Sexually explicit, shockingly violent, with a nine-minute rape scene at its core, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002) deserves to be controversial. But not for any of the reasons just mentioned. Despite its superficially feminist outlook, Irreversible may be one of the most reactionary and politically incorrect films in years. Owing far less to critical theory than to Leviticus 18, Irreversible surveys society with the eyes of a puritanical minister for whom the sight of sexuality unfailingly brings sin to mind. Like Bosch or Houellebecq, Noé cannot look upon our culture without seeing its seedy underbelly. Even the film’s title, far from being a half-baked reflection of some existentialist notion playing off the film’s moving-backwards-in-time narrative (as critics have by and large assumed), is a reference to the Fall of Man, the expulsion from the Garden and the irretrievable loss of a pure sexuality separable from sin, shame, jealousy, disease and death.
With the exception of a brief introductory scene we will have occasion to discuss later, Irreversible is book-ended by two scenes that are, in certain respects, mirror images of one another. The last scene is a bright idyllic vision of children playing in their blissful Eden, surrounded only by women. The first, by contrast, is a nightmarish vision of hell in the guise of the Rectum, an underground homosexual club whose patrons are, naturally, all men. We see the onlookers gathered at the scene of the crime repeatedly making homophobic comments, describing the violence that has occurred as an outcome of sexual perversion. Shortly thereafter, we see the camera spinning round and round the Rectum’s bleak caverns, just as it will later spin in the last scene of the movie. But whereas the last vision will be one of dizzying euphoria, this first is a spiral into the abyss. Everywhere, men are engaging in sexual acts; as Marcus (Vincent Cassel) makes his way through this inferno, he is the object of one lascivious proposition after another (“Fist me! Fist me!”), even as he senselessly beats his interlocutors. The camerawork here is deliberately confusing, and we cannot see where Marcus’ slaps land, but they are no more indiscriminate than the sexual acts being perpetrated by the tangle of nearly naked bodies all around.
In the last scene, on the other hand, the bodies are clean, widely-spaced and clearly distinguishable. The connection between the children’s play and the sex acts that made it possible is suggested in only the subtlest way, yet one that intriguingly evokes the first scene’s excesses: the rotating sprinkler ejaculating its contents blindly and indiscriminately all over the vaginal grass, a sole reminder of the absent male presence all-too-forcibly ejected from Noé’s image of paradise. Both scenes, in their different ways, have as their subject sex and its consequences: perversion and death on the one hand, joy and life on the other. Everything in between these two scenes, these paradoxically paralleled polar opposites, is the bridge between them, the irreversible steep slope up which the narrative impossibly rolls.
In its true chronological order, the narrative is a steady descent from initial “purity” to depths of sexual perversion, understood in gendered terms. From the all-female vision of sex as near-immaculate conception, we move to the image of a liberated heterosexual couple, Marcus and Alex (Monica Bellucci), and their physical love, the sex act objectified and dissected by the words of Pierre (Albert Dupontel) on the metro, female sex flaunted for men to observe and receive in the party scene, and the female mastered and subdued by the homosexual rapist committing the archetypical act of sex as violence. From here on in, sex is all violence and death, from the brutish male thugs goading Marcus on toward revenge, telling him that this is no time be “a pussy”, to the prostitutes, already debased and at the service of men, possibly all “she-male” (1), ready to descend like a pack of wolves upon Marcus and Pierre, a violent parallel to the purely sexual advances made by the women at the party. After this, women disappear from the film entirely as Marcus and Pierre embark on their frenzied journey into the Rectum which climaxes in a last mind-numbing vision of sex as pure life-destroying phallic violence, Pierre pummelling the head of his victim with a fire extinguisher past the point of all reason.
The movie, therefore, has its female end with its model of vaginal and productive sexuality, culminating in childbirth, and its male end with its model of anal and destructive sexuality, culminating in death. Between them is the “she-male middle” of the two-ended tunnel where these contrasting models of sexuality encounter or find one another and one – the female – subdued by the other, the more aggressive of the two. Besides the obvious personification of this “she-male” image in the prostitute scene, there is Alex with her gender-ambiguous name, struggling between acceptance and rejection of the male sexual paradigm. She is not an object, she tells Marcus in the bedroom scene after he suggests that he stole her from Pierre. It is the woman who makes such decisions, she tells him. But we gather from Bellucci and Cassel’s nuanced acting that her reprimand is playful and Marcus’ acceptance of it downright insincere, a suggestion confirmed by the ensuing shower scene in which Marcus kisses Alex through the shower curtain, she, wrapped in plastic, packaged, a commodity, an object.
