There is no question that Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible belongs on the shortest of short lists for the most provocative film of the current century, a rape-revenge scenario told in reverse chronology and geared toward maximum visceral impact. As much talk has revolved around its two signature sequences – one a nauseating plunge into a gay BDSM club called The Rectum, the other a nine-minute sexual assault with the camera almost literally bolted to the floor – words alone can’t account for theatrical experience of seeing it 20 years ago. It felt like a nerve-jangling shot to the solar plexus, especially in the first half, when Noé buttresses the action with tilt-a-whirl imagery, speaker-rattling bass notes in the score and even strobe lighting in the credits. He wants you in a highly suggestive state.
Now, it’s possible for moviegoers in select cities to have that experience again, but with one a giant, sun-sized asterisk. Irréversible: Straight Cut reorders the events clockwise, which is a ruinous idea on par with The Godfather Saga, the 1977 TV miniseries that fused The Godfather and The Godfather Part II in chronological order over four nights, laying waste to the powerful flashback structure of the latter film. For one, the disorienting effect of reversing time and front-loading the most traumatic sequences is lost, dramatically minimizing the motion-sickness of its initial descent. Beyond that, the bleakness of Noé’s thesis statement, “Time destroys all things,” is still better demonstrated by turning back the clock and learning later what its characters have lost.
In the film-maker statement in Straight Cut press notes, Noé himself makes it clear upfront that this Irréversible is not the Irréversible, but a “fun bonus” for the remastered Blu-ray edition that he felt was interesting enough to release to theaters. (He imagines audiences seeing both as a double feature, which is an unspeakably perverse idea.) On those narrow terms, Noé is absolutely right. The Straight Cut is a fascinating DVD supplement, particularly in the way it clarifies the relationship between the three main characters and the shocking barbarism that ruins their lives. All of the scenes before the rape and revenge exist in the original version, of course, not in the context of having seen these acts of violence first. That makes a huge difference.
And so the Straight Cut appeals to a tiny subset of the public: those who have seen Irréversible and liked it enough to pick up the Blu-ray and carve out time for a 90-minute bonus feature. This not only eliminates the hundreds who flooded out of the theater when Irréversible premiered at Cannes or simply detested it on their own time, but anyone who might want to use this opportunity to see Irréversible for the first time. It’s exceedingly odd to have a “for fans only” cut of a film as aggressively off-putting as this one, but here we are. (A new 35mm print of the original cut is also circulating at handful of locations, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for that.)
When the Straight Cut opens, things are going great! It’s a gorgeous afternoon in the park, and Alex (Monica Bellucci) is laying out on a blanket in the impossible Edenic lushness, with children dancing around a sprinkler near by. Later, Alex and her boyfriend, Marcus (Vincent Cassel), are entangled blissfully in bed, joking and kissing and speculating about what would happen if she were pregnant. (She is.) There are intimations of a dark future when Alex muses about a dream in which a red tunnel “broke in two” – foreshadowing here, back-shadowing in the original version – but they’re a happy couple, due to join Pierre (Albert Dupontel), Alex’s ex, for a party later that night.
The “red tunnel” of Alex’s nightmare appears after the party, when a loaded, womanizing Marcus turns her off enough to send her into the night alone and into the filthy underpass where she’s attacked. Her rape divides the film in half in both versions, though the Straight Cut misses the most devastatingly cruel moment in the original cut, when a shot of a bloodied Alex getting rolled out on a gurney is followed directly by her at an earlier moment in time, strutting confidently in her party dress. Such purposeful transitions are a natural casualty in the clockwise version, along with the sick feeling that we’re coming out of a nightmare that we know is really true. Imagine if the timeline in a similarly structured film like Memento were straightened out, and you get a sense of how ingeniously constructed story can turn grindingly banal and familiar.
But again, this Irréversible is not the Irréversible, and so it doesn’t make much sense to approach it as any more or less serious than an experiment. The one remarkable aspect the Straight Cut is that the true arc of the film isn’t about Alex’s violation or Marcus’ revenge, but their friend Pierre, who either undergoes a dramatic transformation during this tragic night out or becomes the man that he was destined to be. Noé conceives Marcus and Pierre as a blunt study in contrasts – Marcus impulsive and crude, Pierre stiff and cerebral – and Irréversible is, in part, about how a loose grip men have on their rationality. In the end, they all flash the potential for savagery.
No cut of Irréversible will mitigate the controversies that have followed it in the 20 years since it debuted or make its two most notorious set pieces any easier to stomach. This is still a film that depicts a gay nightclub as a deviant, animalistic hell and stages a rape scene of such unblinking brutality that it can feel, to some, like a sadistic dare. Yet Noé’s audacity and technique remains astonishing, and they give the fullest possible force to the violence, which should be as near-historically revulsive as it is. It’s just a better film when all that violence is front-loaded.