The Backward Marching of Time: Irréversible’s “Straight Cut” Reverses (and Ruins) Its Chronology

Movies Features Gaspar Noé
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The Backward Marching of Time: Irréversible’s “Straight Cut” Reverses (and Ruins) Its Chronology

How much does the relative effect of a movie depend on the order of the plot? In several cases, it’s everything. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, a film that encouraged a generation of filmmakers to try their hand at nonlinear narrative, simply could not function on its face if it were linear. Its formal and thematic reliance on self-reflexivity in turn relies on its nonlinearity to create individual vignettes of reference to the history of cinema, specifically to Tarantino’s varied influences, making the movie a sporadic pop-item. In the case of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, the reverse chronology turns what would be a standard mystery-revenge thriller into an examination of motive and in some respects, a psychological comedy. 

Directly influenced in its reverse chronology by the popularity of Nolan’s film, Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible became a notorious sensation when it first released. 20 years later, it has been re-released in chronological order, which Noé dubbed the Straight Cut. The first thing that is noticeable in this new cut is that the film’s most infamous scene, in the tunnel, exists in nearly the exact same timestamp as the original. This reveals something that I previously always took for granted: The extreme precision and calculation with which Irréversible is structured is something wholly deliberate and meant to evoke a conscious tracking of the timing of events. It does, after all, end with the title card Le Temps Detruit Tout (Time Destroys All Things).

Roger Ebert considered reverse chronology as a moral choice. He makes his case by sayingThe movie does not end with rape as its climax and send us out of the theater as if something had been communicated. It starts with it, and asks us to sit there for another hour and process our thoughts. It is therefore moral—at a structural level.” I’m not necessarily inclined to agree. One reason Ebert’s quote confuses me is his referral to the infamous rape sequence as being at the “start” of the film, when its in fact very purposefully placed in the dead center. I agree that its placement elicits a need to process it as reference for everything that happens after… uh… before. It’s a moment that, when I first watched Irréversible, made me turn it off. I didn’t go back to the film for another five or six years. It’s the only sequence in the movie that exists as a still shot with the camera at ground level, unflinchingly witnessing the brutality of the abuse being endured, which goes on for a harrowingly long time.

By leading with Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre’s (Albert Dupontel) vigilante justice quest against Le Tenia (Joe Prestia), the man who brutally beats and rapes Lucien’s girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci) in the tunnel, along with the reverse chronology, Irréversible turns what would be a tragic revenge film into a formidable character drama. We learn of Alex’s dreams, her relationship with Marcus, and the life they were building together after the fact. When I finally finished watching the whole movie, I realized it’s a purposefully placed fulcrum for everything that happens before and after. So when the film is tilted on its axis and spun around, as Noé has done with the straight cut, this sequence is the one that is changed the most.

In Irréversible, Noé begins the movie with the camera swinging around in every direction. Its kinetic and dizzying movements combined with Marcus’s crazed state create a disorienting sensation that is both exhausting and energetic. The tunnel scene halts everything in devastating fashion. It’s like a car crashing directly into a wall. For the rest of the film, the camera is much more docile, gliding, tracking, like a curious wandering eye rather than one that’s blood-red with anger. The Straight Cut turns the tunnel sequence into a catalyst and accelerator that jolts a lively but stable movie into uncontrolled motion.

In the Straight Cut, the revelations and layered emotional development of the characters gets corroded. It turns Noé’s “Time Destroys All Things” into the literal rather than the ironic, thereby making it flat. It becomes the actual cynical and trope-filled edgy movie with nothing on its mind that its reputation has mistaken it for. Irréversible deserves better than that. Scenes where Alex tells Marcus about a nightmare she had being in a red tunnel, or in the elevator when she tells Marcus and Allen that the book she’s reading says “The future is already written. It’s right there. And the proof lies in prenominatory dreams” lose their revelatory impact, instead becoming predictable foreshadowing tropes. 

There is a reasonable reaction to Irréversible that the film is ruined by its brutal rape sequence. It certainly ruined it for me for a while, and its reputation has become shamefully exploited as an endurance test for people to dare each other to take. It’s the reason I suspect the decision to create a Straight Cut was little more than pandering. The Straight Cut is not its own standalone disc or film, but a bonus feature included with Irréversible. Noé has leaned in quite proudly to the reputation his films have built, and while I respect that in some sense, this film would remain untarnished if he embraced Michael Haneke’s contempt for his own fanbase.

Soham Gadre is an entertainment and culture writer based in Washington D.C. He has written for Polygon, MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, and Film Inquiry among other publications. He has a Twitter account where he talks about movies, basketball, and food.