I’m not going to mince words. I think that Irreversible (2002) was not only a great film, it was horribly misunderstood. In fact, it might just be one of the most misunderstood films of all time. No one seemed to get this film–not the fanboys who think it’s a masterpiece, not the haters who think it’s garbage.
Why is the movie so misunderstood? A large part of the reason is Gaspar Noé’s fault. He did such a good job of completely alienating the audiences with brutal scenes of rape and violence that a lot of what the movie was trying to say was lost in translation. This reminds me of what happened when I saw Man Bites Dog. It might’ve been a brilliant satire, but it was so disturbing that it was years before I could get my wits together to finally think about what it was saying and doing. I have no doubt that something similar happened with Irreversible. People just couldn’t get past the brutality.
Another reason why Irreversible is misunderstood is that it’s an art house film. So just by virtue of being art house, people who either love or hate this genre were bound to come to it with certain preconceived notions and biases, which is exactly what happened. On one hand, you had the typical pretentious hipsters loving it for all the wrong reasons. On the other, you had art house detractors assuming that because it was art house, it was a sensationalist, exploitative piece of crap like Salo, just being shocking for the sake of shocking under pretense of saying something meaningful.
Normally, with a film like this, I don’t go out of my way to make some kind of appeal on its behalf. However, there were so many fascinating themes it was trying to explore that I just felt compelled to clear the air of confusion that surrounds this film by explaining what those themes were and what the movie was trying to say about them. But before I do, let’s start with a recap to refresh everyone’s memory.
A middle-aged and young man are on a bed talking about what they did to get in jail. The middle aged man admits that he “made love” to his daughter. After he and the younger man talk for some time, he finally says in a sound of regret, “Time destroys everything.”
Next we see two a swarm of police and an ambulance outside of a building. One man, Pierre, is being taken in by police and the other, Marcus, is being placed inside of an ambulance by paramedics. All the while, there are two men in the background screaming the most abusive, homophobic slurs you can ever imagine at them, ranting that they want their money, that Marcus and Pierre will be raped in prison and catch AIDs.
The camerawork spins, and we jump back in time a little bit. We see that the guy that was taken in by ambulance, Marcus, is on the warpath looking for a man named La Tenia inside of an underground BDSM gay club. His friend, Pierre, is begging him to leave because the club, Rectum, is filled with dangerous thugs. Marcus ignores him and threatens a guy who he thinks is La Tenia. The guy breaks Marcus’ arm, then tries to rape him. Then Pierre comes along and rescues him, but not without bludgeoning the thug to death with a fire extinguisher, to the point of caving in his skull. As it turns out, La Tenia–the guy Marcus had been looking for–is in the background watching the entire scene unfold in front of him.
The movie repeatedly keeps time jumping back to earlier parts of the evening, and we learn the reason why Marcus was looking for La Tenia is that his girlfriend, Alex, was brutally raped and beaten after leaving a party they were attending together. She left the party in a huff because Marcus, a substance abuser, did a few lines of cokes and was tweaked out of his mind. When we jump back even further to the day’s events, we learn that Alex had taken a pregnancy test and found out she was pregnant. Finally, we learn that her day had started reading a book at the park out on a gorgeous summer day.
Okay, hold the phone. From the way I recapped the movie, it sounds as if there was nothing to Irreversible. A lot of people felt that way, too, when they saw it. They thought that it was a nothing story about a woman who gets raped the day she learns she’s pregnant and that the only reason why Noé had the film go backwards was to disguise how threadbare the story was.
On the contrary, mes amis. There were lots of themes being explored in Irreversible, far more than you would think.
Theme One: Tragedy and Evil Play No Favorites
Reading reviews of Irreversible, I was shocked to see that people saw the movie as homophobic and a celebration of heterosexuality. For them, the smoking gun is that Alex starts off the day learning that she’s pregnant. This has led people to assume that the movie is about the evils of homosexuality, the logic being that an evil “gay” guy, in raping Alex, caused her to lose the baby. In other words, to them it’s a story of evil (homosexuality) triumphing over good (heterosexuality).
The problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t make much sense given all the other things that happened in the movie. For example, the gay guy who was killed at The Rectum didn’t rape Alex; he was completely innocent. The transsexual prostitute, Guillermo, who did nothing wrong the entire evening, was clearly a victim. And there’s no reason to assume whatsoever that La Tenia was gay himself. He could’ve been bisexual or straight as hell and just fled to The Rectum as a cover after the rape.
Since Guillermo and The Rectum victim were also victims that night and La Tenia probably not gay, Irreversible couldn’t have been making negative value judgments about homosexuality and heterosexuality. But if that was the case, why emphasize both so much?
The movie was making an important point about tragedy, that it doesn’t care who or what you are; it can strike anyone. You could be a beautiful, popular, fun-loving straight girl who lives a life of middle class respectability. You could be a transsexual prostitute. You could be a gay man who lives a debauched life in the seedy underbelly of BDSM clubs being reviled by society. It doesn’t make a difference. Tragedy makes no distinction.
Ditto, evil. The events that happened in Irreversible were all the results of one evil human being, La Tenia. When the night ended, he wreaked havoc in the lives of many people–Alex, Pierre, Marcus, Guillermo, the victim at The Rectum, even the Chinese cab driver who Marcus assaulted during his rampage. His evil affected everyone, regardless of whether they were straight, gay, transsexual, respectable or not. Evil, like tragedy, played no favorites that night.
Theme Two: Tragedy Can Strike at Any Moment
When the movie ends, we see that Alex’s day couldn’t have started out more beautifully. She was at the park, enjoying herself. The day was absolutely gorgeous. The sky was blue, the grass was perfectly green, the birds were singing and cute kids were playing outside. Later, after meeting up with Marcus, she took a pregnancy test and learned she was going to have a baby.
Many people thought that the whole point of those scenes was to give what happens later to Alex an added layer of pathos. But there was actually a larger point to her day started off so wonderfully. The point? That tragedy can strike at any moment.
What does this mean? It means that you could wake up one morning to a gorgeous summer day and hear the best news of your life–that you won the lottery, that you just got accepted to the university of your choice, that you are now pregnant with the love of your life. In the face of tragedy, though, it doesn’t matter. If it decides to strike that day, then it will strike that day, regardless. You don’t get a free pass because something great is happening in your life or because it happens to be a beautiful day that morning.
The “beautiful day” thing was a particularly brilliant touch because it speaks to a very human reaction that people have when tragedy happens. We all harbor this naive notion that because a day is beautiful to the point of being magical, we’ll be protected from evil. For example, 9/11 happened on one of the most beautiful days of the year. The sun was out; there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The day was sparkling. Later, when the tragedy struck, all anyone could do was mutter, “It was such a beautiful day…It was such a beautiful day…It was such a beautiful day…” as if the event had violated some kind of cosmic law that events like that can’t happen on a day that is full of light, color and sunshine.
But it didn’t violate any cosmic law. Neither did Alex getting raped and beaten into a coma on the day she learned she was pregnant. Tragedy doesn’t only happen during bad weather or bad times. It can happen on gorgeous days, too, the type of day where it feels as if all is right with the world and nothing could go wrong.
Theme Three: There’s No Such Thing as Fate
The movie on the surface seems to suggest that there’s such a thing as fate. We learn that Alex woke up from a dream about being in a tunnel that was split in two. Then she later talks to Marcus and Pierre about premonitions and wonders about fate. Right off the bat, when you hear that, you assume, “Uh oh. She had a premonition that she’s going to be attacked. She’s also talking about fate. That means she was doomed as soon as she woke up that morning.”
Although it seems as if the movie was saying that fate exists, Irreversible was actually saying the opposite, that there is no such thing as fate. Everything that happens to us is the result of a series of innocuous decisions that we made, as well as flukes of timing. Had those innocuous decisions and flukes of timing been just a tad different, our “fate” would’ve turned out much differently.
For example, imagine that a man gets killed in a freakish, one in a million chance car accident. He drives down the highway, a truck passes him, and right then and there, a pipe flies off the back of the truck, smashes through his windshield, and kills him instantly.
Immediately, because this is such a bizarre accident, we’re bound to think, “Wow, that’s some Final Destination shit right there. He was fated. No question. His number was definitely up; he was doomed from the minute he woke up that morning. That pipe had his name on it!”
