I always thought those legends about movies making audiences faint or throw up in the aisles were just P.R. bullshit. I didn’t believe a film could cause that type of physical reaction in someone. I was wrong. Irréversible had me – literally – on the verge of tossing my cookies…twice.

A brutal examination of revenge and destiny, Irréversible has been plagued by controversy since it opened in France last year, thanks largely to two lengthy scenes of shocking violence, and a vaguely anti-gay vibe. Unfolding backwards, à la Memento, it begins in a dizzying frenzy of chaos and panic: Two men barge into a gay sex club and pummel a man’s head with a fire extinguisher until his face virtually disintegrates, while various leathermen observe and enthusiastically jerk off.

We subsequently learn the two men are Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel), who are looking for the man who raped Marcus’s girlfriend, Alex (Monica Bellucci), earlier that evening. Bit by bit, the story backtracks, until we actually witness the horrific attack on Alex. The excruciatingly prolonged scene is another assault on the senses; not sexually graphic, but utterly grueling.

Writer-director Gaspar Noe employs the “reverse order” device brilliantly, ensuring we despise Marcus and Pierre before forcing us to eventually relate to them. Moreover, by depicting the tragic outcome of the night’s events first, subsequent scenes are imbued with an even deeper sense of anguish; we know what’s going to happen, but are powerless to intervene. As the action rewinds, the frantic pace slows, until we finally reach the story’s beginning, a lingering scene of serene tenderness between real-life lovers Cassel and Bellucci that almost imperceptibly foreshadows the events to come.

Early on as I watched, words like “pornography,” “homophobia” and “exploitation” kept popping into my head. Now, though, I’m not so sure. Yes, Irreversible is merciless, but it’s also breathtakingly magnificent. In fact, it’s possibly the best film I will never, ever sit through again.

Click to view clip
Irréversible Cropped