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IRREVERSIBLE

THE FIRST SHALL BE LAST

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Gaspar Noé's Irréversible ends and begins with scenes of two people in bed. But it's not the same two people, and it's certainly not the same context.

At the end -- which, because Noé unfolds his story in reverse order, is actually the story's beginning -- the couple is Marcus and Alex: young, attractive and naked, just having made love, and now lolling about playfully before they go to meet Pierre (Albert Dupontel) -- Marcus' pal and Alex's ex -- for a party. Alex (Monica Bellucci) might be pregnant, and when Marcus (Vincent Cassel) leaves to get some liquor, she takes a moment to find out.

One long evening later -- which is to say, about 95 minutes earlier in Irréversible -- Noé treats us to two other people in bed. But these two, denizens of a proper film noir, inhabit a fleabag motel situated above a gay rough-sex club called Rectum. The men are both solidly middle-aged, one thin and clothed, the other flabby and naked. "Time destroys all things," the naked one says, foreshadowing the film's central theme, and then he mentions his imprisonment for having engaged in sex with his young daughter, an act that he can't get out of his head, although it's unclear whether guilt or desire keeps it there.

In between these two bedroom scenes, as Irréversible moves forward (which is to say backward), three people effectively lose their lives. One of them is Alex, whose rape in a passageway under a Parisian street is, short of a snuff film, possibly the most graphic scene of its kind ever staged. The others are Marcus and the innocent man whom he beats to death with a fire extinguisher during his bacchanal of revenge.

What to make of Noé's disturbing film? Where -- pardon the rhetoric -- to begin? The last time we saw a movie told from end to beginning, it was Christopher Nolan's Memento, a much more satisfying work, and one whose backward storytelling actually helped the viewer to experience the protagonist's dilemma. Noé's parable of existential fate is simpler and more metaphoric, and his reverse-order narrative achieves little more than transparent irony. He seems to want to say something about immutable destiny (Alex dreams of her rape without realizing it), and about the filthy stinking world we all live in (the sex club is an over-the-top orgy of sadism, masochism, hedonism, onanism and probably a few acts that we haven't yet named). He's particularly engrossed (if that's the word) with anal penetration, and his vision of night and sex is Scorsese-meets-Pasolini, so far beyond the realm of "normal" human senses that you simply have to believe he's exaggerating to make a point.

It's also an unremittingly gruesome and unbalanced glimpse of homosexuality, especially in light of the nurturing heterosexual lovers. Some of Noé's characters are virulently homophobic -- even the affable Marcus, on a nose-candy binge, berates homosexuals and an Asian cabbie -- although you never get the sense that Noé approves. Nonetheless, Irréversible isn't the edifying drama that Tommy will want to show Mom and Pop just after he comes out.

So what isn't bleak about Irréversible? Well, there's the sex between Marcus and Alex, which the actors (who were married off-screen when they made the movie) perform with a playful comfort that we need to see more often. The friendship between Marcus and Pierre survived Alex's change of partners, and in the movie's most spirited scene, they take a long Metro ride and talk about which man gave Alex an orgasm. Pierre still can't believe it wasn't him because he always tries so hard to please. But Alex believes that a person making love needs to think only about him- or herself in order to satisfy the other.

It's a point of view that echoes ironically when Alex encounters her misogynistic rapist in the tunnel, where he does exactly what pleases him as she lies face down on the cement, trying to scream for help through sodomy and a beating.

Noé photographs Irréversible in a sort of techno-noir style, with many long takes that use a swooping, swirling, hand-held camera, and with some quick special effects to bridge his movements from place to place. It's impressive to watch, like during the Metro dialogue on sex, or when Marcus rampages through Rectum, looking for Alex's rapist. It's also rather disturbing when Noé presents Alex's rape in one shot that continues, unbroken, right on through the rapist's merciless anal pounding and the thrashing that follows.

This visual style places obvious demands upon the actors, who handle it all superbly, and who must have done at least a bit of improvisation, although you never sense it from how they hit their marks. Certainly Bellucci has the hardest job, and one hopes that Noé got what he needed for the rape scene in the first take.

Finally, what of the morality of such a brutal work of art? For a while during Alex's rape, you can't believe what you're watching, and so your only respite is to consider that it's really just two determined actors, imitating an extreme of inhumanity. Or perhaps by telling his story in reverse, and by showing us Alex's rape before we know her, Noé forces us to think about how we get involved with the circumstances of strangers. In fact, during the rape, a man enters the tunnel, looks on from a distance, and then quietly walks away. One wonders if Noé made Irréversible just to show us that very authentic moment of human behavior. In French, with subtitles. * * 1/2

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