However, if we retraced his steps, we would see that there were many pivotal moments in his day when he could’ve avoided the accident. For example, things like: if he hadn’t decided to stop off at the gas station before hitting the highway. If he hadn’t changed his mind and decided to go to the bank first before going to the supermarket. If he hadn’t taken a detour to get to the supermarket faster. If he had decided to switch lanes thirty seconds later or earlier. If he had done any one of those things just slightly differently, he would’ve lived.
In the case of Irreversible, there were also pivotal moments throughout Alex, Marcus and Pierre’s day that could’ve made all the difference in the world in how their evening panned out. These pivotal moments–or “outs”–is what the gimmick of the time jumping was all about. Every time the movie “jumps” to an earlier point of the story, it’s to a specific point in time when things could’ve turned out completely differently for everyone had they made a different choice or a fluke not come into play.
For example, the jump to the party starts at exactly the moment when Marcus decides to do a line of coke. Why? Because had he not done that line, Alex wouldn’t have gotten angry with him, and they wouldn’t have gotten into the fight that led to her leaving the party alone.
Again, notice when the movie time jumps to the moment when Marcus and Pierre are being questioned by the police after Alex’s attack. Why that moment? Marcus had the choice to go to the hospital and help the police with the investigation. Instead, he decided to listen to the two Thugs for Hire who told him he should hire them for revenge. Had he not listened to them, he would’ve never gone on a rampage, would’ve never ended up at Rectum, and would’ve never gotten himself or Pierre in legal trouble.
All throughout the movie, there are moments like this. The two most stomach-churning ones involve Alex’s rape. The first one happens when a woman at a stoplight tells her to take the underpass. If Alex had blown her off, she would’ve never entered the underpass and would’ve never encountered La Tenia.
The second moment happens during the rape itself. There’s a moment where a guy suddenly shows up in the background, sees what’s happening, then backs away. People always ask, “What the hell is that about? Who is that guy? Why even show him?”
Well, the guy who shows up at the rape scene in the background is another pedestrian who just happened to enter the underpass just moments after Alex entered it. Had she entered the underpass just a little bit later than she did, that guy would’ve been a few paces behind her and La Tenia wouldn’t have touched her. So that pedestrian was there to show that even at the last second, Alex could’ve been spared being raped, if not for timing. But was she fated? No. She was no more fated than the scenario above of the guy who gets killed in a freak car accident.
Theme Four: Time is Irreversible
A lot of people were annoyed that Irreversible played out backwards. They didn’t see the point and thought it was just a cheap gimmick. However, there was actually a point. The point was to put the audience in the position of someone looking at the events with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. So, as we go backwards in time, we don’t just get a clearer picture of what led up to the rape and murder; we see all the mistakes that Marcus, Pierre and Alex made that evening. The more it becomes evident what they did wrong, the more we feel the urge to yell at them, “No! Don’t do that!” or “Alex, don’t go there!” as if there’s still a chance that we can get the characters to change their minds.
But for all our ability to look back on what they could’ve been done differently and for all of our urges to yell at them not to do X or Y, it’s too late. The rape is a done deal. The murder is a done deal. The time is past. 20/20 hindsight means nothing at this point because what happened is now etched in time; there’s no going back and changing it.
This is exactly what is meant in the first scene of the film when the older man says, “Time destroys everything.” Once something is done, it’s in the past. Time can’t be undone, so whatever happens is fixed in time, irreversible.
Theme Five: Barbarism is Toxic
In the infamous fire extinguisher scene, you initially get a very negative first impression of Pierre. You think that maybe he and Marcus are a couple of thugs, and that him bashing the brains in of some guy at a club is the norm for him.
But then later, to your surprise, it turns out that what happened at The Rectum was a crazy moment of role reversal. Pierre isn’t a violent, homophobic, racist thug at all. Marcus is. And yet, at the club, Marcus–after going off half-cocked and acting like a belligerent, violent asshole–is the one that goes down like a wimp and it’s Pierre, the mild-mannered, civilized guy who was begging for sanity the whole evening, who savagely crushes a man’s skull.
