There is almost something Duchampian about reversing the order of one’s own film, like hanging a painting upside down. Though in this case the flip, rather than creating strangeness, is a righting of sorts. Gaspar Noé’s sophomore feature, Irreversible (2002), was shot with a three-page outline of 12 scenes that were improvised in chronological order and then reversed in the film’s editing. Ironically, the radical formal choice of Irreversible: Straight Cut (2019) is to place the events back in chronological order. It’s graceful and clever, even literary in its boldness, and yet ultimately generous to viewers who struggled with the original’s “invasive conceptual” aspect. With this seemingly simple idea enacted, what was once a brutal, fatalistic vision of intractable violence and the immutability of time becomes a drama in which the characters' psychologies and relationships, expertly rendered by the cast, take center stage, allowing for a more direct descent into abject barbarity.
Gaspar Noé took the time to speak with me about Irreversible: Straight Cut, how it came about, what it means now, and to point out that seeking revenge while on cocaine is a bad idea.
Chris Shields: When did you first see the film in this state?
Gaspar Noé: When Irreversible was released, the original cut was all in anti-chronological order. The movie was then put on DVD in many countries. And one day I got a copy from Korea, and [the distributor] had improvised a very badly made recut of the movie as an extra, putting things in chronological order. I watched it, and it was so badly done it pissed me off. They were not allowed to do it, but they had done it. I said, “Shit, it looks like shit.” But the idea seemed good to me. And I said, “One day, probably, one day I'll do my own recut in a chronological order.”
When I was editing the first cut in 2002, my producers were always coming to the editing room like, "Ah, do you want to try how it looks, uh, in a chronological order? It would probably be simpler." Yeah, it's going to be too simple, so I refused to try this straight cut at the time. But two years ago, when the owners of the rights of Irreversible contacted me for the remastering of the original movie, they said, "Do you want to check it or supervise it?" And I said, "Well, of course I'll supervise the remastering of the movie." At that time, I was editing the movie Lux Æterna (2019) in my own facilities.
I received all the material from Irreversible with the right color grading and in high definition. And I said, "Well, now is probably the best moment ever to try that recut that I dreamt of for two decades.” And we did it. And initially they thought that I would want it to be released just as an extra on the Blu-ray, to make people buy more DVDs. But the result was so strong that I decided that I wanted to put it in a film festival like Cannes or Venice—it went to Venice—and also that I wanted this Straight Cut to have a theatrical release.
CS: And what were some of the reactions?
GN: Many people who saw the new cut said, "Oh, we like it better." Some other people said, "We like the first one better." But I like them both, and it's like two versions of the same song. Sometimes, on records, you have a side A and a side B, and they're two interpretations of the same song. One has a voice and the other is instrumental. Now we have the original reverse or experimental cut and the straight, simple, chronological cut on the other side of the Blu-ray.
CS: How do you think this “straight cut” changes the film?
If you take this movie for what it is, it's exactly as we shot it at the time. We shot the movie in the summer of 2001, and the whole script was just made of three pages with 12 scenes. We were improvising all the scenes in a chronological order, and what you see now is the movie that we shot in five and a half weeks, as it was shot. I didn't add anything to the previous cut. I even cut a little bit, the links between the scenes. This version is three or four minutes shorter than the other one. But I didn't cut any dialogue, I didn't cut any action.
Because it's all told in a more simple way, you can get more attached to the different characters in the movie, and you can understand the situation clearly. You can also get deeper and deeper into the nightmare that the characters are supposed to live.
The ending of this movie seems much more cruel than the ending of the previous one, because the drama evolves during the night of the story. And in the version that is told backwards, what you see at the end is the day before the drama. It was a kind of melancholic ending that made it softer. In this case, things go wrong, and wrong, and wronger and wronger, until they hit the bottom. It’s like I tell people: “If you want to see a feel-bad movie, this is the ultimate feel-bad movie that no one would finance ever.” [laughs]
CS: I watched it again this morning at 7 a.m. and said to myself, “This is an interesting movie to watch at this time.” (laughs) When I saw the original version of Irreversible, Marcus, Alex, and Pierre—despite the conceptual aspect—they're characters I’ve always remembered. They're very particular; I feel like I know them. And you talked a little bit about that. There's a different experience with the characters in this version.
GN: In the previous version, the character played by Monica [Bellucci] appears in the middle of the movie. The movie starts with the characters portrayed by Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel, and then, in the middle of the movie, the female character appears. You are already attached to other characters, and most people prefer the character of Vincent Cassel in the older version. He’s driving your attention or your empathy through the whole movie. And you don't get attached to Monica's character as much because the moment you see her is when the drama happens. You’re overwhelmed so you cannot get into her head because of the situation in which you see her for the first time. In the case of this new cut, the movie starts with Monica, and so she's the center of the movie. She's gorgeous, she's intelligent, she's touching. When the story unfolds in this way, you're inside her head and when the drama happens with this sexual aggressor, you're on her side totally.
