HomeOur ObsessionsWhy is ‘Irreversible’ still shocking 15 years later?

Why is ‘Irreversible’ still shocking 15 years later?

When Gaspar Noé’s controversial drama 'Irreversible' premiered back in 2003, audiences were at least a little prepared for its dizzying horror. A year earlier when it debuted at Cannes, the movie proved to be so divisive and shocking it made people leave the cinema in droves.

Why is ‘Irreversible’ still shocking 15 years later?

When Gaspar Noé’s controversial drama Irreversible premiered back in 2003, audiences were at least a little prepared for its dizzying horror. A year earlier when it debuted at Cannes, the movie proved to be so divisive and shocking it made people leave the cinema in droves. If you dare, you can watch this movie on the Showbox app now.

One audience member spoke about how the cinema remained very quiet before becoming unbearable. “Some people began to shout . . . it was like a little fight inside.” Others who were clearly reviled by what they’d seen called Noe “mentally ill” following the screening, and questioned why a filmmaker would want to create such a nauseating, dolorous experience with a movie. According to the French DVD release, 200 of the 2,400 people at the Cannes premiere walked out of the movie in disgust, which is quite the achievement.

Fifteen years later, Irreversible remains one of the most disquieting & disruptive movies in cinematic history. However, it’s also one of the most revered for its innovative narrative style and gallant risk taking with Monica Bellucci (Malèna) & Vincent Cassel (Black Swan) both providing two of the strongest performances of their careers. But is it still shocking 15 years later? Absofuckinglutely, and here’s why.

The 10-minute opening sequence of violence is still utterly barf-inducing

Noe wastes no time in making his audience wince and suffer. At the very beginning of Irreversible, in a scene set in a gay BDSM club, a man’s arm is shown snapping backwards while another has his head slowly smashed into a pulp by a fire extinguisher.

Still not quite disgusted enough? The handheld camera work and accompanying soundtrack for the scene were both chosen to purposely induce vertigo in the audience. Oh, and as an added bonus there’s a man masturbating in the background – and yes, that man is Noé, himself. Be warned: the below scene is NSFW.

Noe included his self-pleasuring cameo to curb accusations of homophobia

According to Noé, when iconic giallo director Dario Argento (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) saw a preview of the BDSM club scene, he warned, “The gay community is going to give you hell! You’re talking about them and you’re not a part of them.” Noé’s solution? “I had an idea, and we went back to the club and I added a small image of me masturbating . . . It was stupid, but still everybody noticed that I was part of the club so I could not be homophobic while being excited while in the club.”

The movie was purposefully designed to disorientate

Don’t feel bad if the first third of the movie had you lunging for a sick bucket – that’s exactly how Noé wanted you to feel. The first 30 minutes of Irreversible features an almost inaudible background frequency of 28 Hz. It’s a noise similar to one produced by an earthquake and can cause nausea, sickness, and vertigo – exactly the sort of ambiance you need when you’re watching a man’s head get pulped like a grapefruit.

The credits sequence only adds to the discomfort

The iconic opening sequence of Irreversible was designed to throw audiences into a tailspin before they’d even encountered the movie’s first burst of violence. Featuring a vigorous, roving camera as it spins & flips a city street while vertical credits slope and fall off the screen, the sequence is a woozy sensory attack that makes viewers feel instantly distressed.

The most galling rape scene in cinema history

In the fifteen years since the movie was released, few scenes in cinema have caused quite as much uproar as that in which Alex (Bellucci) is violently assaulted on screen for nine long minutes.

As well as being incredibly graphic, the outrageous sequence also reveals the assailant’s erect penis (added digitally in post-production) following the assault, and ends with a brutal physical attack in which Alex’s head is repeatedly smashed against the floor. As the backwards narrative continues to unfurl, we also discover Alex was pregnant at the time, adding another layer of bilious discomfort to the movie.

The rape scene was mostly improvised

Noé only wrote a three-page treatment for Irreversible, containing twelve scenes with ten to twenty lines for each, meaning much of the movie’s dialogue was improvised – but so was some of the action. Speaking on the rape scene, Noé confessed: 

“I could not describe the rape . . . I would say that scene was more directed by Monica than by me. When you let people improvise, they decide the timing. She had been watching a lot of movies that afternoon, like I Spit on Your Grave and Deliverance, and so we just did one mechanical rehearsal, especially for her getting hit on the face so she wouldn’t get hurt. And then we shot it six times.”

Noé took cocaine to help him get through filming

Noé revealed to IndieWire how his handheld filming style drove him to use cocaine. “When the camera has to go up the stairs, down the stairs, and turn around, at a point my arms were hurting and my friends on the set were giving me coke. And you feel strong and you feel like a superhero, you run up the stairs and turn the camera. I was really happy that helped me achieve the scene,” Noé divulged.

“I’m not a strong man at all but the camera was very heavy. I had done such a muscular effort that the moment this spell of cocaine was over, the pain started and I could not even raise a glass of vodka.”

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Amy Roberts is a freelance writer who occasionally moonlights as a hapless punk musician. She’s written about pop culture for websites like Bustle, i-D, and The Mary Sue, and is the co-creator of Clarissa Explains F*ck All. She likes watching horror movies with her cat and eating too much sugar.

amy@filmdaily.co