Directed by Gaspar Noé, starring Vincent Cassel, Monica Belluci, Albert Dupontel, Philippe Nahon, Joe Prestia, Stephane Drouot, Jean Louis Costes, Mourad Khima.

Cannes audience members gagging, a frenzy whipped up by an all-too-willing press and film censors waiting nervously in the wings: Gaspar Noé's 'Irreversible' has certainly had an impact since its world premiere in France in May 2002.

Told in reverse order - á la Christopher Nolan's 'Memento' - 'Irreversible' is, essentially, a disturbingly gritty tale of rape and retribution. But while most of the column inches which have been devoted to the film have concentrated completely on two scenes, it is worth pointing out that there is a broader canvas here.

The film opens as a distraught and strung out Marcus (Cassel) and his friend Pierre (Dupontel) roam around dingy Paris streets looking for a character called 'Le Tenia'. Having been directed towards a hardcore S&M gay club, the duo get involved in an altercation in which they beat a man to death with a fire extinguisher.

The swirling camerawork, red strobe lighting and nauseating sonic assault of this opening section are, in themselves, deeply unsettling. But when the camera slows and steadies, and you can actually decipher the violence that is occurring, the unsettling feeling gives way to utter repulsion as we see a man's face pummelled into semi-solid mush.

Back we go to the motivation for the brutal murder, as we see Alex, Marcus's girlfriend, subjected to a catatonia-inducing nine-minute anal rape. Along with the violence of the fire extinguisher scene, the rape and its subsequent assault has provoked the most vehement reaction from detractors, with accusations of misogyny, exploitation and voyeurism being directed at Noé. At this point, you may well tend to agree.

But as the narrative continues to wind back we see a whole different set of circumstances. Indeed, the latter half of the film is like a different movie; here we have light, love and happiness, a veritable heaven to the hell that we've just seen.

As we edge closer to the end/beginning of the film, we see a beautiful scene in which Belluci's character finds out that she is pregnant. It is a deeply moving piece, touchingly acted by the Italian actress. And when we remind ourselves of the way the narrative has been working, it becomes even more moving.

The ambiguous ending throws up many questions. As does its motif of 'time destroys everything'. The latter can be construed as Noé's thesis that there's no point in enjoying life's beautiful moments because they will eventually be eviscerated by the evil that surrounds us. That's what 'Irreversible' does. It guts us mentally and physically.

But if we accept the director's relentlessly depressing take on things, then by extension can we not accept that time can destroy the bad as well as the good? When you replay the scenes of the film in their ostensible chronological order, you'll certainly want to hold on to the latter thought.

Many people have, quite rightly, questioned the process whereby movie critics automatically deem art house movies worthy simply because of the subtitles. Hollywood violence is routinely dismissed as gratuitous and exploitative, while if it's from France (or anywhere else outside the English-speaking world) it's labelled 'challenging', 'brave' and 'provocative'. This is, of course, elitist hypocrisy.

But not all arty films push the boundaries simply just to shock. Admittedly, many if not most will go to see 'Irreversible' solely on the hype which has surrounded its disturbingly graphic material. But as the mental haze wrought by the visceral imagery slowly clears, a powerful film of lasting emotional resonance will gradually begin to appear.

Tom Grealis