Gaspar Noé’s infamous backwards-told rape thriller drama IRREVERSIBLE returns restored and running forward. If he STRAIGHT CUT is a good idea, we reveal that in our review.
OT: Irréversible (FR 2002)
Alex (Monica Bellucci) and Marcus (Vincent Cassel) are a happy, playful couple – and are looking forward to a big party where, among others, Alex’s ex Pierre (Albert Dupontel) will be a guest. He gets along great with Marcus, while Marcus often jokes that Alex owes him for hanging out with her ex. At the party, Marcus tries to get more out of the reserved Pierre, who never talks about his sex life, and to get him a quick party affair into the bargain. Alex, in turn, leaves the party, which is getting out of hand, unnerved – she and Marcus won’t see each other again after that…
In the middle of the wave of the “New French Hardness” (also: “New French Extremity” and “cinéma du corps”), a flood of extremely hard and taboo-free French horror films, the Argentinian and Frenchman by choice Gaspar Noé made a name for himself (“Climax”) for far-reaching response: His experimental film/thriller drama “Irrérversible” was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002 – certainly also due to its unusual narrative style. Author and director Noé assembles the scenes in reverse chronological order, so shows the end credits first (even backwards, from the copyright notice up to the cast list), then the epilogue, then the scene before the epilogue, then the ultra-brutal finale, and so on, and so on… The film was acknowledged with a nomination for the Palme d’Or, but also with three fainting spells and a number of (allegedly) 200 people who left the hall during the 2,600-person premiere before the film was finished have and have not returned.
Alex (Monica Bellucci) and Marcus (Vincent Cassel) are a happy couple.
In addition to a very graphic murder, it is probably the almost ten-minute, torturous rape scene shown in a single shot that caused so many people to drop out of “Irréversible”. It is also what made “Irréversible” infamous outside of Cannes: Noé’s film is almost universally known among film-loving people as the “rape film told backwards,” and even if that shortens things extremely, it is an accurate and accurate one fair warning description of the original 93 minute long project. Controversy was inevitable given this content, as was the interest of cinematic circles in this narrative style. Especially since these two elements of the film complement each other: As critic legend Roger Ebert, among others, noted, it is the structure of “Irréversible” that allows this work to remain moral despite its border crossing. We first see the fatal consequences of a vengeful attempt at vigilantism, then the unsatisfactory, stupid, disgustingly drastic act of revenge (which denies the audience catharsis because there is nothing yet from which we want to be released) and only then the trigger.
Added to this are the image and sound aesthetics of “Irréversible”, as Noé often whirls his camera through Benoît Debie’s in a disorienting manner (“Spring Breakers”) unsexy, ultra-dramatically lit locations. And it does so violently several times until the event becomes completely unrecognizable. Only during the central act she remains on the ground, like the victim who is in a state of shock – with which Noé aims to rob the scene of any pleasure and any potential for identification with the perpetrator. It should be oppressive, just oppressive. And composer Thomas Bangalter (one half of Daft Punk) wails a monotonous, irritating low-frequency beep throughout 60 of the film’s 97 minutes that creates real discomfort.
Pierre (Albert Dupontel) is Alex’s ex-boyfriend.
This stylistic premise works: “Irréversible” is a film that you watch for an (impressively consistent, masterfully crafted) cinematic borderline experience in order to experience what is formally possible. Meanwhile, Noé’s voyeurism (justifiably) does not give any satisfaction in terms of content, as the film as a whole is too conceptual, too annoying, too repulsive to have a perverted, glorifying effect. If anything, “Irréversible” aims to provide intellectual satisfaction by inviting us to reflect on the moral emptiness of revenge, on cinematic dramaturgy and the fragility of existence. Mind you, these are themes that the film suggests, particularly through its structure, with its deliberately narrowly sketched characters and its unpolished, improvised dialogues. This raises the question of whether “Irréversible” can even work in the “right” order. Doesn’t the film degenerate into a purely self-serving shock film that focuses on a grisly topic that has been treated far too lightly in far too many films, without any artistic added value being derived from it? Noé is now exploring this question, 18 years after the premiere of “Irréversible,” in “Straight Cut” – a new version of his artful scandal film. Originally intended as bonus material for the restored Blu-ray reissue, Noé decided that the now normal “Irréversible” was independent and worth seeing enough to be released as a separate work.
“The question arises as to whether “Irréversible” can even work in the “right” order. Doesn’t the film degenerate into a purely self-serving shock film that focuses on a grisly topic that has been treated far too carelessly in far too many films, without any artistic added value being derived from it?”
