Within the first fifteen minutes of Gaspar Noe’s meditation on the nature of revenge and bloodshed, the protagonists have barged into a seedy gay club and bludgeoned a man to death with a fire extinguisher. The attack unfolds in excruciating detail, as blow after blow tears chunks of flesh from the victim’s skull. He gurgles, dislocated jaw flexing in protest. It is brutal. Ugly. As any act of violence should be. It would sicken us…
…if the dizzying camerawork hadn’t already done the job. Conventional cinematic language dictates that the camera should adopt the point of view of a particular character in any given scene. In Irreversible, then, we must be watching these events through the eyes of a ghost, an angel, an alien, or God, hovering high above the action, swooping and zooming and soaring freely, seemingly independent of the action. Any frame of reference or sense of space dissolves. What is up? What is down? Noe apparently considers such matters irrelevant. Perhaps he meant to comment on the inherent meaninglessness of violence. Or maybe he only intended to give viewers a migraine—in which case he succeeded.
When he finally sets his camera down, it is only to more closely observe another act of violence—a horrifying sexual assault, played out in real time. Every action, every detail—the click of the rapist’s switchblade, the whispered threats, the woman’s muffled screams—is amplified tenfold by the previously-restless camera’s eerie stillness. The sudden stylistic shift in this sequence epitomizes the entire film’s confrontational attitude; it dares you to keep watching—and I wasn’t up to the challenge.
The fact that the very same scene reveals that our heroes end up murdering the wrong man over the crime did little to strengthen my resolve.