Scenes that were not very visible about Marcus's character, in the case of this new cut, you get less attached to his character because he really feels more like an abominable monkey. What’s weird is I did not add anything to this new cut, but now you can see more of Vincent Cassel's character’s responsibility in the drama. Which was not the case in the other cut. If you were to explain the events to an attorney, or whatever, it's an example of how the sense of the story can affect your perception of the story.
CS: And in each ordering, each version kind of redeems a different person. I had much more sympathy for Pierre in this.
GN: Yeah, because when you see him in the original version, the first moment you see him, he is killing someone. And you hate this guy who is a brutal killer. In this case, it's the opposite. He's a good guy. You really get attached to this guy [who] is much wiser and more loving. At the end, he ends up killing someone, not even to save her, because she's already in the hospital, [but] to save his bad friend who stole his girlfriend. He ends up killing someone who is not even guilty of anything. But you attach to him, and he's heroic in this case. In the other version, the same character—with the same series of events—seemed like a psychotic criminal.
CS: And the scenes rhyme differently now at the beginning and the end of the film. You see different aspects of these men's aggression.
GN: It’s very interesting. That's one of the reasons I wanted to release theatrically, because I had never seen any book that you could read both ways—from the beginning to the end, from the end to the beginning—or a movie that could be told both ways and released both ways. And, because I had shot the movie chronologically, it could be made. It’s probably the first and last movie that will ever permit the double edit. [laughs]
CS: I’ve always loved the formal aspect of the original. Watching this version, I was like, “This is transgressive, to flip your movie upside down.” But the flipping, in this case, becomes more humane, and more generous to certain viewers. Ostensibly more conventional.
GN: In Ancient Greece, tragedies would tell you how the story's going to end before they tell you how it went from point A to point B. But in dramas you don't know how the story is going to finish. In the previous version it was a tragedy. In this case, you don't know the ending. So it’s now a drama.
For the newcomers, it's going to be a Death Wish  movie in which someone gets raped, and so the men go for revenge. But it's awkward because they don't kill the right person. For those who have seen the previous version, it's just like the solution to their puzzle, but it's a very humane solution, because you understand how everything went wrong.
CS: I think it's a refutation of violence when you see that they get the wrong guy…
GN: Probably revenge on coke, it's not the most clever revenge in general. When they decide to take revenge, they are drunk, and Vincent Cassel's character is on coke, so he is out of his mind. On every single thing there are big chances that he is going to fail at his revenge.
CS: That struck me too. I was like, “Don't make any big decisions on coke,” you know?
The original is fatalistic, and there's this sense of the unforgivingness of time. You're watching the intractability of certain actions. It has such a strong emotional and conceptual meaning. Now, in this form, it's a different film. Do you see or intend a different meaning?
GN: It tells you that the arrow of time is not always going the same way. For example, Alex has a premonition: she dreams of a red tunnel. And she doesn't understand the dream she had before she goes to the party and everything goes wrong. So, this is one element that tells you that time is not as everybody thinks it is. But that time is much more complex than what we perceive in our everyday lives.
CS: Have Bellucci or Cassel seen the film in this version?
GN: Yeah, of course, and they're very proud. Monica was hyper excited too that the movie was coming out again, so we went to Venice and she defended it, and she even said that it was a feminist movie made by a man. [laughs] Yeah, in any case, it's a “testosterophobic” movie for sure. As a man, you know what testosterone is made of, and you know how wrong it can go. It's like a dark portrayal of testosterone.
CS: It's a movie that a lot of people have written about it. A lot of people have talked about it, thought about it; it made a huge impact. What is it like to return to it over 20 years later?
GN:I thought it was funny because I released the movie in 2020, and the original one was released in 2002, so it's just like if you reversed the two numbers. [laughs]
I'm happy that I finally could do it without going back to the lab and recutting the original negative of the movie. Some people would do that with the different edits of a movie and then the original cut would disappear. And nowadays, everything is transferred to digital, so it was very easy, technically speaking.
I don't mind that I had to wait. The weird thing is that the world has changed a lot in many ways, but also in its representation of violence and sexuality. This new cut, that would be impossible to produce today, comes out and [laughs] its content is out of its time, it's like an accident of the past come to the present. Even 20 years ago, when I directed Irreversible, I would never have seen such a pessimistic cut of the movie. That’s also why I like the reverse cut, because nowadays I say, “OK, well, it's time to show the straight, pessimistic version of the story.”
Irreversible: Straight Cut opens Friday at IFC Center