Seeing Cinema in a New Light: Criticism, Essays and Observations about Classic Cinema

2000s Movies, Art House, Classic Movies, Crime Drama, Editorials, Film Criticism and Analysis

Irreversible (2002) Might Be the Most Misunderstood Film of All Time

I’m not going to mince words. I think that Irreversible (2002) was not only a great film, it was horribly misunderstood. In fact, it might just be one of the most misunderstood films of all time. No one seemed to get this film–not the fanboys who think it’s a masterpiece, not the haters who think it’s garbage.

Why is the movie so misunderstood? A large part of the reason is Gaspar Noé’s fault. He did such a good job of completely alienating the audiences with brutal scenes of rape and violence that a lot of what the movie was trying to say was lost in translation. This reminds me of what happened when I saw Man Bites Dog. It might’ve been a brilliant satire, but it was so disturbing that it was years before I could get my wits together to finally think about what it was saying and doing. I have no doubt that something similar happened with Irreversible. People just couldn’t get past the brutality.

Irreversible (2002): Tunnel scene

Irreversible (2002): Tunnel scene

Another reason why Irreversible is misunderstood is that it’s an art house film. So just by virtue of being art house, people who either love or hate this genre were bound to come to it with certain preconceived notions and biases, which is exactly what happened. On one hand, you had the typical pretentious hipsters loving it for all the wrong reasons. On the other, you had art house detractors assuming that because it was art house, it was a sensationalist, exploitative piece of crap like Salo, just being shocking for the sake of shocking under pretense of saying something meaningful.

Normally, with a film like this, I don’t go out of my way to make some kind of appeal on its behalf. However, there were so many fascinating themes it was trying to explore that I just felt compelled to clear the air of confusion that surrounds this film by explaining what those themes were and what the movie was trying to say about them. But before I do, let’s start with a recap to refresh everyone’s memory.

The Recap

A middle-aged and young man are on a bed talking about what they did to get in jail. The middle-aged man admits that he “made love” to his daughter. After he and the younger man talk for some time, he finally says in a sound of regret, “Time destroys everything.”

Next, we see two a swarm of police and an ambulance outside of a building. One man, Pierre, is being taken in by police and the other, Marcus, is being placed inside of an ambulance by paramedics. All the while, there are two men in the background screaming the most abusive, homophobic slurs you can ever imagine at them, ranting that they want their money, that Marcus and Pierre will be raped in prison and catch AIDs.

The camerawork spins, and we jump back in time a little bit. We see that the guy that was taken in by ambulance, Marcus, is on the warpath looking for a man named Le Tenia inside of an underground BDSM gay club. His friend, Pierre, is begging him to leave because the club, Rectum, is filled with dangerous thugs. Marcus ignores him and threatens a guy who he thinks is Le Tenia. The guy breaks Marcus’ arm, then tries to rape him. Then Pierre comes along and rescues him, but not without bludgeoning the thug to death with a fire extinguisher, to the point of caving in his skull. As it turns out, Le Tenia–the guy Marcus had been looking for–is in the background watching the entire scene unfold in front of him.

Irreversible scene at Rectum BDSM club

Irreversible scene at Rectum BDSM club

The movie repeatedly keeps time jumping back to earlier parts of the evening, and we learn the reason why Marcus was looking for Le Tenia is that his girlfriend, Alex, was brutally raped and beaten after leaving a party they were attending together. She left the party in a huff because Marcus, a substance abuser, did a few lines of cokes and was tweaked out of his mind. When we jump back even further to the day’s events, we learn that Alex had taken a pregnancy test and found out she was pregnant. Finally, we learn that her day had started reading a book at the park out on a gorgeous summer day.


Okay, hold the phone. From the way I recapped the movie, it sounds as if there was nothing to Irreversible. A lot of people felt that way, too, when they saw it. They thought that it was a nothing story about a woman who gets raped the day she learns she’s pregnant and that the only reason why Noé had the film go backwards was to disguise how threadbare the story was.

