IRREVERSIBLE: The Climactic Sequence's Flight to Abstract Rapture

Curator's Note

Hostility and aversion typically greet the designs of the contemporary French cinéma du corps/cinema of the body, of which Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002) is a flagship example. This cinéma du corps in hindsight was a profound catalyst in French cinema of the late 1990s, inspiring many filmmakers in Europe and beyond. Moving from a prevailing realist aesthetic, and the ‘official’ culture of heritage films embodied by the likes of Germinal (1993), La Reine Margot (1994), Le Hussard sur le toit (1995), and Ridicule (1996), the cinéma du corps took a decisively antagonistic course — versus these beguiling screen norms, versus the enduringly romantic treatment of Paris, and versus, ultimately, the apprehending film viewer expecting a coherent diegetic world. From Don’t Let Me Die on a Sunday (1998) to Romance (1999), from Trouble Every Day (2001) to In My Skin (2002), continuing onwards today with Des filles en noir (2010) and Flesh of My Flesh (2013), this cinéma du corps drastically revises the contract between filmmaker and audience. Instead of stable classical unities we are immersed in lyrically challenging image- and soundscapes, instead of coherent goal-oriented protagonists we study impassive or atavistic humans, instead of sex conscripted into psychologically-motivated unions, corporeal behaviors are represented as rash, destructive and violent.

Irreversible might seem initially to typify this confrontational approach to cinema: in its inverted narrative of revenge-rape, its highly attenuated super-16mm-derived cinematography, its cacophonous sound designs, and its radical subversions of its principal star trio, Vincent Cassel, Monica Bellucci, and Albert Dupontel, all of whom in different ways are desecrated on-screen. But alongside this hostile side of the cinematic continuum is another, neglected side of Irreversible. This is its climactic course towards idyll, beauty, and transcendence, and, in the form of Alex (Bellucci), a feminine utopia of sorts, culminating in a lyrical avant-garde perceptual deluge. Hence Noé leaves us in conditions of physical exhilaration: Alex lying beside a child flying a pink kite around a gushing park sprinkler, then onwards, up into the sky, and apparently out past even that. For its closing minute Irreversible, in fact, stylistically disperses: from string music into raw noise, legible images into flickers of animated light, bodies into atoms, composite materials dissolving and erupting into a slew of their constituting elements. The film’s final figuration, then, is of humanity reduced to, and yet also inflated by, the sum of its precious parts; the materials of cinema itself scattering and disassembling into nothingness, pure aesthetics. This is Noé’s profound poise, begun with Bellucci’s body: from horrible confinement in an underground space to this accelerating flight into and through the sky, from rape to reverence, from violent physical specificity to ineffable perceptual rapture.


I am biased in favor of the author, obviously, but I think this is such an elegant piece about an intense, easily dismissed film. IRREVERSIBLE made an impact on me the first time I watched it -- and I haven't been able to bring myself to see it again since. I remember feeling wrung out and overwhelmed -- sensorially, emotionally, etc. But a sense of euphoria, too -- one that Palmer captures in this micro-essay. And I really wish I had written that last sentence -- brilliant!

Well, I agree Liza - this is a beautifully written post! It captures something of my response upon seeing Irreversible - that 'physical exhilaration' you describe Tim - which troubled me, and I wasn't quite sure what to do with. So how does the 'hostility' sit with the 'transcendence'? And do you see the kind of trajectory you describe from violence to 'perceptual rapture' in other films associated with 'cinema du corps'?

Thanks for your post Tim, a beautiful reading of this scene. I don't think I've ever rewatched "Irréversible," one of the reasons precisely because the film has always stayed with me. I'm wondering what you make of the film's beginning in the gay night club called Rectum, as well as its in my memory somewhat homophobic trajectory from that confined hellish space to the heavenly embrace of the heterosexual couple in the final scene?

Thanks for the responses, everyone! Thinking about the course between rapture and violence in these films does seem to present other examples -- sequences which again tend to get passed by. Some of the beatific serene tableaux, bodies arranged on rocks in high angle extreme long shot in Dumont's TWENTYNINE PALMS, is one case in point. Hard as it is, watching the films more than once (in my case, Niels, making it happen by assigning IRREVERSIBLE on my contemporary French cinema class!) does seem to recalibrate your reactions somewhat, opening up the sheer range of aesthetic-emotive materials conveyed, from bliss to repulsion. My sense of IRREVERSIBLE, something I try to explore elsewhere, is that the film's crucial pivot is Marcus/Vincent Cassel, his course from animalistic brutality to higher brain function and empathy with Alex, a very witty deconstruction of Cassel's star persona. For all its visceral assaults, IRREVERSIBLE is a very measured, controlled, precise piece of cinema...

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