In Gaspar Noe's "Irreversible," a woman is savagely beaten and raped, the camera capturing every tortured moment over nine long minutes. In an equally disturbing scene, audiences are confronted with a man's face being bashed in blow-by-blow with a fire extinguisher.
The scenes proved so harrowing that even hardened art-house crowds walked out when the movie screened at Cannes and Sundance.
Executives of the film's North American distributor say "Irreversible" is one of the toughest marketing challenges they've ever faced, and that includes controversial movies such as "American Psycho" and "Dogma."
"It is absolutely a hot potato, but we're used to it," said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Releasing. "It's easily the most controversial film of the year -- maybe the decade."
While conceding that about 20% of the audience at Cannes and Sundance did walk out, Ortenberg said "Irreversible" received a "rapturous ovation" from those who stuck it out. It was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes. He pointed out that few people walked out of the film at either the Toronto or Telluride film festivals. "They had 900 in the audience at Toronto and only six walkouts," he said.
The movie is told in backward chronology, not unlike Christopher Nolan's "Memento." It traces an evening in the lives of three Parisians -- a gorgeous woman and her boyfriend (played by husband-and-wife Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci) and their friend (Albert Dupontel). Much of the dialogue is improvised; the Argentine-born Noe provided the actors with only a three-page script.
Reviews have been mixed. "The most uncomfortable few minutes you'll ever spend in a cinema," warned the BBC. "It's not so much hardcore as black-hole-core," said Britain's the Guardian. But Rolling Stone gave it 3 1/2 stars.
"We will be thrilled if the picture does a couple million dollars at the box office," Ortenberg said, adding that Lions Gate expects strong sales when the film comes out on DVD.
The film, which is unrated, opens in limited release Friday in New York and Los Angeles, including the Regent Showcase in Los Angeles, the Laemmle Monica in Santa Monica, the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Edwards' University in Irvine.
-- Robert W. Welkos