Enter The Void
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“DMT only lasts for six minutes, but it really seems like an eternity. It releases the same chemical your brain receives when you die. It’s a little like dying would be the ultimate trip.” —Alex, Enter The Void
“Die? Well, you don’t scare me, doc, ’cause dying would be a stone groove.” —Homer, The Simpsons (“Homerpalooza”)
There’s no question director Gaspar Noé, a world-class provocateur, seeks to challenge, almost for sport, the limits of what an audience can handle. And he does it with a certain degree of swagger, too: His 1998 debut feature, I Stand Alone, an unsettling response (part critique, part companion) to Taxi Driver, leads to a cathartic bloodbath so graphic that Noé prefaces it with a title card giving the audience a chance to leave the theater before subjecting themselves to it. (The warning seems like a classic William Castle gimmick: Noé had to know that it would only heighten expectations, not drive anyone away.) Noé’s follow-up Irreversible half-cleared the Lumière when it premièred at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002, and won infamy for a nine-minute, single shot anal rape scene featuring Monica Bellucci, an international star of A-list caliber. But it wasn’t the rape scene that drove people away so much as the sequence before it, a long and spectacularly unpleasant descent into an S&M club called The Rectum, courtesy of a swirling camera and sound effects designed to amplify the nausea and disorientation. This isn’t just moviemaking; this is an experiment in human perception.
The experiment continues with Noé’s Enter The Void, a hallucinogenic phantasmagoria that might fairly be described, in terms of style, as a 161-minute extension of the tilt-a-whirl camera technique of The Rectum sequence in Irreversible. It is also, improbably, by far the most appealing and re-watchable Noé film to date, an acid-soaked journey through nocturnal Tokyo that’s akin to spending the afterlife inside a pinball machine. How is this possible to withstand without a fistful of Dramamine? Noé eases back on the sound effects, for one, settling on an ambience that’s still spacey and mildly disorienting without hitting you in the solar plexus. He also trusts that the body will simply adjust over time; whatever initial resistance viewers might put up to the assault of 720-degree camera moves and strobe lighting is broken down. Though Enter The Void deliberately shocks you back to consciousness on occasion, it reduces you to Jell-O, not unlike a child sitting down after making himself dizzy. And as with Irreversible, which leaves the audience exhausted and weak before the rape scene, Noé softens you up with a brilliant opening-credits sequence that serves as a primer for what’s to come. Epileptics beware:
(It was inevitable that a film as innovative as Enter The Void would be imitated, but perhaps not as quickly and directly as Hype Williams’ recent video for Kanye West’s “All Of The Lights.” For comparison’s sake, start at 0:55. The entire video is quite beautiful, but it seems at least one of those flashing credits could have nodded to Noé.)
Enter The Void recalls the hypnotic midnight movies of old, like The Trip or Liquid Sky or El Topo, which took (loaded) cult audiences on experiential journeys with either simplified plots or plots so ridiculously convoluted that they seem part of the overall architecture. When I reviewed the shorter American theatrical cut last year—roughly 20 minutes lost from the Cannes print—I glibly called the film “dumber than a box of hammers,” but I’m now more inclined to think of it as simple in the extreme, and easily mistaken for banal. Noé’s attention to the film’s technical marvels are nearly equivalent to his inattention to the script and performances, which are cast adrift in overly explicit dialogue and stilted, witless improvisation. The spiritual ideas at play in Enter The Void, inspired by The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, are profound only insofar as they’re suggested; the second they’re explained—which happens within the first 15 minutes—they lose their mystery.
Told from the first-person camera perspective of a twentysomething American in Tokyo, Enter The Void opens in a small, cluttered studio apartment owned by Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a dealer and addict who doesn’t consider himself either. He lives with his sister Linda, played by the clothing-averse Paz De La Huerta, who only recently arrived in the city and pole-dances at a strip club. Oscar and Linda are especially close because of a car accident that claimed their parents’ lives when they were young; all these two damaged souls have is each other, and they made a pact to stick together. (Enter The Void is essentially the punk-rock version of You Can Count On Me.) When Oscar gets killed in a sting operation, his spirit leaves his body but doesn’t leave Tokyo; instead it spends a trippy purgatory floating around the city, moving freely and associatively through time and space. He keeps his promise never to leave his sister, just not in the material world.
