It's Beginning, To, and Back Again: The Sense-Deranging Sound + Vision of Gaspar Noe's Irreversible

By Jason Shawhan

Jason Shawhan is a freelance writer and critic for the Nashville Rage, Opposable Thumb Films, and the Nashville Scene. His catalog for performance artist Jeffrey G. Baker's 1995 cocoonings were exhibited in the St. Mark's Position gallery in New York, and his film collective the Nashville Cinema Underground helps to bring provocative and controversial film to Middle Tennessee.


"Put the thing down, flip it, and reverse it" -Missy Elliott

The moment is hazy, but can be retrieved under duress- a fourth grade version of myself, listening to Purple Rain on my record player, spinning back the needle at the end of "Darling Nikki" to see what it is that Prince is saying. Back-masking at that time not quite at the peak of its media saturation, but awareness of it there nonetheless, passed around playgrounds like the first 2 Live Crew album in 1986. Then, of course, the lawsuits against Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne for allegedly compelling their listeners to commit suicide. A little history on the subject bringing in Led Zeppelin IV, and soon a whole new generation thinks Paul is dead. Isolated points in a young life, but a random enough dispersal of seeds for a nice patch of irony to flourish in the nineties when rap records start reversing explicit lyrics to make surrealist radio edits. It had been done before. Jones's Betrayal and Campion's Two Friends immediately springing to mind, each willing to upend conventional narrative order, telling their stories in reverse (1). And then, of course, Christopher Nolan played that card trick with Memento and made himself a name in international cinema. But 2002 saw, at Cannes no less, a new perspective on the idea of reversed narrative, from French-Argentine director Gaspar Noe.

Were it to traffic in linear storytelling, Irreversible would tell the story of what happens when Marcus (Vincent Cassel) seeks revenge on the enigmatic pimp La Tenia (2) (Jo Prestia) for the rape and violent beating of his girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci). Accompanying Marcus, reluctantly, is Alex's friend (and ex-boyfriend) Pierre (Albert Dupontel). Thanks to a couple of street thugs, the two track the Tenia through a boulevard of trans-y hookers and a racist episode in a cabdriver's car only to find him at a gay S&M club where Marcus gets his arm broken and Pierre beats a man to death with a fire extinguisher.

Redemption and happy endings as cinematic tradition describes are absent. The wicked get away scot free. The film's protagonists leave the narrative in an ambulance and police custody, respectively. Happiness is not a right, it is a privilege, and Noe manages to slam several fusillades of righteous anger against the bourgeois tenets of xenophobia and entitlement. In the midst of the film's infamous rape scene, we see a nameless bystander enter the underpass wherein Alex is being assaulted. This individual sees what is taking place in the foreground, then turns around and walks away. It is a horrifying moment in a sequence which is already horrifying.

From a strictly political reading, Irreversible is an example of white male privilege going to the hood and getting its ass (and soul) kicked. This does not however, address the fact that we undergo so much of this journey with the two that we cannot help but empathize on a certain level. The sequence in Marcus and Alex's apartment towards the end shows him as a charming and attentive partner for Alex, and she seems to love him deeply (3). She seems happy to find out that she is having his child, and if it were not for the tyranny of time, that joy would be what we could take away from the very end of the film. And while Pierre's fixation with Alex and Marcus' sex life is somewhat unnerving, his feelings toward and concern for Alex are completely genuine. His last words to her, "Don't go alone, it's not safe," must be resonating through Pierre's head for most of the film.

The first half hour of Irreversible is sense-deranging on several different levels. Visually, the camera spirals around, disorienting (and perhaps sickening) the viewer. The sequence in the S&M club, the Rectum, is a tour de force of constructivist imagery, bathing everything in red and whirling about, catching glimpses of fisting, porn, and slings. The viewer is only allowed a (relatively) still shot near the sequence's end, during Marcus and Pierre's confrontation with The Tenia and Pierre's beating to death of The Tenia's associate. The fact that Noe again shoots in cinemascope (as in his last film, Seul Contre Tous/I Stand Alone) magnifies the distortive power of the film's imagery and movement, and it also impels the easily queasy to sit on the sides of the theatre.

Sonically, there is a dual-wave oscillation at full keen throughout almost all of the sequence, which on a good theatre system is gut-stirring in and of itself. The soundwave (which, surprisingly is nowhere near as annoying as most of the soundtracks you hear in modern experimental film (4) can be read as an obvious attempt at disorienting the viewer, or it can be seen as how oppressive many people see hardcore dance music as being. Rising in and out of the sound mix is a kick drum and high hat sequence that pounds away at about 165 BPM, which, when coupled with that soundwave, sounds almost like the typical disparaging imitations of techno (5). It could also be heard as a figurative representation of the disarray in Marcus' head, or even as a physical representation of bloodlust (6). With the exception of the sequence at the Rectum, sound is primarily objective in the film, while vision is subjective, as the kinetic camera as metaphor for deranged mind demonstrates for much of the film (7).

This is most apparent in the scene wherein Marcus and Pierre, having just left the party, discover the battered and bloody body of Alex. Showing no interest at the human tragedy before them until they realize that the victim is in fact someone they know, the two are initially more concerned that they can't hail a cab because of the crowd. We hear Marcus' heart rate, already amped because of the drugs, boom on the soundscape, and the camera crashes about with each beat (8). The revelation of Alex's body is the first moment (in a linear reading of the storyline) that the camera movement becomes reactive instead of constant.

