Since at least as far back as Faulkner, non-linear treatment of time has become increasingly commonplace, an appropriate depiction of subjective experience and a reaction to a fractured sense of existence that doesn't allow us to view the world in a logical, ordered manner. Although previous authors had experimented with different narrative strategies that rejected a straight ahead sequencing of events, with The Sound and the Fury and Absalom and Absalom Faulkner posited a radical departure from accepted narrative sequencing. By the 21st century, this form of storytelling has become an accepted narrative strategy that authors can draw from in their work and has extended to other narrative art forms such as cinema.
If a work is to employ such a strategy, however, it must be for justifiable reasons. It must, in other words, be the best way to tell a given story or it must have something important to say about the nature of time. In Christopher Nolan's 2000 film Memento, the director's decision to tell the story in reverse was at least partly succesful since the dislocation of the audience mirrored the dislocation of the amnesiac hero. In addition, the film questioned the very nature of memory, a questioning directly linked to time. So, despite the film's other shortcomings, its use of non-linear narrative strategies was justified. It is worth noting that the film is not told in strict reverse order, which would be a form of linear narrative. Instead, the director shows a scene in sequential order and then shows the scene that happened before it in sequential order, telling the story both forwards and backwards.
Gaspar Noé's celebrated 2002 film Irreversible uses a similar approach, but with far less success. The final image of Noe's film, an abstract grey background with a jarring light flashing through, encapsulates the entire film. It is flashy, unpleasant to look at, and ultimately pointless. In Noé's film, the decision to tell the story in reverse (in a similar manner to Memento) feels like one more gimmick to go along with the flashy camerawork, seedy locations, and famed twelve minute rape scene. Noé feels the need to dress up a relatively straightforward story of revenge to lend weight to an otherwise uninteresting tale. The backwards narrative does not create a sense of mystery as in Nolan's picture, since the story offers little for the audience to discover. Nor can Noé's film be said to be succesful as an exercise in style, since it is so overloaded in effect that it offers little for the eye to appreciate, save for the lovely Monica Belluci. Belluci is set up as a sacrificial victim by Noé, first to be raped, then to talk about sex, then to lie naked on a bed until she becomes just one more object of the director's visual overload. Ultimately, the director's flash, exemplified by his half-baked decision to tell his story backwards, cannot overcome an uninspired and unpleasant film. Faulkner may have oppened up these new narrative possibilities, but he cannot take the blame for their abuse.