A lot of people who saw Christopher Nolan's Memento for the first time wanted to see it again right away, to look for clues they missed within its reverse-chronological timeline. Audacious young French director Gaspar Noé's Irreversible similarly unfolds from end to beginning, but I doubt many viewers will rush to see it a second time.

Noé served as writer, director, cinematographer and editor on Irreversible; my guess is, nobody else was willing to help him. The film is technically awesome, but it's physically agonizing to watch. Noé purposefully set out to make the ugliest, most sickening movie he could, and he succeeded. Did he ever: Audiences at screenings have been leaving in droves, passing out, puking in the aisles, crying like babies. If you thought Noé's previous feature, I Stand Alone, was brutal, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

The movie does not ease you gently into despair; it attacks, first pummeling your eyeballs with a flashing strobe, then plunging you too quickly into dizzying horror. The camera, half upside-down, roams loopily through a jail cell like a drunken angel, caressing the fat yellow flesh of a prisoner (Philippe Nahon of I Stand Alone) as he confesses his crime. Then it tumbles sideways toward a filthy doorway marked "RECTUM" in pink neon. Outside the doors, cops mill around, bystanders shout curses and a stretcher is wheeled out. The camera veers into Rectum, a gay S&M club, where it moves as if carelessly tossed through a labyrinth of darkened hallways, catching occasional red-lit glimpses of rough-sex scenes. All you hear are shrieks of rage and lust ("Fist me! Come on, man, fist me!"), sirens, the violent splats of fluids hitting flesh, and a migraine-inducing, almost subliminal drone that was supposedly engineered for the sole purpose of making you feel physically uncomfortable. And that's just the first few minutes.

The film's theme--"time destroys everything"--is slammed home in a more-than-uncomfortably long and graphic rape scene. As the gorgeous, voluptuous Italian starlet Monica Bellucci is brutalized in a filthy underground passageway, the camera stares unblinkingly from ground level, neither prurient nor sympathetic, just coldly observant. As awful as it is to watch, this crime--like the bloody reaction of the victim's avengers (Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel)--grows ever more horrible in "retrospect." The more you learn about these characters and what happened before the attack, the more poignant the end (or beginning) of the film becomes. It's like watching a gory train wreck in fast-forward and reverse at the same time--and then finding out the train was full of kindergarteners, and one of them was yours. Irreversible is a stunning achievement, but it is absolutely not for the faint of heart.


Not Rated (Adults Only) Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. Friday- Thursday, March 28- April 3.