Gaspar Noé Understands Why Everyone Fixated on That ‘Irréversible’ Rape Scene

“When I saw ‘Straw Dogs’ I walked out during the rape scene,” the French director says, on the occasion of his own film's 20th-anniversary recut.
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 26: Gaspar Noe attends the screening of "Broker (Les Bonnes Etoiles)" during the 75th annual Cannes film festival at Palais des Festivals on May 26, 2022 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
Gaspar Noe
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Every self-respecting or self-hating cinephile has a relationship — whether twisted, confounding, adoring, appalled, or all of the above — to Gaspar Noé’s “Irréversible.” His 2002 would-have-been midnight movie turned international sensation told a rape-revenge story from back to front, starting with the resolution working backward to the events preceding a horrifying crime in a red-lit tunnel in Paris. It starred Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel, who were then still married and very much in love and looking for a project to do together. Noé was then a Cannes Critics’ Week wunderkind, high off the modest fumes of the success of 1998’s “I Stand Alone,” and not yet the shock-making director of subsequent films like “Enter the Void” and “Climax” we know now.

“Irréversible” is now being re-released theatrically with a “Straight Cut” — in other words, the sequence of the movie now recut into chronological order — that originated first as a bootleg DVD extra that happened upon Noe’s desk before he put together a proper revamp for the 2019 Venice Film Festival. For the first time, the “straight cut,” not to be confused with a director’s cut, is coming to U.S. theaters in a new DCP. The film, a worldwide box-office success at the time, loses none of its power but retains new perspective: It follows Marcus (Cassel) as he sets out on brutal revenge over the rape and beating of his girlfriend Alex (Bellucci), but we now see the action in chronological order, and it culminates in a crueler, perhaps more moralistic fashion.

IndieWire spoke with Noé about the new theatrical release and his musings on cinema overall after a near-death experience resulted in directing the end-of-life melodrama “Vortex” (released by MUBI last year) and got him sober after years of being high and drunk on set and in the creation of his screenplays for years.

“When it was released in some countries on DVD and Blu-ray, they added extras, and one day I received a DVD from Korea, and it was announced as an extra, ‘The chronological recut of ‘Irréversible,” and so I was surprised and I checked it, and it was so badly made that I didn’t go through it after three scenes, four scenes, I stopped [watching],” Noé said.

But later, he was compelled to revisit the film and make a more formal version of the bootleg recut, leading to the version that played at Venice that will now soon be on U.S. screens and in the hands of Blu-ray collectors. “The old cut is the director’s cut, and the new one is the director’s recut, but the recut is far more simple and more cruel than the old experimental conceptual cutting,” the director told IndieWire.

The legacy of “Irréversible” is inseparable from the nearly 10-minute-long rape scene that strikes in the middle of the movie, unfolding in an unbroken take. Noé had the complete complicity of his actors who, as he explained in our interview, were strangely laughing about the making of the scene on set. Noé also urges why his sophomore feature should be known as more than the Cannes Competition entry that inspired walkouts and confusion and disgust — and teases what’s next in his controversial career.

IndieWire: Are you surprised at all by the longevity of “Irréversible,” and what brought you back to it?

Gaspar Noé: Most people who have seen “Irréversible,” they think, “I remember it very well. I don’t know if I want to watch it again.” There are movies that are always in the top 10 of the most violent movies ever done, one of them is Pasolini’s “Salò,” the other one is “Cannibal Holocaust,” and my movie is always among the top three or top five. What’s weird is that people mostly remember the original “Irréversible” not for its backwards structure, its anti-chronological structure, but for the two scenes: the one of the sexual aggression and the one of the killing with the fire extinguisher. People talk about those scenes and nothing else. Even the press, when it came out, the movie was mostly in every single review reduced to those scenes. But against any expectation, the movie was a huge commercial success all over the planet. I didn’t expect to be in competition in Cannes for a movie that was meant to be shown in midnight theaters.

But you were inspired enough to recut the movie yourself?