Before Oscar dies, his sleazy but loyal French buddy Alex (Cyril Roy) happens to loan him a copy of The Tibetan Book Of The Dead and if that reference weren’t clumsy enough, he just comes right out and sets the parameters in the dialogue:
- The spirit leaves the body after you die.
- You can see and hear everything, but can’t communicate with the land of the living.
- Lights put you on different planes of existence.
- The “bad dream” ends in reincarnation.
Alex connects the psychedelic DMT to the experience, and off we go, experiencing death as “the ultimate trip.” Enter The Void, though relentlessly bleak and despairing about life on earth, nonetheless feels like a drug-induced fantasia, fulfilling the dream everyone has of seeing how life unfolds in your absence. (And also fulfilling the dream of being spectacularly fucked-up.)
Enter The Void is best understood as a feature-length riff on 2001: A Space Odyssey, specifically everything after Keir Dullea’s pod enters the monolith and zips through a multi-colored passageway at high speed. At the end of his surreal journey lies the infinite, and he finally emerges as the Star-Child, a great representation of life, hovering outside the Earth. Noé’s obsession with 2001 begins at the end—which in the film’s timeline is the beginning—of Irreversible, when we leave Bellucci’s room (passing by a 2001 poster on the wall) and enter an idyllic scene with Bellucci, a future mother, in the green park grass, the camera swirling in circles above her. Noé then ends the film in a strobe of pure white light that seems, in retrospect, to lead right into his next movie. Irreversible cycles back to the infinite, to that mysterious source of energy and life, and Enter The Void makes its way forward to the Star-Child, too.
In the meantime, dying is a stone groove, man. Oscar’s spirit restlessly scans time and space as if it were a giant radio dial, settling on a channel here and a song there, then moving on to the next experience. Sometimes, his navigation seems deliberate: He checks on Linda, who spirals into suicidal depression and a self-hating relationship with the club manager that ends in unwanted pregnancy and abortion. He checks on Alex, whose dwindling fortunes have him living on the street, at one point rustling through garbage for chicken bones. And he checks on Victor, the kid who ratted him out to the police, mostly out of hostility toward Oscar for screwing his mother. But there are other times when the universe itself takes hold, and his odyssey becomes more associative and memory-based, with flashbacks bleeding into flashbacks, and key events, like his parents’ car crash, frequently recurring. The story of Oscar and Linda’s life is reduced to its essence: They were once part of a close, loving family; the accident tore their home asunder; and ever since, they’re two lost children, relying on each other yet unable to take care of themselves.
Enter The Void is an infantile movie, and I don’t mean that as a criticism per se. The film concerns two young people who stopped growing up the moment their parents died, and are caught in a perpetual state of yearning for the safety and comfort of home. When Linda isn’t working the stripper pole, she’s clutching the same brown teddy bear she had as a little girl; when Oscar has his out-of-body experience, his consciousness drifts toward infancy, when he was safe in his mother’s arms. And Noé’s style, too, exploits our own simple, pre-verbal transfixion with bright colors, as if we were babies or monkeys. It’s easy to pick on Enter The Void for being box-of-hammers banal—and I think Noé’s ideas are more intuited than developed with any complexity—but how often do movies attempt to express the ineffable? And when they do, even in something as revered as 2001: A Space Odyssey, aren’t they always going to risk looking a little spacey and ridiculous?
Despite the logline about orphaned siblings whose reunion is cut violently short, and despite scenes that wallow in misery, degradation, and tragedies that repeat like a broken record, Enter The Void is improbably optimistic and life-affirming. Noé turns the “time destroys everything” theme from Irreversible on its head. In the afterlife, time is reduced to a fluid, non-linear, free-associative plane, and the path of the film is toward creation and rebirth, not death. Oscar, Linda, and Alex cannot necessarily be trusted to use that life well—the mindless pursuit of the next sensation is not much of a life, though that’s part of being young—but they’ll have a shot at happiness. Granted, Enter The Void has to overcome imposing walls of resistance—and if it’s not working on you, it’s a uniquely tedious experience—but a film this original and distinctive, one that presses at the boundaries of what the medium can accomplish, shouldn’t be waved off so easily. The Beatles once asked to “turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream,” and people happily acquiesced; seems like a reasonable request from Noé, too.
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