Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
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"Time destroys all things," laments a decrepit middle-aged man at the beginning of Gaspar Noé's punishing Irréversible. His line neatly summarizes both the film's sour nihilism and the uniquely horrific ordeal of actually sitting through it. A rudimentary rape-revenge scenario told in reverse order–progressing from the lower depths of degradation and primitivism to the emerald idyll of civilized humanity–the film concerns the awful taint of experience, and Noé (I Stand Alone) makes sure audience members feel it in their bones. Featuring a nine-minute, single-take anal-rape scene as its centerpiece, Irréversible sounds in description less like a movie than an urban legend, but it's the rare case where the experience itself is worse than anything the imagination can conjure. Detractors (and there are legions) tend to dismiss it as hollow provocation, a cruel and gimmicky stunt that operates like an arthouse crowd's roller-coaster ride, whooshing through the basest human instincts and emotions. But there are strong ideas at play in Noé's undeniably audacious and technically stunning second feature, which goes as far as any film can in revealing the breakdown of order and the deterioration of the rational mind. The only question is, are these ideas worth the pain of accessing them? By going backward in time, Irréversible stays true to its title, showing how much rape takes away and what little satisfaction revenge offers in return. Primed to maximum disorientation, the first 15 minutes are a near-literal descent into hell, with swirling camera movements and oppressive, bass-heavy sound effects that are designed to turn the stomach. Hell, in this case, is a fetishistic gay nightclub called "The Rectum," where an enraged Vincent Cassel searches frantically for the man (Jo Prestia) who raped Cassel's girlfriend Monica Bellucci earlier in the evening. He's joined by Bellucci's ex-boyfriend (Albert Dupontel), who pleads futilely with him to reconsider. Cassel's search ends with an act of unbelievable violence, which retroactively becomes the first of many cruel ironies to come. The dread grows even deeper with Bellucci's introduction: In one shot, she's laid out on a gurney with her face pummeled beyond recognition; in the next, she's one of the world's most beautiful women, oblivious to her sealed fate. Back and back the timeline goes, rewinding through moments of humor and tenderness, the flush of young love, and finally a revelation so transcendently sweet that it may be the most sadistic touch in the entire film. With Irréversible, Noé confirms his reputation as a dangerous talent, a bold provocateur and misanthrope who understands the power of images and isn't afraid to wield it, happily thumbing his nose at the arbiters of good taste. The rape scene may send viewers (understandably) fleeing for the exits, but its sense of wide-eyed terror can't be easily forgotten. For better and worse, Noé's style freezes the blood.