A Brief Review of Irreversible (2002)


There's horror, and then there's extreme horror. I suppose one could think of extreme horror as a sub-genre of sorts within the broader horror genre. Unlike much of the rest of the horror genre, it aims for something other than fear. Often what it aims for is disgust or revulsion. It isn't about entertainment as much as it is about tormenting the audience. These films are supposed to be hard to watch and to make you uncomfortable. After watching an extreme horror film, you should feel sick, disoriented, and/or disturbed. You should have images in your head that you don't want to be in your head. You should be asking something along the lines of, "Why did I just subject myself to that?" As cliche as it sounds, these are the sort of films that can make you feel like you need to shower afterward.

Irreversible (2002) is a French film written and directed by Gaspar Noé that checks all the boxes for the extreme horror category. It gained notoriety when film critic Roger Ebert described it as "a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable." He wasn't wrong. This is an objectionable film in too many ways to describe here, but there were two scenes in particular that nearly led me to turn it off. The first involved a man bashing another man's head in with a fire extinguisher. As rough as that was to watch, it was like a Disney cartoon compared to the 10-minute rape scene that soon followed. I think this might have been one of the most degrading things I've seen on film to date, and I'm not sure I've ever wanted to turn a film off more than I did then.

In some respects, Irreversible could probably be considered an art film. It runs in reverse chronological order so that it actually opens with the closing credits and is shot in such a way that you see the end before it jumps back to show you what happened previously. This was effective and not without purpose, but I'm glad I was aware of it going into the film.

Unfortunately, the camera work was about as nausea-inducing as anything I can recall seeing. If you didn't care for the shaky-cam style of the original The Blair Witch Project and the many similar films that followed, don't even attempt this one. It wasn't the amateurish shaky-cam as much as it was a far worse hack-art-film approach where the entire frame would often spin unnecessarily so that it felt like one was stuck on a runaway Ferris wheel. A little of this would have been okay, but it was overused here. At least it made it somewhat harder to see what was going on, and that might not have been all bad.

Aside from everything else I've mentioned, another thing that stood out about Irreversible was the almost constant barrage of anti-gay insults. Maybe this would have been less jarring in 2002 than it was today, but it was hard to listen to. I know he has denied it, but I find it difficult not to conclude that Noé must really despise gay people. I can't think of another film I've seen that would be more deserving of the "homophobic" label.

Irreversible is not the sort of film I'd recommend to anyone who wasn't well prepared for it. I think one would have needed to see at least a few extreme horror flicks before this one. Most are milder, and this would not be a good introduction to the sub-genre for a novice. I'd also recommend reading up on it enough to have some idea of what one was getting into. Spoilers aren't going to ruin anything here; it is more about making sure one really wants to do this to oneself.

And that raises the question of why one might want to do this to oneself. Experienced fans of extreme horror are unlikely to find anything here they haven't seen before. There are plenty of films out there that will be more shocking are harder to stomach than this one. For most people, Irreversible is probably one of those films one sees to test one's limits. I knew what I was getting into and almost didn't make it through the film anyway. Maybe that provides a meaningful lesson about my limits. As to whether it was a worthwhile experience, I'm doubtful. In any case, this is a film I won't be watching again.

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