On the contrary, mes amis. There were lots of themes being explored in Irreversible, far more than you would think.


  1. Alexander Dahoola

    Just this – about your point, as good and worthwhile as your point is about “Revenge being more trouble than its worth”, I STILL kind of wanted to slightly tackle ONE aspect of it, it being, that you had a slight problem with it in the context of the movie that, to quote you, the main perpetrator Le Tenia “DID NOT GET APPREHENDED BY THE POLICE and ARRESTED and SENTENCED APPROPRIATELY”.

    But the whole point of the revenge was that they wanted to track down and KILL him in revenge via the form of VIGILANTE JUSTICE, its just that in THIS MOVIE, it so happened that they killed the WRONG GUY UNINTENTIONALLY in the process. They were not planning to exact revenge on him SO that he could be arrested by police and in such process anyway, the police would NOT have arrested Le Tenia anyway because at least from a LEGAL point of view, vigilante justice and revenge killings even on TERRIBLE and GUILTY people like that Le Tenia character is still ILLEGAL.

    You should’ve wrote in addition to that statement about “lack of police apprehension and arrest” that he did not get KILLED and had his deed avenged in any way justifiably EITHER, hence proving that in ANY case, even vigilante-esque Charles Bronson-like STYLE, no justice or even HAPPY ending came out of that revenge attempt EITHER.

    Interestingly enough, this also contrasts many similar films that ACTUALLY have dealt with sexual abuse and revenge as GENRES ala “I Spit on Your Grave” (1978) and its various varieties where its guilty villains/perpetrators ALSO got away with it legally BUT they ended up getting SUCCESSFULLY killed by their victims and/or their family members, or hurt etc or hurt AND killed in painful ways, and for the most part, the audience CHEERED on the actions of victims turned avenging angels.

    But there also of course have been many films dealing with sexual abuse where quite simply it was portrayed as a terrible tragedy no doubt but perpetrators had absolutely NO comeuppance at all, from either successful LEGAL sides or from vengeful retribution, which at least some if not a lot of people consider JUSTIFIABLE, and of course CERTAIN films have proved how in matter like this, even if it IS possible to convict the perpetrator guilty of sexual violence against someone, it is overall an emotionally harrowing and painfully difficult PROCESS and even then there is no guarantee, which is why such vigilante themed film genre is popular with many audiences in the process like action movies where the bad guys get what they deserve at the end and at least some form of justice, however brutally, is restored.

    P.S. Also, in “Irreversible” (2002), that fire extinguisher murder victim was not a completely innocent and nice fella either, for, even if he didn’t violate Alex like Le Tenia did, he tried to do the same thing to Marcus before Pierre intervened, so he was not a completely sympathetic character either.

  2. Sikata Sitiratna

    I already like this movue because of it realistic story telling may be that is why it makes you feel so vulnerable when you watch, as if it has just happened before my eyes near the street to my house and just couldn’t help, as if i just froze out of fear. Through the senses this movie successfully makes you feel if not understand the depth of the sentiments and the logic of such story telling. You have definitely added more domensions to my perpective about the plot and the characters. Thank you. Great writeup. 🙂

  3. Marje

    Wow. I really enjoyed your explanation of the movie. I think you captured the themes and described them so well! I have nothing to add to your writing except giving my compliments to it. The movie left me a bit confused and I couldn’t understand the point of it, but your deconstruction opened my eyes. Thank you and keep on the good work!

  4. I honestly didn’t care for this movie, it was interesting at first, but then got boring for me. I usually like slow artsy movies, but this film didn’t work for me.

  5. Gabe Carc

    Precise explanation.

  6. Perfect explanation. Thanks!

  7. prouductsinsights

    Thanks, It’s a really good explanation

  8. Anna

    Could it be that the Tenia is the guy talking about having “made love” to his daughter and serving jail time?

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