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Irréversible desperately attempts to turn the world upside down

In nature, living things prey on each other all the time. Humanity, on the other hand, has a choice. It's flouting this choice that turns director Gaspar Noé on. In his latest project, Irréversible, he basically swipes Christopher Nolan's backward-narrative structure from Memento to tell a lurid tale of rape and revenge -- but not necessarily in that order. Doubtless, his extremely graphic (and prolonged!) treatment of hideous abuse will garner him kudos in some circles. A little thought, however, and it's not too difficult to sniff out a bloodthirsty geek with no library card who has worshiped his tidy stack of Nine Inch Nails CDs for a bit too long.

Although the movie ends -- at its temporal beginning -- with some pricey-looking cinematography, it opens extremely crudely and remains shaky and tense throughout most of its merciful 95-minute run time. We open -- at the end of the narrative -- with the first of about a dozen "chapters," running a few minutes each. To set the tone, a couple of miserable inmates discuss incest ("She was so cute" -- ew), then we hear sirens. There's been a scuffle nearby at a Parisian gay-and-S/M club, none too euphemistically called Rectum. Considering what the club contains, the proprietor picked an apt name, and it makes one wonder whether there are sister clubs in Berlin or Bangkok with nifty names such as Duodenum and Sigmoid Colon.

Anyway, the camera spins us through an urban hell where we're barely able to catch glimpses of wounded Marcus (Vincent Cassel, France's answer to Ben Affleck, with all that implies) and confused Pierre (Albert Dupontel). Outside Rectum, the air is filled with ghastly anal-oriented obscenities of the sort one rarely hears outside children's playgrounds. Then an ambulance whisks Marcus away and we spin into the next chapters, each of which -- again -- takes place in time before the chapter we've just observed.

The crux of the matter -- which should be apparent to most cinephiles on their way in -- is that Marcus' girlfriend, Alex (Monica Bellucci), who's also Pierre's ex-girlfriend, has been (or, rather, is about to be) viciously anally raped in an underground walkway. The perp (Jo Prestia), called Le Tenia, or "the tapeworm," is the nastiest sort of human predator, and his attack on Alex is akin to the random rage toward the feminine explored in the vital missing-girl documentary Señorita Extraviada (see it). As we later learn, Marcus is a lovesick dork and Pierre is a cauldron of unresolved issues regarding Alex, so both of them seek revenge on Le Tenia for what he's done to their lady.

It's really, really easy to poke fun at Noé for his cinematic histrionics ... so before we praise his movie for its merits, let's do that. Noé is a frustrated wannabe. In his first feature, I Stand Alone, he wanted to be Taxi Driver-era Scorsese (which, for my money, is iconic but not brilliant). Now, with his gruesome ultraviolence and a couple of thudding homages to 2001: A Space Odyssey, he wants us to believe he's the next Kubrick. Puh-leeze. Even Nolan has him beat; Memento, for its several failings (including being useless if told chronologically), was at least an ambitious gimmick picture, and Irréversible is mostly just a tantrum, the sort of stuff Polanski at any stage of his career would've crumpled up and discarded for being too trite.

That said, one has to hand it to Noé for trying his hardest to shock and awe us. His silly sucky-fisty hijinks in the crimson bowels of Rectum are no walk through the fire -- the sequence is more like tripping over a Zippo -- but the scene between Alex and her attacker is truly horrifying. This thing is so grotesque it makes Ned Beatty's squealing of yesteryear seem relatively quaint. What good does it do anyone to witness several uncut minutes of something so vile? It's definitely worse than the actors' pointless nudity and ad-libbing later in the movie. As with traditional horror movies, it could be argued that viewing the nastiness in a relatively safe cinema steels the nerves and empowers the viewer against real horrors. Or does it merely corrode the senses? Hard to say.

What isn't hard to say is that Noé really isn't a very talented filmmaker. If rape chic (that rite-of-passage for actresses, models and pop-divas) is to your tastes, The Accused and Leaving Las Vegas are both more revelatory, as are several videos by Tori Amos, Fiona Apple and even Madonna. If you're into the French nasty, go with Savage Nights or Never on a Sunday or even Last Tango in Paris. But if you want to see what everybody's talking about this week, you can give Noé your money. Is his movie truly Irréversible? Probably. But unforgettable? Hardly.

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