Unwatchable Irreversible | Sunday Observer

Unwatchable Irreversible

10 October, 2021

Irréversible is a 2002 French psychological thriller drama film written and directed by Gaspar Noé. Starring Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, and Albert Dupontel, it depicts the events of a tragic night in Paris as two men attempt to avenge the brutal rape and beating of the woman they love. The film is told in reverse order, with each scene taking place chronologically before the one that precedes it.

Released theatrically in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Irréversible competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival and won the’ Bronze Horse’ at the Stockholm International Film Festival. The film attracted controversy upon its release for its graphic portrayal of violence and rape, in addition to attracting accusations of homophobia. Critical reception to the film was mixed, with praise towards Noé’s direction, but its content drawing a more divided response. American film critic Roger Ebert called Irréversible “a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable”.

Making of Irreversible

Noé first found financing for Irréversible after he pitched the story to be told in reverse, in order to capitalise on the popularity of Christopher Nolan’s film Memento (2000). Noé has admitted in interviews that during the production of the film he would use cocaine in order to help him carry the large cameras needed to capture the rotating shots in the film.

Irréversible was shot using a widescreen lightweight Minima Super16 mm camera. The film consists of about a dozen apparently unbroken shots melded together from hundreds of shots. This included a 9-minute-long rape and sodomy scene, portrayed in a single, unbroken shot.  Another example is the scene where Pierre beats up a man’s face and skull to pulp with a fire extinguisher. CGI was used to augment the results, as initial footage using a conventional latex dummy proved unconvincing. During sixty minutes of its running time, the film uses extremely low-frequency sound to create a state of nausea and anxiety in the audience.


The film premiered in France on 22 May 2002 through Mars Distribution. It competed at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. It was released in the United Kingdom on January 31,2003 through Metro Tartan Distribution, and the United States on March 7, 2003 through Lions Gate Films. Audience reactions to both the rape scene and the murder scene have ranged from appreciation of their artistic merits to leaving the theatre in disgust.

 Newsweek’s David Ansen stated that “If outraged viewers (mostly women) at the Cannes Film Festival are any indication, this will be the most walked-out-of movie of 2003.” In the same review, Ansen suggested that the film displayed “an adolescent pride in its own ugliness”.

Critical response to the film was divided, with some critics panning the film and others considering it one of the year’s best. The film holds an approval rating of 57 percent based on 122 reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 5.75/10. The website’s critics’ consensus states: “Though well-filmed, Irréversible feels gratuitous in its extreme violence.” The American film critic Roger Ebert argued that the film’s structure makes it inherently moral; that by presenting vengeance before the acts that inspire it, we are forced to process the vengeance first, and therefore think more deeply about its implications.

Irréversible won the top award, the’ Bronze Horse’ for the best film, at the 2002 Stockholm International Film Festival. It was nominated for the ‘Best Foreign Language Award’ by the Film Critics Circle of Australia. It was voted ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ by the San Diego Film Critics Society, tied with The Barbarian Invasions (Les Invasions barbares). It grossed $792,200 from theatrical screenings.

The film received three votes in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics’ poll of the greatest films and in 2016 was listed by critic Andreas Borcholte as one of the ten best films since 2000.

Irréversible has been associated with a series of films defined as the cinéma du corps (“cinema of the body”), which according to Palmer includes: an attenuated use of narrative, assaulting and often illegible cinematography, confrontational subject material, and a pervasive sense of social nihilism or despair. Irréversible has also been associated with the New French Extremity movement.


Film critic David Edelstein argues that “Irréversible might be the most homophobic movie ever made.” Noé’s depiction of gay criminal Le Tenia inexplicably raping the female lead, Alex, remains the film’s most controversial image. In his defense, Noé has stated, “I’m not homophobic.”