Gaspar Noé’s steely-eyed 1998 feature I Stand Alone was like a French Taxi Driver — only 22 years bleaker. It took us deep inside the mind of an enraged racist butcher who beat pregnant women, longed to sleep with his autistic daughter and (rather like some columnist for The American Spectator) described France as a “shithole of cheese and Nazi-lovers.” The movie divided not only audiences but individuals. When it premiered at Cannes, I asked an English critic his opinion. “I hate it,” he said. “It’s a masterpiece.”

The same polarized response has greeted his wantonly assaultive new film, Irreversible, an art-house rape-and-revenge flick that unfolds in reverse like a demonic version of Memento. But this time, far more viewers have been stomping out of festival theaters — at Cannes, at Edinburgh, at Sundance. That’s no surprise, for Noé is a punk provocateur who loves rubbing your nose in dung. Here he serves up gratuitously explicit footage of a fire extinguisher smashing a man’s head like a melon, followed by an already infamous anal-rape scene that runs nearly 10 minutes. Caveat emptor.

Irreversible roars into horror-show high gear with Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) bursting into a gay sex club, the Rectum, that’s like the worst acid trip John Ashcroft could ever imagine, a teeming beehive of sanguinary light, leering blowjobs and guys fucking other guys against walls. Someone gets murdered, and then, almost before we’ve registered what’s going on, Marcus and Pierre are suddenly shown on their way to the Rectum, and we gradually grasp that the story’s being told in reverse. Things keep moving back in time until the pivotal sequence in which Alex (Monica Bellucci) walks into a pedestrian underpass wearing a dress so clingingly wispy — a suggestion of perky nipples has actually been sewn into the silken fabric — that you immediately wonder whether Noé is saying that she’s begging to be raped. Which, of course, is precisely what happens, in graphic, though not pornographic, detail. (There’s nothing remotely sexy about it.) Alex’s savage violation casts a shadow over everything that “preceded” it — we now understand the motive behind the opening murder — and everything that follows, as the film moves backward through a rowdy party sequence, a jolly métro ride and some tender, post-coital moments back in Alex’s apartment. Gliding ever more swiftly into a hopeful past, we see, as the characters cannot, the fragility of their happiness.

The opening 50 minutes are brutal, but if you can take the punishment, you’ll probably be wowed by Noé’s skills as a filmmaker. Each scene in Irreversible was done in a single shot of roughly 10 minutes, and they’ve been welded together seamlessly: It feels as if we’re watching time unspool backward. Noé is a full-service auteur — he wrote, directed, shot and edited the film — and formally Irreversible is a tour de force, from its stunning wide-screen compositions to its ever-modulating camera style, which begins in a hallucinatory frenzy at the Rectum and gradually grows calm, even pensive, as the story moves Alex, Marcus and Pierre back toward the night’s peaceful beginnings.

Although Noé is notorious for ratcheting things up until you want to jump out of your skin (if he made slasher films, they’d induce heart attacks), Irreversible’s most interesting scenes may well be the “normal” ones, which capture the slippery sexual dynamic of Alex, her lover Marcus and her shifty ex-boyfriend Pierre; there is, for example, a hilarious bit on the subway when the overbrainy Pierre is horrified to learn that Alex has orgasms with Marcus, though she rarely if ever did with him. A superb director of actors, Noé wins Bellucci’s most natural performance in years, helps Dupontel evoke Pierre’s worm-in-the-apple slyness, and pushes Cassel to a rich, versatile performance that plays like backward Method acting: As the movie progresses, he gets quieter and more internal, moving from rampaging fury to touching tenderness.

