"Irreversible," the most controversial movie at last year's Cannes Film Festival, is a savage, unrelenting nightmare of sex and violence. It's shot in a peculiar, dynamic style that may transfix, bewilder, excite and even nauseate you. Made at white heat by one of France's most daring new cineastes, Gaspar Noe ("I Stand Alone"), it's a film that takes real chances and goes in new directions. You won't see anything remotely like it this year.
That doesn't mean it's a success. Noe shoots the film in 12 long, apparently one-take sequences, improvised by the actors, arranged in reverse chronological order. After a prison prelude, the film begins (or ends) with a horrific murder in a gay nightclub and then proceeds backwards: the tracking down of bisexual pimp Le Tenia (Jo Prestia) by two nearly hysterical friends, Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel); and the precipitating incident, with Le Tenia brutally raping and beating Marcus' girlfriend, Alex (Monica Bellucci of "Malena") after she leaves Marcus and Pierre at a party. Then, the movie moves even further back, ending on a note of bliss. Noe's strategy: pin the characters into fate while allowing the actors maximum "freedom," and travel backward from chaos to bliss.
The problem with "Irreversible" is not its garish subject or even its weird structure and psychotic-looking visual style. (Noe, operating the camera himself, sometimes jerks it around at will, as if he were as out of control as his characters.) What's wrong is the decision to let all the actors improvise their lines. Some thrive on the freedom - like Bellucci and Philippe Nahon, the latter staunchly reprising his "I Stand Alone" role of the butcher. But many of them just scream the same profanity-laced phrases over and over, destroying the very illusion of reality Noe labors to create. At the end, "Irreversible" looks less like captured or even distorted life than an acting class.
Visually, "Irreversible" works smashingly well. The hard, lurid images catch you in a vise. But dramatically, with few exceptions, it's a mess. Even the lyrical lovemaking sequence with real-life couple Bellucci and Cassel is sabotaged when the camera gives us enough full frontal to show Cassel unaroused. That reaction won't apply to audiences of "Irreversible." For better or worse, this is a movie that batters you, shakes you up and makes you react.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4) "Irreversible"
Directed, written and edited by Gaspar Noe; photographed by Noe, Benoit Debie; production designed by Alain Juteau; music by Thomas Bangalter (with selections from Mahler and Beethoven); produced by Christophe Rossignon, Richard Grandpierre. French, with English subtitles. A Lions Gate Films release; opens Friday, March 14. Running time: 2:10. No MPAA rating. Adult (Extreme violence, nudity, sexuality, language and drug use).
Alex - Monica Bellucci
Marcus - Vincent Cassel
Pierre - Albert Dupontel
Le Tenia - Jo Prestia Ex-Butcher - Philippe Nahon
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times