After 20 Years, ‘IRREVERSIBLE’ Remains a Brutal Watch, No Matter How You Cut It

Twenty years ago I overheard a coworker talking about a film that was so shocking that he couldn’t sleep that night. That film was Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. My coworker begged me not to watch it. Challenge accepted!

I went that very evening to my local art house theater and saw it on the big screen. It was one hell of an experience: nothing less than a brutal baptism into the New French Extremity movement. The version I saw, of course, was in reverse order. Now a new cut has come out, putting all the events in chronological order. This, the Director says himself, “is a totally different film.” But before we can get to the straight cut, let’s take a look back at the original.

Irreversible (2002) Synopsis

Events over the course of one traumatic night in Paris as the beautiful Alex is brutally raped and beaten by a stranger in an underpass tunnel.

Irreversible burst onto the scene in 2002 at the Cannes Film Festival and was notorious for the constant walkouts by disgusted viewers. The controversy boils down to two scenes: a rape and a murder. Beyond that, it is a gorgeous film with a unique, exhilarating style. It is made up of short, mostly one-shot cuts. In the original, they are presented in reverse order.

  • Alex (Monica Bellucci – Brotherhood of the Wolf) and Marcus (Vincent Cassel – Black Swan) lounge in bed and talk about life’s little things, as all couples do. Marcus is gentle, sweet, and playful. The couple seems happy.
  • Alex and Marcus travel to a party with Pierre (Albert Dupontel – See You Up There), a friend who is also Alex’s ex. At the party, we see a different side to Marcus, who gleefully snorts cocaine and becomes obnoxious.
  • Alex leaves the party alone, choosing to walk through a subterranean underpass. She is beaten and raped by a pimp named Le Tenia (Jo Prestia – The Takedown).
  • Marcus and Pierre race through the streets, looking for revenge.
  • The act of brutal revenge by Marcus and Pierre in a sex club called The Rectum.


Sights and Sounds

Noe is a master of both visuals and sound, and these talents serve him well here, regardless of which version you watch. There is a particular scene where Marcus and Pierre have stolen a taxi that highlights Noe’s talents. Amidst the chaos, the camera moves fluidly in and out of the windows of the taxi in the most unexpected way. In the revenge scene, Noe uses sweeping, dizzying camera shots along with sound that registers at only 27 Hz, just above the 20 Hz limit for infrasound. This is meant to make the viewer unsettled and nauseated. There was also an offkey, constantly repeating song playing over and over as the deranged men stumble through the dimly lit club.

Shocking Scenes

I think it’s time we talk about “that scene.” Yes, the scene where Alex gets raped by the pimp Le Tenia. This is the most horrific 10 minutes I have ever had to sit through (twice) in my entire life. It feels like it goes on forever. But then again rape should make the viewer feel horrible. It should always be depicted as Hell on earth. According to Noe, he placed the camera static on the ground so we would identify with Alex. It is no accident that the scene is shot in a red tunnel – a portal to Hell if ever there was one.

The murder, on the other hand, has lost a lot of its shock value to me. I attribute this to a healthy diet of extreme horror films over the last 20 years. I would say the Rectum Club scene is not worse than the ending of the original version of Martyrs or Hell, most of Antichrist. The murder that takes place in Irreversible shouldn’t shock any hardcore horror viewer.


Forward or Reverse?

Now let’s talk about the different versions. I have mixed feelings about the straight cut. I can see that many would prefer to watch the events in chronological order. This does allow viewers to get to know and identify with the characters in a natural and more linear fashion prior to the violent events.

However, I prefer the original version which shows all the violence first, then lets the viewer experience softness later. The result for me is a profound, dizzy, sick feeling of dread as you watch their moments of happiness later on in the film. It’s bold, breathtaking work by a brash and daring filmmaker.

Irreversible – Final Thoughts

The original cut uses the phrase: Time Destroys All Things. The straight cut: Time Reveals All Things. In the end, it really doesn’t matter which version you watch because time, and the decisions we make, are irreversible.

What did you think of the film? Do you prefer the original or the straight cut? Tell us in the comments!

You can also read how Irreversible made our writer’s “Most Extreme Movies” list here!

About Christine Burnham

When not writing, Christine Burnham is watching TV, Horror films, reading, cooking, and spending time with her menagerie of animals.

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