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Review Written by: Joe Earp
Film: A+
Video/Audio/Extras: A+/A+/F

Directed by: Gaspar Noe
Written by: Gaspar Noe
Produced by: Christophe Rossignon
Starring: Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel, Jo Prestia, Philippe Nahon
Buy it!, Buy it, rent it or skip it: Rent it

Last year at a film course I had won through a school competition, one of my fellow students brought in Irreversible to show the class. Although he warned us from the beginning that the film featured explicit violence and full frontal nudity, nothing could prepare us for what we saw. Visceral, disturbing and shocking, the film caused an uproar with my fellow students who deemed it to be pointlessly violent and disgusting. One class member even ran to the toilet, returning pale and shocked.

When I first saw the film, I wasn't exactly sure what to think. Violence is not something I have a particular issue with. I can stomach decapitations, shootouts, executions...almost anything cinema has thrown at me so far. The amount of blood on screen is not what troubles me at all. I am more concerned as a viewer with the reasoning behind the violence. For me, 'violence' does not refer to gore or blood. Instead, I see it as the intention behind the decapitations and executions.

So if you'll excuse me while I get sidetracked, I think it is important that before discussing Irreversible, I discuss the true nature of a violent film. Many prominent critics, Roger Ebert included, deem a film to be 'violent' if it features blood or mutilation. Some even go further, claiming that a violent film can influence children and teenagers to emulate the action they see on screen. Famously, the Australian critic David Stratton claimed that Romper Stomper was a celebration of racism and even went so far as to say that younger viewers would embrace the lives of these disgusting characters, possibly turning to violence themselves. However, this is not an isolated incident. Author John Grisham went one step further, suing Oliver Stone after the release of the film Natural Born Killers. In his eyes the film glorified violence, encouraging young children to take up arms and kill their parents, just as Mickey and Mallory (Juliette Lewis and Woody Harrelson) do in the film.

Nevertheless I do not see either Romper Stomper or Natural Born Killers as violent movies. I disagree with the reasoning of both Stratton and Grisham for one simple reason. Neither of the two movies cited above make violence pleasant for an audience member. As Mickey and Mallory burn a woman to death, the audience is supposed to be shocked, not incensed. Even in American History X, as Edward Norton stomps a carjacker's brains out all over the pavement, the audience is not supposed to cheer him on. How can a film that disgusts the audience, therefore ever be seen as violent? A really violent film for me is something like The Matrix: mainstream fodder that truly promotes bloodletting. My reasoning behind this is simple. Audiences did not leave Romper Stomper or Natural Born Killers saying: 'how cool was that scene where...' or 'how amazing was it when he shot that guy?' Films like The Matrix aim to get their viewers pumped. Their sole purpose is to make the audience gasp at the sheer 'beauty' of death and gunplay. And one cannot forget, nobody left Natural Born Killers or Romper Stomper cheering on the protagonists. They left the cinema feeling disgusted and shocked.

So now I can finally come full circle. For me, Irreversible is not a violent film. Yes, it features a prolonged rape scene. Yes, it features a murder. Yes, it features nudity. But at no point are the audience ever supposed to cheer on the actions of the characters. And best of all the director Gaspar Noe has a point behind all this gore. Unlike the Wachoski brothers, Noe knows what he's talking about. Irreversible is a full on portrait of human indecency. He perfectly understands how violent and abusive we can all be. Unlike say The Matrix which chose an extraordinary character as its protagonist, Irreversible features an assortment of ordinary men and women. As a result, Noe's film achieves a disturbing realism. We are not allowed to review the film objectively. By the time the movie ends (or begins as it were, as the whole film is told backwards) we realize the darkness not of the characters, but of ourselves.

Noe's camerawork is extraordinary. As Martin Scorsese did before him, Noe takes an ordinary city and shoots its seamy underbelly. The constantly roaming camera, which almost constantly rolls and banks, creates a queasy disturbing effect. The scariest thing however, is that we recognize this world. Noe's real talent is taking a familiar location and twisting it ever so slightly with the help of his restless camera, so it is both foreign and familiar to the audience.

One cannot discuss Irreversible without analysing its gimmick: the decision to tell the whole story backwards. Many people have called the film a pointless rip off of Memento, a film that similarly used a strange plot devise to constantly trip up the viewer. However unlike Memento which used the gimmick to place the audience in the shoes of its central protagonist Lenny, a man with short term memory loss, Noe uses the strange plot device to add another, almost religious layer to his work. By shooting the film backwards, we are given a second sight as it were. We can see exactly where the characters are heading and thus we become almost godlike. The film takes on a tragic stance of almost Oedipal proportions as we see the fate of the characters has already been mapped out for them. Noe's message is clear: whatever we do, we cannot escape the darkness of our own being.

I have never been much of a fan of Vincent Cassel as an actor. Nevertheless, in this, his best role, he is disturbingly truthful. All of the performances in fact are perfectly crafted. The dialogue and acting feels so real we cannot escape the truth of the script. Despite my little lecture, I must implore you once more to seriously consider watching Irreversible before popping out to your local Blockbuster. It is violent and it is explicit. But nevertheless, if you do decide to endure ninety-six minutes of stomach churning violence, I hope you see a film that does not glorify rape, but instead turns the audience on themselves, forcing them to analyze the darkness we all have inside.

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