After you’ve seen Irreversible, you will never look at a fire extinguisher in the same way.
This isn’t just a movie. It’s a brutal and offensive assault on the audience by a director named Gaspar Noe. It was originally called Time Destroys All Things, which is its essential message, but the title Irreversible is an ironic twist on the fact that the story is told backwards.
Whereas this was a psychological device in Memento, it’s purely a narrative device in Irreversible, which opens with a mirrored image of the credits scrolling backwards and then skewing to one side, a hint that everything is going to go wrong. Well, actually, it’s going to start out wrong before everything repairs itself by moving in reverse to the starting point. The story unfolds backwards from its frenzied climax to its sweetly mundane opening, made sinister by everything we know that will follow.
The movie can be difficult to watch, partly because of the camerawork, which is like something Kubrick would do if the laws of gravity were suspended. Noe’s camera soars around like a curious insect. The movie consists of about a dozen long shots with a single handheld camera, sometimes mounted on a crane. There are long stretches where the screen is just a blur of color in which you can occasionally glimpse a silhouette or maybe a head. It’s also difficult to watch because of the digital effects used to recreate some astonishing and horrific violence. And even aside from the violence, Irreversible has one of the most brutal sequences I’ve ever seen. Or, in this case, never seen. There are, literally, a few minutes of this movie that I have not seen because I had to look away from the screen.
Is it gratuitous? Yes. But it’s not exploitative. It’s central to what Noe’s trying to accomplish: namely, to present a nihilistic view of what can – and does – happen in the world. You might not learn anything from Irreversible, which is arguably a pointless exercise in cruelty to the audience. I can think of very few people to whom I would recommend it. But you can’t deny it’s ultimately a successful and powerful piece of filmmaking that belongs alongside similar exercises like Requiem for a Dream and Clockwork Orange. Although I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it, I would say this was my favorite movie from Sundance this year.