Right side up is wrong way up
One thing in advance: Even though “Irréversible: Straight Cut” was shown in French cinemas, among others, and was initially also intended for release in USA cinemas (until it was postponed due to the Corona measures), this version remains a mere extra. The (much) better, more meaningful film remains the original; the “Straight Cut” is purely a gimmick for Noé fans and cinephiles who are curious about what happens when you brush a film completely against its narrative grain. Because of the nihilistic opening of the original version, which now logically serves as the ending, “Irréversible: Straight Cut” does not suddenly become a song of revenge with flags waving. However, this version of the film is just a half-arsed deconstruction of rape and revenge cinema: through the now standard sequence of action and reaction, the motives of the act of revenge become clear (perhaps completely understandable for some). As a result, only the fatal implementation comes into focus and serves as a bitter aftertaste, where “Irréversible” in the regular, upside down version calls the whole thing into question.
A heinous act of violence pulls the rug out from under the two men’s feet.
What makes matters worse is that the character Alex, played with intensity by Bellucci, loses a lot of weight in “Irréversible: Straight Cut”. Noé’s “Irréversible” from 2002 begins in a disorienting way on a directorial and narrative-dramaturgical level, so that the form and the visceral effect of the interplay of form and brutality are initially the “main characters” of the film. From the moment of the rape, Alex becomes the focus of the film, so that the original film ends with what came before and, as an echo of “Irreversible”, what remains is what the perpetrators of sexual violence destroy with their actions. In “Irréversible: Straight Cut”, however, Alex disappears from the film after the attack – and thanks to the more understandable narrative form, the subsequent search for revenge is not such a disorienting, overwhelming attack on the senses as the “Irréversible” opening. Although the music, lighting and camera work become more angry and unpleasant after the attack on Alex, the stringent narrative style makes the characters easier to follow. “Irréversible: Straight Cut” mutates into a film in which a woman narratively leaves the film so that her lover and her ex-boyfriend take over the story and meaning of the material.
Due to the chronological narrative style, Pierre emerges primarily as a loving, respectful type of Alex, whom Dupontel plays as a mixture of shy, teasing and talkative and not assertive, which is why he cannot control the angry Marcus enough – with serious consequences for himself. And even if the story of a man who allows himself to be dragged into the hell of violence is potentially worth telling (and almost panders to Noé’s directorial sensibilities), in “Irréversible: Straight Cut” it is just an afterthought (for production-wise self-explanatory reasons), so that Pierre’s journey into misery has little emotional impact. The unpleasant aftertaste remains that this “Does the follower who insists on reason and ultimately acts out deserve our sympathy?” question is formulated on the back of a rape that has been captured in detail – with which this central scene from “Irréversible” in “Irréversible: Straight Cut” just excessive shock-to-shock, an end in itself. After all, Pierre’s tragedy could be set in motion in a different, more restrained way in a film developed around this character.
“And while the story of a man who allows himself to be dragged into the hell of violence is potentially worth telling, in Irréversible: Straight Cut it is merely an afterthought, leaving Pierre’s journey to misery with little emotional impact.”
In a press comment, Noé describes the “Straight Cut” as “clearer and just as darker” than the original, as well as “better understandable” and “more fatalistic”. Not only would we disagree, Noé is (very obviously) fibbing to his audience: “Not a piece of dialogue was shortened, nor were any scenes or events cut out,” Noé claims, even though “Irréversible: Straight Cut” is seven minutes shorter – and it’s not as if enough passages of the new version simply run in fast motion. What’s more, it can be argued that Noé still hasn’t changed and shortened enough if he thinks he has to tell “Irréversible” the other way around. Because the swirling scene transitions (comparable to the fact that what is being shown is captured by the whirlpool of time and vomited out again) in “Irréversible: Straight Cut” are now conceptless and artificial. The film would have needed a more extensive revision to really create a new, standalone film. On the other hand, “Irréversible: Straight Cut” is simply an uninstructive bonus lesson for everyone who desperately wants more after the more shocking, artistically perfect “Irréversible”.
In the original cut everything ends in pure idyll…
Conclusion: Contrary to Gaspar Noé’s statements, “Irréversible: Straight Cut” is not a stand-alone film, but a pure finger exercise that only has its appeal as a complementary work to the original. Since the Blu-ray release includes a restored version of the original as well as a 40-minute retrospective making-of special, it is still recommended.
“Irréversible: Straight Cut” is available on DVD and Blu-ray starting December 10th with the newly restored version of “Irréversible.”