Narratively, the sequence at the Rectum is make-it-or-break-it time for many viewers, as its visceral impact hooks people into staying long enough to get the rest of the story. The film's reverse order grants information in a way that requires the audience to pay very close attention, which many find difficult considering the careening nature of the camera during the opening half hour. But you find, in the sequence at Rectum, a soundscape that meshes with the nervous system in a way that hasn't been done since Argento's work with the Goblins in Suspiria. Sound and vision are so perfectly fused that it becomes impossible to separate them. There were always stories about sounds that had been mixed into The Exorcist that had set some people off, driving them into insane fits of violence and derangement, the gospel truth, according to babysitters of a certain age, but here is a case of extreme sonic frequencies and visual disorientation as a necessary means to experiencing the film.

We get the cumulative effect of Marcus and Pierre's journey into hell without having seen the before and without any understanding of why. The formalist genius of the film really only comes into focus on a second viewing, both because we as viewers now understand the full storyline and because the film's implicit statement (and this is the utter genius part) is that the real world is not a pretty place where everyone is entitled to safety and happiness, but rather a place of random violence and stupid revenge fantasies where everything can change based on one seemingly insignificant choice (9) and destiny and the linear passage of time hold the end for all things.

Much has been made by critics the world over of positing a gay S&M club as the dwelling place for as evil a bastard as the Tenia. The Rectum is seen by many in the same way that the leather clubs in William Friedkin's Cruising were viewed in 1980. Truthfully, it does not seem that the film is positing as reactionary a message (as it has been accused of doing) as "gay sex=shocking violence/death." Noe complicates any interpretation of the sequence by appearing in it masturbating gleefully. The Rectum is a male space rather than gay space, where testosterone abounds in such abundance that options skew toward 'manly' activities: sex, eating, and killing (10). This contrasts with the end of the film, wherein Marcus and Alex's apartment and later the park are seen as female space (11), which are devoted to life, thought, and process. If Noe is guilty of any transgression, it may be using overly simplified gender theory. In the process, however, he has made a technical masterpiece and an emotional fragmentation grenade. Somewhere between the debut of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and the spatialist mindgames of the pointillists in its demonstration of the effect art can have on the human soul, Irreversible is the kind of experience that changes a viewer forever.

1. Not completely in reverse, mind you. Scenes in and of themselves proceed from a beginning to an end. However, the order in which these scenes occur is reversed from how it would occur in reality. Roger Avary's The Rules of Attraction, another of 2002's backspinners, actually plays some parts through completely reversed, with characters speaking backward.

2. "The Tapeworm."

3. The film was made during Cassel and Bellucci's marriage, and their intimacy together is palpable. When this is taken with Noe's affection toward/devotion to Stanley Kubrick, it becomes easy to see this as Noe's Eyes Wide Shut. As with that film, the marriage didn't last more than a year afterward.

4. *Corpus Callosum, this means you. Incidentally, I put the 'Rectum soundwave' into a music processor and reversed it, just to see what it would sound like. It sounds the same, which indicates that the 'Rectum soundwave' is actually two different waveforms played on top of each other- sort of like the THX logo music, but used for completely different purposes.

5. More correctly, gabba, a Dutch/German derived variant of the hardcore techno sound of the early nineties. It's interesting to note that Irreversible has a lot to say about xenophobia even in its representation of dance music, as the Rectum's sound is very Prussian, whereas the film's party sequence (which figures as safe space for the French neo-bourgeois) is cut to filter-disco, a subgenre of house music that has been defined and refined almost exclusively by French DJs and artists, including the film's composer Thomas Bangalter (of Daft Punk and Together). For other instances of French house and filter-disco used in film, feel free to see Cox 6's "I'll Stay Outside" in Despentes and Trinh Thi's Baise-Moi and Saez' "Sexe" in DePalma's Femme Fatale.

6. The wave ceases after The Tenia's associate has been beaten to death.

7. What becomes intriguing about the film's visual sensibility is that it is the rape of Alex that triggers the hyperkinesis of the camera in the first part of the film. If one were to view the scenes of the film in an order which begins with Alex in the park and ends in the Butcher's apartment, we would see that it is the sheer violence and violation of the rape of Alex that unmoors the visual sense of the film. To get philosophical about it, picture the camera as floating on a body of water during the course of the narrative. The rape is the equivalent of dropping a two hundred pound rock from about thirty feet up into that body of water, and the turbulence caused by impact affect the camera for a considerable amount of time.

8. Shades of Argento's Opera here, I think.

9. With most 'disturbing' films, we begin in some semblance of the real world- a normalish place which is gradually unmade by action or event, ending in a place that is alien and unsettling (physically or emotionally). Irreversible begins in the real world of violence, and by action and event we unmake time, traveling into a secure and safe space that leaves the viewer with a vicious mix of feelings at the end. How would it have affected the film, let's say, if it had ended with Alex reading in the park, before the visually assaultive spiral/mini-stargate journey/final "Le Temps Detruit Tout" that closes it?

10. There is a moment both surreal and mordantly funny during this sequence, as the first man that Pierre and Marcus encounter who knows of the Tenia keeps insisting to them that it would be a safer endeavor for them to fist him rather than continue to seek the Tenia. It strikes me that the Rectum is seen as a place of honesty, where those in attendance do so without illusions. Marcus enters the club under the impression that he is an avenger, and he is not. He is a fair-to-mediocre boyfriend who got wasted at a party and pissed off his girlfriend so that she left and got raped and beaten into a coma on her way home, and now masculine codes demand that he do something as stupid as careening into a notorious gay sex club for the purposes of violent revenge.

11. I've always liked the Greek word temenos for such things, as it can mean both secret space and sacred space, and now who's the one using overly simplified gender theory?

                                                                 © FILM JOURNAL 2002