(N.B. While the film is shown in reverse order, this summary is written in chronological order and so begins with the final scene and works towards the beginning, ignoring the opening and ending scenes.)
Alex ( Monica Bellucci) is seen lying on the grass in a park reading An Experiment in Time by John William Dunne with children running around her. Later on in the afternoon, we see her and her boyfriend, Marcus ( Vincent Cassel), after having sex. During this time, they recieve a phone call from their friend Pierre ( Albert Dupontel) who reminds them of the party they are going to that night. While the couple being to get ready, Alex mentions that she thinks she may be pregnant and, once Marcus has left the apartment to get a bottle of wine, she takes a pregnancy test, revealing she is right.
That evening, the couple meet with Pierre and take the Metro to get to the party. During this train ride, it's revealed that Pierre is Alex's ex-boyfriend and that he is relatively insecure about their relationship compared to her relationship with Marcus.
Later, at the party, Marcus and Pierre separate from Alex and go upstairs to a bathroom where Marcus does a line or two of coke and gropes several other women while Pierre tries to keep him from going too far. This doesn't work. When they return downstairs to see Alex, she is annoyed by Marcus' behaviour and leaves. Pierre stops her at the door and offers to take her home, she's thankful but insists on travelling on her own.
Alex leaves the party and travels down to the Metro station. While walking along the underpass, she sees a pimp assaulting one of his prostitutes. She's visibly conflicted about what to do but decides to carry on and try to walk past. The pimp notice and turns his attention to Alex, pulling out a knife before raping and as she tried to escape, he assaults her.
As Marcus and Pierre leave the party, they see an ambulance taking a woman away. Upon getting closer, Marcus realises it's Alex and becomes enraged. Pierre attempts to calm him down and ends up explaining his situation to the police. While this is going on, Mourad ( Mourad Khima) and another local thug stop Marcus and explain to him that they found the I.D. of a man named Guillermo Nuñez in the underpass before the police arrived. Mourad convinces Marcus that the police won't find the culprit and he should take the I.D. to go hunt him down. By the time Pierre has been interviewed, Marcus has made up his mind and together, they hunt for the rapist.
First, they head to the local red light district where they eventually find Nuñez, a transexual prostitute and also the person the pimp was assulting earlier in the underpass ( Jara-Millo). After being threatened by Marcus with a piece of broken glass, she reveals the man they're after is only known as Le Tenia ( Jo Prestia) and that he is likely to be in the gay S&M nightclub known as The Rectum. Upon seeing this, a group of other prostitutes come and chase the group, with Marcus and Pierre being forced to jump into a taxi.
While in the cab, Marcus is inconlsolable and berates the Chinese taxi driver until he threatens to throw them out. As Pierre tries to calm the situation, Marcus gets violent and hijacks the vehicle. As neither of them know where this nightclub is, they stop and Marcus frantically checks cafes and bystanders to see if any of them know the way. Eventually he finds a man who points him in the right direction.
Inside, Marcus navigates the dark and labyrinthine nightclub hunting for Le Tenia. After hunting through several groups of men, he reaches the man he believes to be Le Tenia and starts to fight him. He's quickly taken down by this man and, while on the floor, gets his arm broken. Marcus is unable to move as the man pulls his trousers down and attempts to rape him but before anything happens, Pierre smashes the attacker's head in repeatedly with a fire extinguisher. While this is happening, Le Tenia is seen in the background cheering Pierre on.
Pierre is then seen in handcuffs being led away by the police and Marcus is taken in an ambulance with the public shouting homophobic insults at them.
The Opening and Closing Scenes
(N.B. This section is in the chronology of the movie rather than the characters)
The film opens with the credits going backwards, immediately setting the movie's inverted chronology in motion, before showing us two men in a room. One is The Butcher, the main character from Noé's previous film I Stand Alone, and in a drunken monologue, he says that time destroys everything. In the final scenes, after the disorientating view of the park sprinkler, the words LES TEMPS DETRUIT TOUT, French for 'Time destroys everything', appear on screen. This message is clearly reflected in the actions of the movie with the blissful ending counteracting the vicious beginning.
The soundtrack to the movie was provided by Thomas Bangalter, one half of the French house duo Daft Punk, and features excerpts from legendary composers Ludwig Van Beethoven, Gustav Mahler and Étienne Daho. In America, the soundtrack was released as if it were a solo album by Bangalter and so had the classical tracks removed.
During the opening half hour, there is a low frequency sound being played at all times which helps to create a sense of disorientation during the already confusing scenes inside and approaching The Rectum.
Critical and Public Reception
Unsurprisingly, this film split the critics into either gushing praise or vehement criticism, something clearly reflected in its Rotten Tomatoes score. In Roger Ebert's review, he believes the film to have a moral underpinning by showing the act of vengeance before the rape and so it avoids the tappings of exploitation cinema. Meanwhile, Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times believes that the structure of the film is little more than an excuse to allow the gratuitous violence to take place.
During the premiere at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, 250 crowd members walked out and 20 more fainted and required medical attention. BBC Film Critic Mark Kermode had to help carry a man out who fainted beside him.
Since release, the film and the director, Gaspar Noé, have come under criticism as being homophobic. The arguement being the joy of the heterosexual relationship between Marcus and Alex is juxtaposed by the grim and depraved actions of Le Tenia and the clientele of The Rectum. Noé has responded to this criticism by explaining that Le Tenia was written as a homosexual character as to not imply that the rape was sexual but rather part of man's desire to destroy. He also digitally inserted a clip of himself masturbating into the background of the scenes inside The Rectum nightclub.