I’ve heard complaints that if the story hadn’t been told in reverse, it would be obvious how thin it really is. While that’s undeniably true, such an objection could be raised to the whole career of Alain Resnais. The movie’s real problem lies in its flaccid intellectual underpinnings. Insofar as Noé has any ideas (and, being French, he feels that he must), they’re a cassoulet of male clichés that border on the idiotic. If you’ve seen Straw Dogs, you’re not surprised to find proto-fascist blood lust lurking inside an overintellectualizing Parisian limp-dick. If you know your Noé, and are familiar with Bellucci’s ample bosom, you can predict that this film will use her as a fertility goddess or feminine principle who gets abused by men — a madonna treated like a whore. Even more than Norman Mailer, Noé subscribes to a gaga metaphysics of the orifice: front side good, back side bad. Nowhere is this more blatant than in Noé’s treatment of the sex club, a conception so thick with homosexual panic that it makes Jimmy Kimmel look like Elton John. Despite the harrowing violence, I found myself chuckling at just how banal Noé’s idea of evil can be. (Ooh . . . sodomy!) Later, I again had to stifle laughter when Marcus, who’s learned the whereabouts of Alex’s rapist, keeps grabbing people and screaming, “Ou est le Rectum?” Ou, indeed.

George Orwell wrote that Salvador Dali was a genius — from the wrist down. I’m tempted to say that Noé is a genius from the retina out, but the truth is actually trickier than that. He’s a surrealist trapped in the blood-spattered uniform of a torturer. The totalitarian bully in Noé wants to control our emotions, as he did in I Stand Alone when he used random offscreen gunfire to keep us continually on edge. Here, he carries on with Alex’s rape long after we’ve grasped its horror — and long after we’ve become horrified that we’re no longer horrified. Noé’s not turned on by sexual violence the way Brian De Palma has seemed to be; rather, he gets off on the idea that we won’t like watching it. His filmmaking hero is Stanley Kubrick (Noé calls Irreversible his Eyes Wide Shut, though it’s really more like A Clockwork Orange), and they clearly share a certain misanthropy, a certain homophobia and a desire to clobber the audience. But where Kubrick’s baleful vision was mature in its breadth of interest, Noé too often seems like a post-adolescent bad boy who’s read a few slim volumes of Bataille and now is hell-bent on proving that the rest of us can’t face up to reality as unflinchingly as he does. At his worst, he seems prepared to keep working us over until we start shrieking, “I admit it! Life is buggery! Deep down we’re all killers! I’m so bourgeois I can’t bear seeing the truth!”

Of course, many modern artists are cheapjack nihilists, but it doesn’t much matter — they don’t have the talent to put their vicious imaginings across. Noé does, and what gives his work such primal force is that he’s also an authentic surrealist. His work gets under our skin because it starts out under his, in the dreamy netherworld of the unconscious. You can’t intellectualize the rage that fills I Stand Alone’s horsemeat butcher; you can only feel it and tap into it. You can’t choose to portray a gay club with such visceral fear and loathing; it must spring from deep in your belly. Like David Lynch, Noé is drawn to things he doesn’t want to understand or control. (Indeed, Irreversible is rife with obsessional imagery, like that symbolic series of tunnels linking the Rectum to the rectum.)

It would take a psychologist to explain why, like a husband who can only feel love for his wife after he’s beaten her, Noé once again needs to frog-march us through a chamber of horrors before he allows any glimpse of peace. That peacefulness does come in the last third of Irreversible, which slowly builds to an idyll of creative, intimate love between Alex and Marcus (Bellucci and Cassel are a real-life couple). Although the movie’s tag line — and its original title — is “Time destroys all things,” that’s not really the point, for Noé shows us how art puts things back together again. If you find yourself at all moved by the film, as I unexpectedly was, it’s because Noé hacks his way through all that nightmarish violence to discover human beings in a state of radiant innocence. Indeed, the movie’s final shot is a portrait of bliss that may be the most thrilling movie image you’ll see this year, a vision of heaven to match the hell of the beginning.

But then, as the film closes, Gaspar the Torturer reappears, assailing us with a technique made famous by Tony Conrad’s 1966 film, The Flicker — a series of strobing flashes known to cause headaches and nausea and epileptic attacks. It says all you need to know about this amazing director’s profound human limitations that he deliberately chooses to end with something that might give his audience seizures.

IRREVERSIBLE | Written and directed by GASPAR NOÉ Produced by CHRISTOPHE ROSSIGNON | Released by Lions Gate Films | At the Regent Showcase, Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, Laemmle’s Playhouse

LA Weekly