Irreversible, the second full-length feature by the Franco-Argentinean director, Gaspar Noé, is a powerful, controversial film, capable of provoking extreme reactions in viewers. It came to the BBFC for classification in September 2002, carrying ahead of it a reputation for disturbing and dividing audiences.

The film has been cited by some critics as an example of New French Extremism - and by others as ‘Cinema of the Body’: a collection of transgressive films made around the start of the 21st century, by French film directors that also include Catherine Breillat, Bruno Dumont, Virginie Despentes and François Ozon.

Before being submitted to the BBFC for theatrical release in the UK, the film competed at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2002, where it was nominated for the Palme D’Or. During the screening, over 200 audience members walked out in disgust, whilst a handful reportedly fainted and required medical attention – but those who stayed the course gave the film a five minute standing ovation.

Some critics who left the screening early described it as ‘sick’ and ‘gratuitous’. Irreversible went on to win two international film festival awards, including the Bronze Horse at the 2002 Stockholm Film Festival, and was nominated for several others.

The project was created by the director in close collaboration with his two stars - the real life married couple, Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci - using a largely improvised script. Employing a reverse chronological timeline, it depicts a horrifically brutal rape and assault on a woman, and explores the repercussions as her boyfriend and ex-boyfriend hunt down the culprit to exact a violent revenge.

The film was seen by a number of examiners, as well as by the Director at the time, Robin Duval, together with the BBFC Presidents. There was strong support for passing the work uncut at 18, despite many examiners declaring the film to be both challenging and gruelling.

UK classification considerations were focussed around two key scenes:

  • a fatal attack on a man in a club, at the end of the lengthy opening scene, where a fire extinguisher is used to smash the victim’s head into a bloody pulp
  • the extended, traumatic rape of Bellucci’s character, Alex, in an urban underpass

The bloody violence in the earlier of the two scenes is unusually explicit, with an almost seamless use of CGI effects and props to depict a man being battered repeatedly in the face with a fire extinguisher, over 20 times. Many, if not all, of the blows are fully visible and foregrounded, with his face eventually collapsing as the blows continue, accompanied by wince-inducing, loud sound effects, and bones and bloody flesh flying off under the impact. The Board considered the scene justifiable in the context of the narrative as a whole, and that there were no convincing grounds for intervention at 18.  The film did not glamorise or promote such violence, nor was there any attempt to encourage audience complicity. Cutting the scene to reduce the number of blows or gory detail would have served no useful purpose regarding the impact of the scene on the audience.

The rape of Alex at knifepoint is notorious primarily for the length of the scene – around nine minutes – although it is also very aggressive in tone. The assault is punctuated throughout by strong crude verbal abuse, and ends with the rapist bashing Alex’s face bloodily and repeatedly into the ground, below frame, and punching and kicking her inert body. The scene is filmed in ‘real time’, with a fixed camera.  There is an almost complete absence of any cinematic devices such as editing to offer any relief from the horror, and the viewer is thus held hostage to Alex’s ordeal for a seemingly endless period.

A shocking or unpleasant viewing experience is not sufficient grounds in the UK for censorship of material intended for adult consumption. However, scenes which eroticise or appear to endorse sexual violence have always been of particular concern both to the BBFC and to the public.

The Board therefore closely scrutinised the rape, weighing it against BBFC Guidelines and policy on sexual violence. Despite the unprecedented length of the scene, the BBFC considered that it was not the film’s intention to titillate, trivialise nor convey any impression other than that Alex’s ordeal is unequivocally appalling. Whilst there are occasionally explicit images of sexual activity at other points in the film, in this rape scene Noé has limited the scope for any potential audience arousal by showing minimal nudity and sexual detail, and by his positioning the camera to exclude any sense of audience participation in the action. There were fewer eroticising or ambiguous elements than in scenes of sexual violence in other adult films, such as Straw DogsA Ma SoeurA Clockwork Orange and Baise-moi, with no exploitative use of close up or slow motion shots. The focus of the scene is on Alex’s suffering and degradation – with not the slightest suggestion that she might be enjoying the attack. The rapist is portrayed as a hate-filled, psychotic sadist, with whom most viewers would find it almost impossible to identify or empathise.

However, the BBFC additionally sought advice from a clinical forensic psychiatrist about the potential effects on an audience of watching the whole film, and the rape scene in particular. She agreed that the scene is “… a harrowing and vivid portrayal of the brutality of rape. However, it contains no explicit sexual images and is not designed to titillate”. The BBFC was therefore satisfied that no issue of harm arose in the context of a cinema release for adult viewing, and that no cuts were required before an 18 certificate could be awarded. The BBFC therefore passed the film uncut in October 2002.
The BBFC noted in its press release on the film that if Irreversible were to be subsequently submitted for video release, then the BBFC “… will need to consider any potential for harm that might arise from the rape scene being taken out of context and viewed repeatedly”.  A consideration for video release was indeed requested soon afterwards, in December 2002.  The Board again discussed whether there existed any possible grounds under the Video Recordings Act 1984 for recommending cuts to the film, given the greater ease and potential for underage viewing of material designed for home viewing. Meanwhile, Noé was reportedly – and not unnaturally - vehemently opposed to making any changes to his work for the UK video market, stating his preference for instead withdrawing the film from the classification process altogether, should any changes be required.

Additional perspectives on the subject of possible cuts were provided by two further mental health specialists, who watched the film, and stated their expert opinions. Both agreed that – whilst undeniably disturbing - the film makes an important statement about the horror of rape, and represents a highly aversive portrayal of sexual violence. It was therefore considered “… unlikely to be used as stimulus material, or evoke ‘copycat’ actions”. 

The video release of Irreversible was consequently passed at 18 uncut in March 2003. The film also formed part of the BFI season of uncut and controversial films, screened in November 2012 to mark the centenary of the BBFC.