Strap yourself down
There are films out there that make a point of pounding themselves into your head - Requiem for a Dream, Pi, and Romance being a handful of them. But I think I've seen the King of this category at Sundance.
IrrÃ©versible seems inspired by Memento and is perhaps an attempt at telling the chronologically-backwards story better. We open, after some reverse-scrolling end credits, with flashing lights and sirens and the hubbub of something having gone desperately wrong. The camera moves fluidly through the scene, twisting and turning to give us different views, often in a dizzying, disorienting way. The noise and movement are meant to be overwhelm us, but they are only preparating us for what is to come.
Then we see the cause for the commotion we started with, which is the beating-to-death of a man in this club. Two men move determinedly through the dark rooms asking to find someone in particular. After the longest time of watching their palpable anger and impatience, they finally find him. One of the men seems nearly insatiable in his need to destroy.
And then we back up again - and by now it's clear the film pretends to be one single cut: the camera moves into a scene from the last, conveniently covering some sort of terrain that can be stitched together easily while retaining the same motion as we start a new one. It means each scene really is a single long, long shot. As it turns out, the dialog is largely improvised, so this trick becomes slightly easier technically, though putting a heavier burden on the actors.
Anyway, we join the two men - Marcus and Pierre - as they scrounge the city for this person. If they hadn't been unsympathetic before, it's certainly apparent now as they harrass and intimidate people toward their eventual goal.
With each long scene, we pass backward and get another level of detail. We learn that Marcus' girlfriend was raped, which is the motivation for the "earlier" vengeance. We also get to see the rape, which is yet another long, harrowing moment a lot of people would rather not have seen.
Along the way, we also learn that Marcus and Pierre found the wrong man. This is the first in a long line of commentary on the ironies of life. While the film gets progressively lighter and lighter (also quite opposite to a traditional film), we get more and more context, and therefore more meaning, to what happened at the "start" of it all.
The film is complex and ambitious, and it is an unqualified success in what it attempts. However, this is strong material, the stuff which many folk will have difficulty with. I myself - while I feel I've seen a tremendous piece of filmmaking - don't feel a strong need to see this one again for some time. That's perhaps not so much a comment on the subject matter so much as how successfully the film captures the darkest spots of the human soul in a way we can actually relate to.
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