This dynamic recurs in the metro sequence when Pierre hounds Alex to reveal the reasons for his inability to bring her to orgasm. After coyly rejecting his persistent inquiries, she seems only too pleased with herself when the beginnings of a response by Marcus permit her to launch into a didactic explanation of Pierre’s excessive focus on her pleasure: she enjoys it only when the man enjoys it, she instructs. She could, of course, have said that the enjoyment has to be mutual, but she pointedly does not. Primed by images of prostitutes who have sex solely for the sake of pleasing the customer, we are forced to interpret Alex’s statement as an acceptance of male sexuality’s objectifying impulse, especially as we have already seen her suffering while her rapist moans with pleasure.
Pierre himself passes through a series of sexually ambiguous states. On the metro, he appears sexually aggressive yet strangely emasculated: every bit the philosophy professor condemning Marcus’ physically robust sexuality as primitive while attempting to pursue his own sexual advantage with only torrents of words at his disposal. At the party, he similarly plays the role of the effete pacifier, trying to reject and contain Marcus’ carnal urges. Throughout the revenge sequences, he is the voice of reason who endeavours to calm Marcus’ fury. His distinctly unmasculine approach is always unsuccessful, and so, in the Rectum, at the male end of the movie, Pierre’s maleness bursts through with a vicious extravagance as he pounds the object of his efforts with the fire extinguisher after the latter is long dead, like a reflection of the way he has sex, persistently and laboriously, until he is sweating like an animal, still unable to achieve or induce orgasm.
As for Alex, her struggles between contrasting models of sexuality become all the more evident during a party scene no less surreal in its way than its famous equivalents in Fellini’s puritanical masterpiece, La Dolce Vita (1960). (Noé himself referred to Irreversible as his Eyes Wide Shut [Stanley Kubrick, 1999], likewise notorious for its scenes of orgiastic excess (2).) Our first image of the party is Pierre trying to restrain Marcus’ libidinal overflow as the latter attempts to hand Pierre and himself over to the professional care of women who may or may not be prostitutes. The party is the stuff of male fantasy – not only do women outnumber men, but they seem as eager to satisfy Marcus’ desire as he is to express it, as they tear at Pierre and Marcus like ravenous harpies. By contrast, Alex is separated from the men, and Pierre repeatedly warns Marcus that she is dancing alone. By “alone”, Pierre evidently means without men, for when we see Alex, she is not alone at all. Rather, she is dancing with women. She is possessed of all her faculties, and her movement is self-confident and self-contained. But everything appears to change once Pierre begins to watch her, rejecting her invitation to dance. He would rather leer at the object of his affection. His gaze transforms her dance into a display, and her inattention to Pierre’s presence now takes on an air of vanity and seduction, as if she is revelling in her own splendour, flaunting her open and natural sexuality for all to see.
This interaction marks the beginning of a cycle of dithering between sexualities: Marcus approaches Alex from behind, whereupon she dances with him provocatively and appears unfazed when he proceeds to dance with her two companions. But this capitulation to Marcus’ desire ends when Alex leaves him to embrace her pregnant friend. Pregnancy, we will soon learn, is the apogee of female sexuality in Irreversible. Marcus’ approach ends this encounter, as he pursues Alex like an unwelcome lapdog (after we see him unabashedly urinating in the kitchen in front of everyone). She spurns his stimulant-stoked advances, but he persists. Disgusted, she heads for the door. Pierre now takes up the pursuit, trying to stop her unsuccessfully, anticipating the danger ahead. Had his self-interest been less obvious to Alex, his chances of succeeding might have been greater. The rape will come next. And so, following the most classic patterns of tragedy, Alex’s most overt struggle against complicity, her rejection of her companions’ sexually aggressive overtures, leads ironically to her subjection to predatory male sexuality in its most egregious form.
Coterminous with Alex’s failure to resist the objectifying impulse is the predominance of anal or perverse over vaginal or natural sexual imagery as we approach the male end of the film. In Noé’s sin-inflected vision, anal intercourse is a confusion and reversal of the “proper” orifice through which the sexual function was meant to be performed, a function which, as the film’s title loudly proclaims, is properly irreversible. The Rectum, as the name implies, is a virtual temple to such confusion. But even earlier, in the bedroom scene between the two lovers, Marcus had declared his desire to sodomise Alex. It does not happen, but the seed is planted. In the cab, Marcus, in a fit of rage, unconventionally threatens to do the same to the driver. And then there is the rape itself, in the centre of the film, the tunnel connecting both “ends”, which, in the dream that Alex relates to Marcus in the bedroom scene, Alex sees broken in two, a central metaphor for the irreparable breach between male and female sexuality that Irreversible dramatises.
