Dir: Gaspar Noe. France. 2002. 95mins.

Flagged from the beginning of the festival as Cannes' 'succes de scandal', with a huge commotion in the French media and an official warning printed on its tickets, Irreversible emerges as neither successful nor, come to that, especially scandalous. A significant backward step for Noe after his explosive 1998 feature debut I Stand Alone (Seul Contre Tous), this told-in-reverse revenge drama is a murky exercise in style, whose technical bravura in the ultra-violent opening segments collapses into a banal love triangle. Irreversible did middling business when it opened in France last week, registering 108,318 admissions from 267 screens after five days. But beyond the curious and prurient, interest is likely to wane once word gets out.

In a recent interview Vincent Cassel, who stars in the film, recalled that Noe originally described the project as the film which Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman failed to bring off - meaning Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. The connection is punched home with the poster from 2001: A Space Odyssey, featured prominently in Irreversible. But whatever one thinks of Kubrick's last film, the comparison with him which Noe invites comes across as immodest posturing.

After a brief prologue in which Phillippe Nahon, apparently resuming his role as a murderous butcher from I Stand Alone, announces that "Time destroys everything," the viewer swiftly enters the heart of darkness as two men, Marcus and Pierre (Cassel and Dupontel), storm through a gay S&M club looking for someone called La Tenia. When they think they've found him, they bludgeon him in the face with a fire extinguisher. Soon thereafter the audience is treated to the even more violent and disturbing event behind the attack: Alex, a young woman (Bellucci) on her way home from a party, enters an underpass and is anally raped and murdered there.

So far, so good - in artistic terms, at least. The crazed, wildly careening camera, which rampages through the gay club is not exactly easy on the eye and, like the stroboscopic closing sequence, should be avoided by anyone prone to migraine or epilepsy. But it's an undeniably breathtaking piece of cinema that plunges the viewer straight into a season in hell. The rape, by contrast, is shot in a single take with a fixed camera at close quarters and agonising length: there's nothing exploitative about it. The densely textured soundtrack compounds the general atmosphere of dread.

As it works backwards through the build-up to the cataclysm, it is in the later (or earlier) stages that the film loses its grip. Alex and Marcus quarrel at the party, prompting her early departure alone. The three friends travel to the event by Metro, as they talk about love-making techniques and it emerges that Alex, Pierre's ex-girlfriend, was stolen from him by Marcus. The story's steady journey from darkness into light, literally as well as metaphorically, climaxes in a bedroom scene whose tender intimacy must be due to the fact that Cassel and Bellucci are partners in real life.

All this is compellingly performed by the three principals, but their characters are simply not very interesting and it's only too evident that the dialogue was largely improvised in haste from a three-page outline. The back-to-front narrative (Irreversible even starts with its closing credits) looks like an attempt to dress up a flimsy concept - the device has been used before to more poignant and revealing effect, by Christopher Nolan (Memento), Jane Campion (Two Friends) and Harold Pinter in the play-turned-film Betrayal. But Noe's take on the inexorability of time and the fragile nature of happiness has nothing much to say, other than that we can never anticipate the horrors fate has in store.

Prod cos: Nord-Ouest, Eskward
Fr dist:
Mars Film
Int'l sales:
Wild Bunch
Christophe Rossignon, Richard Grandpierre
Noe, Benoit Debie
Prod des:
Alain Juteau
Thomas Bangalter
Main cast:
Vincent Cassel, Monica Bellucci, Albert Dupontel, Philippe Nahon, Jo Prestia