Doubling back to revisit Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002) for the first time since its initial release, after having recently endured Enter the Void, the New French Extremist’s most recent work, offered diminishing returns with regards to the film’s overall sleaze-bag sensationalism while its notorious mid-point rape scene remains genuinely unbearable, which is some sort of accomplishment. Moving chronologically backwards through its deceptively simple urban Straw Dogs revenge narrative, Irréversible begins in what appears to be a dingy flop house where a mostly naked, daughter-molesting ex-con laments how “time destroys all things,” thus announcing the theme from the outset, lest we fail to grasp it on our own. (In any event, the film ends with this dictum appearing as a closing title card. All in caps. Noé is nothing if not thorough.) From here we hit a gay sex club called the Rectum, a Halloween-lit cavernous labyrinth of cock-sucking and flagellation, and rise to our first climax in which Pierre (Albert Dupontel) smashes a degenerate’s face to a pulp before a handful of cheerfully masturbating spectators, among them the director himself. Take that as you will.
From here we jump back to find Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre on their way to said face-obliteration, attacking and insulting both a Chinese cabbie and hermaphrodite hooker along the way. “Off to the Rectum!” shouts Cassel, clearly instructed to repeat the word “rectum” as often as possible. (It is fun to say, I suppose, and, like the film's title, has the added benefit of requiring no translation into English.) After this, which is to say before, Marcus’ unspeakably lovely girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci) is anally assaulted and viciously beaten for eight unblinking minutes in a red-painted underpass—yet another rectal tunnel! After this, presuming we’re still watching, we learn why Alex took the tunnel, listen to a long, banal, repetitive conversation about sexual pleasure on the métro, and discover a secret Alex has been keeping that makes her fate that much more appalling and tragic.
Time diminishes shock value. Irréversible’s structure is cleanly aligned to its themes of entropy and inescapable doom, though, seeing the film again after all these years, its effect-before-cause formalism strikes me as little more than a nihilist-sadist pulp thriller version of Jeopardy!: answer first, question second. This is mostly because once you get the gist of Noé’s concept and adjust your senses to the vertigo-inducing camera work there’s little left to explore and so very much to deplore. The actors are obviously of a higher caliber than those in Enter the Void, but they have little to say (the dialogue is blather) and not much to do besides endure ghastly torment or exact medieval violence. I don’t think I’ll be reversing through this one again.