I remember when Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible” was released in 2002 and of the polarizing responses it received at the Cannes Film Festival and from audiences around the world. A rape and revenge story which, like Christopher Nolan’s “Memento,” is told in reverse and comprised of scenes done in long takes, it is still best known for two scenes of punishing ultraviolence: one in which Monica Bellucci’s character is raped in an underpass which lasts for almost ten minutes, and another where a man’s face is bashed in by a fire extinguisher to where he is no longer recognizable to anyone.
I never got to watch “Irreversible” when it played at a theater near me. Back in the day, I considered myself quite the adventurous moviegoer as I went out of my way to watch those films which did not often screen at the local multiplex because they were considered too disturbing for mainstream audiences. But after being so emotionally drained by “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark,” not to mention going through the cinematic equivalent of electric shock treatment that was “Requiem for a Dream,” I was not sure I could stomach what “Irreversible” had to offer, so I waited to view it on DVD where I could lower the volume or fast forward through the hard to watch parts.
Still, part of me regretted never having witnessed Noe’s unnerving film on the silver screen, and this is coming from someone who watched Larry Clark’s controversial “Kids” in a theater with his parents. But now, Noe has released a new cut entitled “Irreversible: Straight Cut,” and on top of it being remastered, it presents the story in chronological order this time around. The question, however, is if this cut will be just a mere gimmick.
The story remains the same with lovers Alex (Monica Bellucci) and Marcus (Vincent Cassel) going to a party along with Alex’s former boyfriend, Pierre (Albert Dupontel). But this straight cut starts with Alex and Marcus waking up after a night of passionate love making. I love watching this opening scene as the intimacy between these two characters, played by actors who were married at the time, as it is so lovely and unforced. So much attention has been paid toward those two unwatchable violent scenes that many forget about these scenes here. Seeing these two lovers together proves to be a wonderful sight as this intimacy is rarely shown enough in movies, and I came out of it feeling envious for Cassel as he got closer to Bellucci than I ever will.
From there, “Irreversible: Straight Cut” goes on a path which leads straight to hell as the road to it is always paved with good intentions. Alex is eager to bring Pierre along for the ride because she knows he gets along rather well with Marcus, and he still has feelings for her. Hearing Marcus and Pierre brag about who was better in bed with her played more strongly for me this time out in this chronological take. In fact, as we are thrust more deeply into one of “Irreversible’s” main targets which is toxic masculinity. Marcus is so consumed with rage over what happened to Alex that he is utterly impulsive and not using anything resembling common sense. Pierre is infinitely desperate to make Marcus see that he would be better off staying in the hospital with Alex rather than trying to seek vengeance and, even though I have long since seen the original cut, I found myself hoping Pierre would succeed this time around.
With “Irreversible: Straight Cut,” Noe has done an excellent job of making this version more than just a mere gimmick. The edits between each scene feel as seamless as they did before, and our attention is now glued to what may happen as opposed to what has already transpired. The more I watched this cut, the more I came to see how it dealt more with the uncontrollable impulses of man to where anything can happen, and this makes the final outcome all the more devastating. Truth be told, the events portrayed here remind me of all those moments I would love to get back as they created a level of damage I never intended.
As for the elongated rape scene, it remains as brutal and unnerving as ever. I did see one man walk out of the theater during it, and part of me expected to see more audience members to do so. I found myself looking away from the screen at times as I became increasingly enraged as ever at what the unrepentant pimp, La Tenia (played by kick boxing champion Jo Prestia in a truly fearless performance), was doing to Alex. There are few other motion pictures I have sat through where I wanted to see a certain character die a most painful death, and La Tenia is seriously deserving of such a fate.
At this point, I should make clear some facts about the rape scene as many of “Irreversible’s” detractors consider this film to be “pro-rape,” something I completely disagree with. The truth is, Noe was not sure how long the rape scene was going to last, and it turns out Bellucci was the one who ended up directing the scene as she wanted it to be as disturbing as possible. Also, Noe’s camera is constantly moving all over the place throughout “Irreversible,” but it remains paralyzed throughout the rape scene as he wants us to remain in Alex’s frame of mind instead of La Tenia’s. Had the camera moved along with every thrust of La Tenia’s body, we would have been in his mindset, and that would have affected the morality of this film in an inescapable way. In my mind, Noe justifies the rape scene in “Irreversible” because of the way he filmed it.
Seriously, “Irreversible: Straight Cut” reminded me of when I first watched “Deliverance” years ago. While many motion pictures are meant to be enjoyed, this one was made to be experienced even if it was against my will. There is no easy escape from the rage of revenge here as Marcus descends even deeper into a hell which Pierre desperately wants to keep him away from. While I have watched “Irreversible” several times before, I still found myself praying still for another outcome.
This film has also been accused of being homophobic as Marcus yells out many degrading insults to the patrons at the Rectum club, but there a couple of things to consider. Noe himself has a cameo as a Rectum regular who is busy pleasuring himself, and this was his way of showing he was on equal footing with characters he portrayed here. As for Marcus, all I can say is that when you find yourself in a state of intense anger or rage, you find yourself saying things you never thought you would ever utter.
As for Pierre, whose vicious actions end up giving him the worst outcome in this film, he represents a case study of deep repression as he keeps his emotions deep inside. But when he bashes that guy’s head in with the fire extinguisher, his repression ends up finding an exit in the worse way possible, and he ends up destroying himself in a way he could never have seen coming.
Basically, what I am trying to say about either cut of “Irreversible” is that Noe did not make this film simply to shock audiences. Yes, he went out of the way to make us feel uncomfortable while we watched it, but there is more substance to this film than we initially saw on the surface of it. In the end, it presents us with a tragedy we would be best to avoid in our own lives as it is anti-rape and anti-revenge more than anything else. If you do not believe me, then you did not look at this film closely enough.
In comparing the two cuts, I have to say I prefer the original cut more as its reverse structure carries more dramatic weight. As we come to see these horrific acts and what led to them, each preceding scene makes us think about what could have been done to avoid such horrific fates. Still, “Irreversible: Straight Cut” gives audiences something to chew on even as it takes things to a finale which is as bleak as can be. When it comes down to it, I am curious to see what people think about the straight cut, particularly those who have not seen either cut before this one. With a film like this, the responses to it prove to be endlessly fascinating.
Come to think of it, comparing “Irreversible” to “Deliverance” reminds me of the pieces of advice characters give in each film. In “Deliverance,” Jon Voight tells Burt Reynolds, “Let’s go back to town and, ah… play golf.” Imagine the horrors those men would have avoided had Reynolds heard Voight out. But when it comes to “Irreversible,” it features a terrible piece of advice which hangs over the film as Alex attempts to cross a busy street when she is told by a woman nearby:
“Take the underpass. It’s safer.”
Original Cut: * * * * out of * * * *
Straight Cut: * * * ½ out of * * * *