In chronological order, perhaps, all of this might have amounted to a simple vision of lovers whose lives are senselessly torn apart by violence. But the story is told in reverse. By the time we see Marcus’ advances upon Alex in the bedroom, this is no longer an unblemished image of lovers at play. “In a movie that is frank and free about nudity and sex, we see them relaxed and playful in bed, having sex and sharing time”, Roger Ebert writes (3). Yes, but in a movie that is as harshly puritanical about sex as Irreversible, the lovers’ nudity is as shameful as Adam and Eve’s after the Fall. In their every word and gesture, we hear echoes of what is to come; of what, for us, has come already. We see complicity, a less extreme version of the perverse vulgarity that has tainted our vision. When Alex spits at Marcus after luring him in with the promise of a kiss, we see her femininity corrupted, a “she-male” ejaculating.
We arrive at the film’s final moments. Alex reveals to Marcus that her period is late. She administers a pregnancy test. It is positive. We see her cradling her seemingly distended belly in the next scene. Slyly, subtly, Noé has smuggled in an impossibility: by the rules of the film’s reverse chronology, it would seem that Alex is pregnant and aware of her pregnancy prior to knowing the results of the test that will inform her of her condition. It could, of course, be another instance of a future anticipated by the past. Or it could be something else.
The poster of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) that serves as a visual landmark in these scenes is the clue we need. We recall the apes in the first scene of that film, circling the great monolith, learning the use of tools, violence, knowledge. This is the Fall figured in no uncertain terms, the loss of innocence, the knowledge that brings Man into the fallen world. After our brief vision of Alex pregnant, we see the idyllic final vision, the children circling the rotating sprinkler on the virginal green, an invocation of 2001‘s darker imagery. The men are gone, nowhere in sight. What we are seeing is childbirth without sex, before sex. It is nothing less than the immaculate conception. But even in Noé’s Edenic paradise, bereft of the corrosive effects of male sexuality, fallenness is never far from our minds. The Fall, after all, is irreversible. Having seen the darkness of all that came before, we are no longer able to see with unfallen eyes. This, more than anything else, is the justification for the film’s backwards storytelling. That first act, the eating of the forbidden fruit, brought sin and death into the world and all our woe, and now every first act of conception and birth brings death into the world anew. “Time destroys all”. The beginning is ever a harbinger of the end.
Noé’s twist on these conventional notions is, of course, the identification of fallenness with male sexuality and unfallenness with its female counterpart. It is impossible, Noé suggests, for either society or any individual within it to – not putting too fine a point on it – have it both ways. Alex, as we have seen, both rejects and invites the male’s advances. Her coquettish balancing act – everything from her provocative dress to her flirtatious manner to her equivocal rejection and eventual satisfaction of Pierre’s inquiries on the metro – plays into the rapist’s fantasies, and, most perversely, into our own. Noé’s commentary finds its target in the fashionable trend of dignifying and validating female sexual submissiveness, of which Secretary (Steven Shainberg, 2002), a near-romantic comedy that would have been unthinkable in earlier, more stridently feminist decades, is only the most obvious recent example. Not only has Noé, every bit the strict Sunday school teacher, clearly implied that Alex’s rape is, in some sense, a product of Marcus’ irresponsible behaviour at the party, he has shockingly gone one step further by daring to imply that no sexuality which partakes of pleasure – itself a perversion of “productive” sex, i.e., sex for childbirth, or, most ideally, of the immaculate conception – can escape the revenges of the fallen world. This is how deeply reactionary Irreversible is. Alex, no less than the man mistakenly bludgeoned to death for her rape, is not innocent – because no one is. In fact, the case of mistaken identity, far from being an ironic plot twist, is an even more ironic red herring: Noé implies that the bludgeoned man is not the wrong man but the right man, or as good as any in the Rectum, or even outside it; each one is Alex’s rapist no less than any other.
The last scene – the first scene – consummates this notion. The butcher of Noé’s previous film, I Stand Alone (1998), sits naked on his bed, perhaps masturbating. He is not a part of the action but our figurative window onto it, a dispassionate witness, a kind of horrific everyman or a misbegotten cherub, sitting, by a literal window, on his bed as on a cloud above the Rectum, lording it over his perverse domain, exchanging tidbits of philosophy and wisdom with his companion. He has had sex with his daughter, he tells his interlocutor. There are no bad deeds, only deeds, the latter replies. Marcus and Alex, in other words, are no worse than anyone else around them. They are, rather, the unfortunate consequence of a society drowning in sin, deep in the thrall of a male sexuality that turns women into prey, men into predators and both into victims. Thus, the future has indeed been predetermined, and the rotten seeds planted at one end of the movie in the soil of Marcus and Alex’s open and vigorous sexuality, in a future already past, will, so to speak, come out the other end.