This was part of a Gaspar Noe-related series of posts

It is very difficult to talk about a film with a scene so singularly powerful as that scene, which comes about 30 minutes or so into this mindfuckfest - the second feature of Gaspar Noe (and also the second part of the Noe Saturday): Irreversible.

That scene hasn’t lost any of its power to shock. You try to avert your eyes, but your ears fail you. And by that time the scene is indelibly cemented in your mind. What’s worse is, unlike what any other “sane” filmmaker would do, Noe’s camera decides to take a breather for a while and fixates its gaze on that horrible act. No matter how many times I have seen it, I still find it incredibly disturbing.

The interesting is how much that scene takes centre stage, despite the fact that the film has at least three other as disturbing (one of them definitely more so) set pieces. We open up with Philip Nahon (playing the same character, Butcher, from Noe’s previous film, I Stand Alone) in a sweaty, dingy hotel room. He is suggestively naked, having a post-coital cigarette with a marginally thinner male friend. If the camera that hovers over Nahon’s sweaty, bulging body and comes “this” close to showing exposed genitalia doesn’t make you squirm, their topic of conversation will. Butcher tells his friend, in a very nonchalant way, how he slept with his daughter, that how “very cute” she was.

The ever-moving camera then leaves the room and moves to the bowels of the earth, to the S&M club Rectum (“It stinks like shit here”). We move through the maze-like dungeon of the club a la the xenomorph from Alien 3. Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) are looking for a guy named Tenia - the patrons of the club are too busy fisting or pouring molten wax over each other. Finally they found him. There is a little push and shove, which ends up in Marcus’s arm being bent backwards from the elbow. Pierre, who seems to be the sensible type, then grabs the fire extinguisher and goes to town on Tenia. One of the most disturbing, explicit death scenes I have ever seen.

The shock value of explicit sex and violence is easy to create. Films have been doing it for years. The more explicit your sex is, the more blood and gore you show, the more shocking it will get. Irreversible could have easily gone down that route. In fact, if pretty much all that has been written about it is any proof, Irreversible is just another film there to shock you with gore and violence and thus satiate the desire of all those lonely hordes of teenagers looking for their next masturbatory violence.

Not so much.

The power of Irreversible is not in its depiction of violence, or its tactless way of showing the rape and subsequent battering of a woman. No, its power lies in its suggestion, its slow reveal. Memento (2001) was revolutionary in its use of reverse-narrative and rightly so it deserves all the kudos. But, I have always felt a little let down by the ending. Irreversible uses the same reverse-narrative technique, albeit a little less forcibly (there are no 15-minute time-locks here). But its reveal and what it says about causality feels more powerful and shocking.

By the end / beginning, there is no blood (literally). Instead there is laughter, grass, sunshine, a woman reading a book, children running around. Yes, Noe ties things together and his camera again goes berserk on us and ends with the final title card from I Stand Alone. But what has been hinted by little snippets of dialogue, with the little gestures of the actors, the mise-en-scene of the seemingly unnecessary scenes, pays off in the most disturbing and immense way imaginable. It is not a big twist, it is not a huge event, and no it wasn’t all a dream. It goes way beyond that.

I have said this when I first saw it years ago and I’ll say it again: the most disturbing scene is the finale of the film / beginning of the story, not that scene.