Why did Pierre, who was so turned off, ashamed and embarrassed by Marcus’ behavior the entire evening, become the savage that night? It doesn’t seem to make sense. Going by the earlier scenes in the movie, Pierre was disgusted by Marcus’ behavior. In fact, he kept calling him an “animal” and “caveman” many times throughout the evening. So what happened to him at The Rectum?
Well, let’s take a look at what happened after he and Marcus learned about the rape. As Marcus goes on a rampage, he keeps begging for him to go back to Alex and stay out of trouble. However, the more he pleads, the more out of control Marcus gets, and the more out of control the evening gets. The violence just keeps getting amped up, and before long, Marcus is racially abusing and physically assaulting a Chinese taxi driver, then slashing a transsexual prostitute with the help of two thugs, who are goading him in his revenge plan.
When they all finally reach The Rectum, it seems as if Marcus will be the one who will kill someone, not Pierre. Yet it was Pierre, the guy who’d been the rational, cool-headed and civilized the entire evening, who bashed the brains of someone in at The Rectum. Again, why?
The reason why is that the barbarism of that evening got to him. That’s not to say that he became a violent human being but that the evening with Marcus and the two thugs had become so frenzied that it affected him without him even realizing it. So he unwittingly succumbed to the violence of that evening, even though he tried everything he could to rise above it and distanced himself from Marcus by calling him an animal and a caveman and a brute.
This is probably one of the most important themes in Irreversible, that no one is really immune to barbarism. If you become exposed to it long enough, you can become barbaric yourself.
Theme Six: Hatred is also Toxic
It always surprises me when people rant that Irreversible is homophobic. It’s like hearing people complain that Blazing Saddles is racist. The movie couldn’t have been less homophobic. If anything, it was making a point of just how toxic forms of prejudice can be, particularly homophobia.
Again, let’s take a look at what happened at the party. Marcus, a raging homophobe, kept relentlessly harassing and teasing Pierre about his sexuality the entire time. He even went so far as to then toss him at a group of single young women at the party, suggesting that he brought them there for Pierre’s benefit. So on top of hassling Pierre, Marcus publicly humiliated him.
Later on, when Marcus and the two thugs went on a tear, Pierre heard nothing but a steady stream of the most rancid homophobia you could ever image, just fag this, fag that, fag club, you’re a fag, no, you’re a fag, ass, anal, rectum, the whole works. Then Marcus and the thugs slashed a transsexual prostitute.
Between Marcus calling his sexuality into question and the homophobia that night, Pierre became vulnerable as the gay patrons at The Rectum started propositioning him. When Marcus was attacked, he bludgeoned the gay attacker to death, partly because he succumbed to the barbarism of that night but also partly because being ridiculed about his sexuality got to him. So he wound up committing the very hateful act that Marcus and the two thugs were building up towards, even though he himself wasn’t homophobic.
As with the point about barbarism being toxic, Irreversible is saying the same about prejudice and hatred. It is toxic to the point where even a person who’s never harbored a hateful thought a day in his life can become hateful.
Theme Seven: Revenge is More Trouble Than It’s Worth
At a key moment, Marcus had the choice to go to the hospital and be with Alex. Instead, he chose to go with two the Thugs for Hire, who convinced him to hire them to help them seek revenge on La Tenia.
What good came of revenge that night? Not a damned thing. Instead of getting apprehended by the police, La Tenia got to walk away scot-free, free to rape and brutalize others again. Marcus will no doubt face prison time for his attack on the Chinese cab driver, as well as for theft. His friend, Pierre, who probably never got into trouble a day in his life, will be imprisoned for a long time, and his life will be ruined. He may even spend the rest of his life tormented by self-loathing, since what he did went completely against his principles and who he was as a human being.
The point? Revenge is more trouble than its worth, and you may even come out the worse human being out of the person you wanted to exact revenge upon.
Now You Know Why I Think Irreversible is Misunderstood
I know that when all is said and done, nothing I say is going to shake most people’s convictions about Irreversible. It’s that kind of film. It practically begs to be misunderstood. However, I do find it a shame that so few people weren’t able to appreciate many of the things it was trying to say and do, so that’s why I wrote this entry. If I can get even one or two people to see it with new eyes and better appreciate it, that’s a good thing, no matter how insignificant.