying thuds emanating from red light smothered nightclub no-one seems to ever leave, or in the violent shouts you may hear from a distance as you lie in bed at night. The film feels furious with the dirt it dwells in; the celluloid itself seemingly sucked like flies to high-powered lamps to chaotic, inexplicable, flesh-manipulating nastiness. The camera has a diseased mind of its own, literally twirling, see-sawing, swooping, spinning and dodging frantically between penetrating red light, contorted skin, and oozing layers of sleaze like a spinning top in the hands of a particularly demented infant. Coupled with the fact that director Noe's film is an impressive composition of several very long takes on digital film, this creates an atmosphere of omnipotent, ever-circling dread, the mangled corpse replacing the light at the end of the tunnel. Actually, atmosphere seems too classy a word here, so maybe murk or rotting air should be inserted instead. Because, from the backwards running end credits that the film begins with (it's another reverse narration piece, a la Memento), set over the repetitive drone of Thomas Bangalter's (half of Daft Punk) score, you know you're in a bad place, the screen sucking you further into the mire, nothing else existing but this very bad place and the horrible feeling that trails unencumbered after it. For the first half-an-hour, where every glimpsed man is a desperate deviant, every woman a woozy whore, every street a small slice of Hell, every lamp making the above list that inch more soiled with rancid sleaze and splattered blood, you almost forget about everything else. That is, until people start leaving. I was with an audience of say 40, and 12 left (3 within twenty minutes, 2 during the rape, and the remaining 7 shortly after), oddly actually, because they too have been watching Irreversible for so long, so why pull out at the exact moment it starts to get meaty?
This atmosphere is so deafeningly thick that the fact that this is a film with actors, rehearsals, storyboards, technicians, conceptual meetings, tea ladies and the lucky soul who designed the multiple blood-drenched prosthetic cocks, doesn't just seem irrelevant, it is. From the big bold, Clockwork Orange-style pronouncement of the title sequence, this is film as statement from the release, marching onwards until the poignant, understated and really quite sad coda. The problem is the large, lukewarm space between the awesome (dictionary version) opening half-an-hour or so and the quietly devastating, dizzying (literally) final shot. Simply put, when Noe is not thrusting shocking and upsetting images into your eyes, his wrist is tellingly limper, his focus less disconcerting, his ideas disinteresting, his film, suddenly very average, conventional, normal. And this isn't the weird brand of normality you get after the storm. That we see Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassell swoon over each other as they wake up, tenderly kissing in the shower or discussing orgasms on a busy train, whilst knowing their future, doesn't change anything, the scenes have no ghosts, no demons, and the clumsy attempts at something resembling a premonition (Cassell playfully claiming he wants to fuck Bellucci in the ass, Bellucci reading a no-doubt cultured book about time) seem somehow pathetic. That Noe intimidates his audience with densely horrific images, a mushroom cloud of doom, a sick-making visual style, and an unparalleled intensity of anger, and then offers something as anodyne and disinteresting as vaguely philosophical musings and kissy faces stinks not so much of loss of nerve, but loss of interest, as if Noe really wanted to make something extreme, but had neither the verve, inspiration or skill to carry out his demented dogma. After caviar, we get little sausages on small sticks; a double bill of Halloween followed by Ghosts of Mars; the effect is one that throws massive doubts on exactly how serious this film is. Questions start popping up, with several possible easy, critical answers. Why does Noe do the reverse narrative thing and not actually USE it? Because, he realised that this is a weak film with big moments, and an audience may get bored waiting for the conundrum. Who are these people, why do we know so little about them, and why should we care? They are nobody, Noe wants to abuse them, not explore their whims and desires. What are we supposed to take from this film, bar three or four unforgettable feelings? Not too much.
As the film slows down, and you realise not much more is going to happen, when Noe needs to pull the strings tight, reveal a secret sucker punch, get into the minds of these people, rather than just their other organs, he flaps, and the film cruises when first it crashed. Surprisingly satisfying dip at the end notwithstanding, Irreversible limps to an ending which offers mild sadness when it could have destroyed the entire audience. The final point is probably a rough handshake between rage and redemption, switching focus from the heavy-breathing animal inside all of us to a poignant comment on the preciousness of the moment, and it kind of works, but rather than making the world outside the cinema seem sadder, deeper, darker or less stable, what greets you as the film stalls to a close is a world where you've just been disappointed by a film whose impressive fangs turned out to be fakes.
Forgot to mention the rape scene? See for yourself, why would I want to replicate something so painstakingly recreated on the page. Moral qualms? What's wrong with portraying despicable acts despicably, at their most vilely naked? Should I see it? Of course. Bring the family. And friends