I had in mind one day that I wanted to do a recut in chronological [order], and since that time, I was not rewatching the movie. I was making other movies. I wasn’t concerned. Every year, I had people telling me, “Your movie impressed me so much, I can’t get rid of that movie that I’ve seen just once.” When two years ago, the company StudioCanal, which owns the rights to “Irréversible,” asked me to supervise the remastering for Blu-ray and 2K and digital screenings on DCP, I got all the material, we did the color-grading, I had the editing facility that I was working with for eternity, and said, “Oh, this is the right moment to try and do a straight re-edit of the movie,” probably for an extra of the Blu-ray. But also, when we started editing it, we went very fast, the result was so strong, we said, “This movie has to be [re-]released,” not because we have anything new but because the perception of the characters and the perception of the story would be new.

It’s like the solution to a puzzle I created 20 years ago, that the solution or the answer to the question arrived after two decades. I thought it was beautiful to do it, and I thought it was playful to release it theatrically in many countries. The empathy you have for the characters is very different in the old version. Vincent Cassel was the hero. In this new version, the main heroes are the characters of Monica Bellucci and Albert Dupontel, and you kind of dislike, from the beginning, Vincent Cassel’s character.

What’s interesting about this version is how you perceive that act of vengeance much differently when the movie moves in sequence. A version of the “straight cut” premiered at Venice in 2019. The changes are minor. Revisiting the movie, were there things you regretted or wanted to do differently?

I mostly don’t want to watch my own movies. I haven’t rewatched “Enter the Void” since I released it since I suffer, as a director, I want to rearrange the movie, remix the sound, I want to recut the scenes. It’s painful for me to watch my old movies, unless you can be active, and in this case, I was remastering the movie and watching it all over. I was really happy that I could play this game that most movies cannot. In my case, [this] was probably the only movie released backwards that could be re-edited clockwise. The old cut is the director’s cut, and the new one is the director’s recut, but the recut is far more simple and more cruel than the old experimental conceptual cutting.

IRREVERSIBLE, Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, 2002
IrreversibleCourtesy Everett Collection

You made this movie with Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci when they were at the height of national obsession as a married couple, on the level of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Did this movie affect them or their reputation? They stayed married for another 10 years afterward.

They had already made two movies together before mine, “The Apartment” and “Dobermann.” My movie was a certain movie in which they were playing the main characters together. They were so madly in love at that time that they were almost asking people at that time, “Do you have an idea for us to play in a movie together?” They [were] always separated, and they wanted to be together most of the time, and they were already planning to have babies at the time.

The good thing is they probably felt stronger [on “Irréversible”] because they were together. If I had proposed the movie just to Monica and not to her husband, to be in the movie, probably I would have been more shy with her, probably, the scene of nudity [which opens the re-cut], I wouldn’t have done it because I wouldn’t have known Vincent Cassel had a girlfriend, so it was perfect to me they accepted to be in the movie as a couple. That generates the financing of the movie because when we started, I only had three pages script and no title. With just the names of Vincent and Monica, I got the financing, and also the third actor [Albert Dupontel] was very famous in France but not abroad, so for the foreign sales, he didn’t count, so [Cassel and Bellucci] made the movie possible. They carried the movie on their shoulders. They wanted to do their own [version of the] tough movies of the 70s. We were all raised watching movies like “Deliverance,” “Taxi Driver,” “Straw Dogs,” and we all wanted to do a movie of that family.

So it wasn’t like you were setting out to interrogate this iconography of “Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci the Couple,” as I think someone like Stanley Kubrick wanted to do with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman on “Eyes Wide Shut.”

The couple of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman was much more complicated because Tom Cruise is much more complicated. Vincent and Monica were very cool people that I would meet in parties. They were very open and very daring, so I didn’t need to convince them to be in the movie. There was an instance before I started “Irréversible,” they asked if I had an idea for them, and I proposed they play in a project called “Danger,” but then it [became] “Love” [Noé’s 2015 film starring Karl Glusman]. It had a lot of explicit scenes. They got scared by that project. They said, “We are not doing this project with so many erotic scenes, but if you had another project… I said, “Let’s do a rape-revenge movie backward,” they said, “OK, let’s do that one.” They were very happy that I had another rabbit to pull out of my hat.

