Life is ‘Irreversible’: Editing, Camera Techniques, and Chronology in Noe’s Film
Irreversible is a film directed by Gaspar Noe about two men, Marcus and Pierre, who team up to find the man who raped Alex, Marcus’s girlfriend and Pierre’s ex-girlfriend. The whole film takes place in one terrible night that will change the characters’ lives forever. Were the characters’ meant to get to this very point from the beginning? Could they have been saved? Is revenge ever helpful? There are so many questions that this movie brings up, but one thing we do learn for certain is that we cannot go back.
The film goes from the end to the beginning. If that is not strange enough, each scene has zero cuts. The camera movement is jerky, dizzying, hectic, and does not stop. Though unnerving at first, the editing and chronology of the film are directly related to the questions and themes of the movie. One description of the film says that it is a “disturbing look at fate and destiny” and that it “pushes the envelope of human emotions.” Irreversible is definitely disturbing, and if it is a look at destiny and fate then its editing and chronology make perfect sense (or as much sense as a movie like this can make).
The film begins with a swirling shot moving up a building, then into an unkempt, dimly lit room. A naked man sits on a bed and says to his friend “You know what? Time destroys all things.” At this point there is no sign the story is going backwards, but it can be noted that there are not cuts thus far. The camera is handheld, and does not stay upright. It turns back and forth to ninety degree angles and back. It gets close up to the men’s faces, bodies, cigarettes, and the bed they are sitting on. In fact, the camera continuously moves without really picking a single focus. It is like this for the first half of the movie. The other man in the scene says “there are no bad deeds, just deeds.” The naked man answers “Gotta fight. Gotta live. Go on fighting. Go on living.” The camera movement reflects this because it, too, just keeps going on. It is never dormant, it keeps moving to the next picture without stopping. No matter what bad deeds or good deeds someone does, life does not stop for it. After listening to their short conversation, we hear an ambulance. One man asks what the noise was, and the other answers that the people downstairs in “The Rectum” are always causing trouble. The phrase “They are always causing trouble in ‘The Rectum'” sounds extremely out of place at this point, but it makes more sense in the upcoming scenes. The camera leaves their room to go outside where we see a man being taken away on a stretcher and another man who leaves in a police car.
The camera keeps rolling for our main characters as well. The next scene is so dizzying it is hard to watch. It is dark with dim, red lighting. The camera spirals down a hall, and the music, if it can be called music, is a repetitive, robotic whining sound. As the camera spirals, we catch glimpses of graphic sex between men. In the previous scene we were only introduced to the main characters by watching them being taken away in an ambulance and a police car. As the story moves backwards, the second scene shows what the characters were doing right before things ended badly. The camera trails Marcus, who previously left on the stretcher, as he is looking for a man named “The Tenia” in this gay S&M club. Pierre, who left in the police car, tries to convince him to leave, and says “Marcus, come back! I’m not gonna save you!” But Marcus keeps going, and the camera keeps following him. This definitely becomes one of the most difficult scenes to watch. While it is hard to see precisely where we are heading because of the camera movements, we too clearly see the sex going on and hear the disturbing moaning, all while Marcus searches for The Tenia. He and his friend Pierre do find the Tenia, and Pierre flattens his head with some blunt object (but did he have the right guy?). What is interesting is it is unclear why he is looking for the Tenia yet, or why he wanted him dead, but the reason has already happened. It is set in stone. It may be a mystery to the audience, and at one point it was a mystery to the characters, but the way this story is told, in reverse, it reminds that you cannot change what is going to happen next.
Because this is only the second scene of the movie, it is not easy to make these deep and intricate connections watching it the first time. The first time around, it is difficult to focus on the artistry and acknowledge the thought that went behind this film because the first half of the movie is so violent and disturbing it is hard to think about anything else. However, it is important to note that so much has already happened in the second scene that it is arguable that it is the most crucial, although it would not be realized until the end. The whole scene embodies the most important themes of the movie: fate, destiny, and how it cannot be stopped. “The camera keeps rolling.”
Another vital scene would be when Alex is raped. Unlike the previous scenes, the camera is still, and captures the rape from the floor where it is happening. It takes place in an all red underpass. The camera stays in its place about a yard away from them. There are no close ups of Alex’s or the rapists face (The Tenia), the camera just watches. If there had been cuts in this scene, or even if the camera had moved a little bit more, it would have taken the audience out of the movie. By having the least amount of movement possible, it made it so the viewers were right there watching this happen in real life, like someone sneakily watching from around the corner. Life does not have any cuts, it does not give you a chance to catch your breath or look away, which is something this scene shows in an extremely uncomfortable way.
The first half of this movie and the second half are like watching two completely separate movies altogether. Even though things learned in the second half make some of the first half even worse, it has a different mood. It is hard to share the mood knowing what is about to happen to all the characters, but it is different. We actually learn about the characters in the second half. We see them happy and in their normal lives. Just like the first half, each scene has no cuts. The camera follows our characters to a party, it watches them have a conversation on the subway, and sees them at home. It would all be seemingly ordinary if it did not have the shadow of the previous scenes over it, which is another important effect of the film moving in reverse. After the final scene, there is no feeling of conclusion, it feels like this movie could just keep going and going, although it probably would not take away the disturbed feeling the viewer has.
Even though it is difficult to watch and the themes are not necessarily positive ones, you cannot deny the uniqueness of this film and how cleverly the camera techniques and minimal editing added to the themes and the film as a whole. It would have been a completely different movie had there been close-ups, tripods, and a bunch of cuts during each scene. Without all that, it was real. If the movie had not gone backwards, the message that “we cannot go back” would not have been blatant. As deeply discomforting as it is, this film was well done. The actors could not have done better, the story line was different and evoked strong reactions, the chronology forced you to think, and the cinematography and editing were perfectly done to get the film’s points across. The only question left is how far is too far when it comes to pushing the boundaries of film?
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