Irreversible has been called many things, including unwatchable, but director Gaspar Noe says that he has reason to be positive about audiences' response.
It is a year since Irreversible hit the headlines, with suggestions it would prove one of the most shocking films in recent memory. It lived up to its promise - or threat - at the Cannes Film Festival, when many walked out in disgust at its rape scene, or simply because its swirling hand-held camera induced nausea.
The British Board of Film Classification has passed it for cinema exhibition, while warning it may take a different view on a video release.
"It’s good for the publicity of the movie, if you want to make it a commercial success" says Gaspar Noe, the film’s Argentine-born, French-based director, who seems younger than his 39 years, citing Jason and the Argonauts among his favourite films, along with 2001 and Polanski’s Repulsion, an eclectic mix suited for the post of cinema’s latest enfant terrible.
"But sometimes the controversy makes you forget what the movie really is about," he adds. Attention can now focus on what is certainly a remarkable film, though it is no mean task to work out what the film is about, for Irreversible begins at the end and works its way back to the beginning, presenting scenes in reverse chronological order.
One man is arrested at a gay club and another taken out on a stretcher. The film then back-tracks slightly, following what seems to be the same two men (Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel) through a succession of darkened rooms, past half-naked bodies in search of a third man, called La Tenia.
The camera spins like a drunk fighting to keep his balance, a discordant soundtrack assaults the ears, stroboscopic lights flash. It is difficult to follow what is happening, though there is an overwhelming air of violence. "My aim was to make you feel out of your minds," explains Noe. He succeeds.
A man’s head is repeatedly smashed with a fire extinguisher, like a pumpkin. A subsequent scene reveals the men went to the club to avenge the rape of a girlfriend (Cassel’s wife Monica Bellucci). The scene was apparently shot in one agonising, nine-minute take, with just grunts and muffled cries on the soundtrack.
It is not known who sat with their eyes on a stop-watch, not me, though I wish it had been. Irreversible continues to backtrack, to a bland love story, but rarely has blandness seemed so welcome.
The film has prompted a wide range of responses from sometimes bewildered critics. And while viewers will no doubt continue to walk out, Noe maintains there are others for whom the film becomes an "obsession", continually returning to it, looking for something new.
The reverse-chronology technique has been employed in Memento and by Quentin Tarantino. "Everybody copies everybody else now," says Noe. His starting point was "a rape and revenge movie, told backwards". "That was the concept that was sold to the people who financed the movie."
Dialogue was improvised and Noe insists (though I did not notice) that at one point Cassel says his name is Vincent, though his character is called Marcus.
The film benefits from the chemistry between Cassel and Bellucci, who will be seen in The Matrix sequel later this year. "When they are holding each other in their arms, it’s natural," says Noe. "In most movies, when you see a couple having sex, they’re very stiff." But he dismissed the idea that Cassel and Belluci had sex for real, one of many bizarre rumours to attach themselves to Irreversible.
He has been delighted by the response of those who make the finishing line. "A lot of people cry at the end of the movie. Some people come out and smoke a cigarette. Some people go for a walk or a cigarette in the middle of the movie. Each person handles the movie as he wants...
"But anybody who goes to the theatre knows exactly what he is going to get."
You have been warned.