Time Destroys All Things

I spent the first half of my day trying to figure out if I was really going to drive up to Berkeley and watch Irréversible. This film has spawned quite a stir among critics and cinephiles: It is artfully and skillfully made; its narrative structure is unusual (unfolding backwards, a la Memento); its central theme is a universal truth; however, that theme is explored through some of the most horrifying violence to ever grace the big screen.

I was torn. I like difficult films. I like dark films. But I don’t like watching terrible things happen to innocent people, and I’m in a period in my life right now where I don’t need any help feeling awful about how life sometimes works. I ultimately decided that my interest in the film was strong enough that I’d go anyway.

Before the film’s first quarter-hour is complete, we watch one man attack another with a fire extinguisher, turning his victim’s face into mincemeat. And at the film’s halfway point, the camera comes to a complete standstill for nearly ten minutes to watch as Monica Bellucci is savagely raped and left for dead.

As I mentioned, the story unfolds in reverse (making the title a nice little self-contradiction), so as the movie progresses, we move backward through time to see how the beating and the rape are connected, and what the characters were like before their lives were forever changed by one violent evening. The film’s theme is as overt as they come: Spoken first by a character in an opening scene that serves as prologue, then flashed onscreen at the very end of the film, is the French sentence Le temps détruit tout—”Time destroys all things.”

True enough. What you have today, you will eventually not have. Life can seem wonderful and perfect, but any day of your life can suddenly and unexpectedly turn into the worst day of your life. Of course the opposite is true as well: Any day of your life might suddenly and unexpectedly become the best day of your life. But that is not the sort of day that Irréversible is about.

Ebert gave the film three stars. That is a bit generous. Though well-crafted, the film has a pretty nasty flaw: The moments immediately after the prologue scene tell you how the story ends for two of the three main characters, but everything happens very quickly, and you have not had a chance to get your bearings and figure out who the important figures are, so it all zips right past you. When you arrive at the end of the film, you may not connect Marcus and Pierre with their ultimate fates, because when you saw those fates onscreen, you didn’t even know who Marcus and Pierre were. You didn’t even know to pay attention to them.

The film’s structure even threw Ebert for a loop. In his review, he identifies the recipient of the fire extinguisher beating as La Tenia (another important character), but that is not correct. I had to come home and do some surfing to find a review that seems to properly describe the story’s end (the film’s beginning), because when I walked out of the theater, I thought back to the beginning and pieced together how Marcus ended up, but I could not figure out what became of Pierre.

This is the sort of movie that needs to be seen twice in order to be fully grokked. That was no problem for Memento, but it’s a real problem for a film that is so disturbing that most filmgoers won’t even sit through it a first time.