So the financiers were ready to finance this erotic melodrama [“Love”] with the two of them when they said “no” to that project. They were all ready to put the money on the table… [Vincent and Monica] were really on my side of the movie to make something that would move the audience. It’s very hard to move an audience. All spectators know what’s happening on the screen is fake, so if you want them to have strong emotions, you better push their limits very far, because most people sleep in front of the screen.

Have you been frustrated by how much attention has been paid in the press to the rape scene in “Irréversible,” which is nearly 10 minutes long and shot in one take?

Yes, because I remember when I saw “Straw Dogs” by Sam Peckinpah, I walked out in the middle of the movie during the rape scene… It took me 10 years to rewatch the movie on VHS. Adrenaline fixes your memory. If you go to a party, you will not remember how pleasant it was the night after. You were drunk, you were wasted. You don’t remember that. You remember the physical fight you had with someone who slapped you in the face. You remember that vividly. Violence generates adrenaline, and adrenaline fixes the memory. When people see a movie that contains moments of simulated violence, you’ll have an adrenaline rush, and those memories are much more printed in your memory. Women sometimes have more problems with the murder scene than the rape scene. Most men are not shocked by the murder scene.

IRREVERSIBLE, Allbert Dupontel, Monica Belluci, Vincent Cassel, 2003. ©Lions Gate Films/Courtesy Everett Collection
“Irreversible”©Lions Gate/Courtesy Everett Collection

You’ve said that Monica Bellucci more or less directed this scene between her and one other actor, with you operating the camera.

I did not direct her playing; I directed the color of the set, I was operating the camera. When it came to her behavior, I said, “OK, you’re responsible for your [performance]. Also, the whole script was just three pages long and contained zero dialogue. For every scene of the movie, the actors are improvising their dialogue. I told Monica, “Here’s the guy who’s going to portray the aggressor. Let’s decide the limits of what you feel like doing.” Of course, we added his [genitals] in digital post-production, but at the end of each take, they were very proud of how they played the scene, but also they were laughing between the takes. Both Monica and Jo Prestia [who plays her rapist] said, “The audience is gonna scream!” That’s the funny part of making movies. It’s all imitation of life that looks more like magic than reality. At the end, if you want, you can accept that the actors were onscreen, they really did this. But most people have seen so many movies in their lives, they don’t believe anything is going on onscreen.

This movie would not be made today.

Nowadays, it would be impossible to get such a movie financed […] People are afraid of being accused of misbehaving or whatever.

And you’d have an intimacy coordinator on set.

That doesn’t exist in France.

Lionsgate released “Irréversible” in the U.S. in March 2003, almost a year after it premiered in Cannes.

There’s an agreement between all the big distributors that the highest rating they can afford is an R rating, which, of course, my movie would have been impossible to get.

You found a bit of a new audience with the release of “Climax” in 2019 from A24. What was that experience like, and would you repeat that?

I’m very glad they did such a good release, but they are more into releasing movies for a younger audience, and the movie I did after, “Vortex,” was a real melodrama of old age and dementia, so it was probably not the kind of movie they usually release.

You’ve talked about wanting your next project to be a documentary or something around young kids, now that you’ve done “Vortex.” Any of these projects coming to fruition?

I’m taking care of the restoration of [1991 short film] “Carne” and [1998 narrative feature debut] “I Stand Alone” because the [latter] movie only existed on 35 for its theatrical release. Now, I have to do a proper DCP and also make it possible to release it on Blu-ray, so right now, I’m taking care of getting the negatives to do that. I can’t tell you what my next production will be in terms of [whether] I’m going to start a narrative or documentary movie.

You had a brain hemorrhage just before the pandemic hit, and that moved you not only into a more ascetic lifestyle — you got sober and stopped smoking — but you almost made “Vortex,” which is about dying and old age. 

The good thing about being more sober than before is that you dream much more. When you go to bed drunk, you wake up in the morning, it’s very hard for you to remember your dreams. Now, every morning I remember my dreams, and sometimes too many.

The “straight cut” of “Irréversible” premieres at New York’s IFC Center and Los Angeles Landmark Nuart on February 10, followed by a national rollout.

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