Enter The Void – A Review

29 09 2010
Gaspar Noe, Enter The Void

It's all gone a bit Pete Tong... 'Enter The Void'

What happens to us after we die?: perhaps the oldest and most troublesome question known to mankind. A question, nevertheless, which Argentinian-French director Gaspar Noé (Irréversible, Seul Contre Tous) sets out to tackle with characteristic gusto in his intense new film Enter The Void.

Never one to shy away either from controversy or from mind-bending visuals, Noé casts his film as an unapologetic ‘trip’ movie, a staggering, high-concept piece that takes its cue from The Tibetan Book of the Dead as it recounts the premature death and ghostly wanderings of a young American in Tokyo.

The American in question is Oscar (Nathanial Brown), a skinny twentysomething drug addict and dealer who just about manages to scrape together a living selling his wares to other members of the expat community. The film is told entirely from Oscar’s point-of-view, the camera embedded in his skull for the first portion of the story, then cut loose after his death as the young man’s life flashes before his eyes and as he drifts around the streets of the neon-lit city.

In the first section of the film we find Oscar at home in his cramped flat, and watch as he chats with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) and gets high on his own supply. Immediately, the unique point-of-viewness of the film asserts itself, with Oscar’s blinks obscuring the screen every few seconds and his voice deepened and filtered through his skull. When his sister goes out, he fires up his crack-pipe, and we’re treated to our first trip in this movie of trips: blood-red retina patterns breaking out on the walls and ceiling of the apartment as Oscar hovers in and out of consciousness.

Later, and still a little drowsy, he heads out with his friend Alex (Cyril Roy) to complete a drug deal. Unfortunately for Oscar, the deal all goes a bit Pete Tong, and he soon finds himself lying in a pool of his own blood, dying from a gunshot wound.

As he dies, the internal monologue that we’ve been hearing so far continues, Oscar’s disembodied voice expressing surprise, confusion and not a little curiosity about what’s happening to him. He, and we, float above his lifeless corpse, as moments from his short life flash before his eyes.

Enter The Void

Happier times.

Linda, it soon becomes apparent, is the most important person in his life; the sister from whom he was separated as a child after a car crash that killed their parents. Reunited in early adulthood they have resumed their intense, needy relationship in Tokyo, where Linda has become a stripper in a pole-dancing club and the plaything of her employer Mario (Masato Tanno), much to Oscar’s chagrin.

And it is to watch over Linda that Oscar’s wandering spirit seems to stay behind, silent and powerless to act as she goes even further off the rails, and as Alex runs from the cops. But gradually, as the spirit of the young man floats and swirls around the city, something else becomes apparent too: that his body is gone, that his spirit has to move on, and that some kind of re-birth is inevitable.

On its own terms, Enter The Void is a resounding success. Noé’s film sets out to take the audience on a journey, and on a journey it certainly takes us. The long takes, the effortless, flowing camera-work, the dizzying, skyscraper-high views of the city; these all create a hypnotic, almost addictive point-of-view that this viewer at least could watch for hours on end. Noé’s camera can, and does, go everywhere, fleeting backwards and forwards over the city, through walls and people, and, in one memorable scene, inside a young lady’s vagina as she’s being penetrated by her boyfriend.

Which brings us onto sex. There’s no way of getting around it; there’s a hell of a lot of extremely explicit nookie in this film, from Oscar’s sister being humped by Mario in the dressing room of the club where she works to the dozens of anonymous couples we see grinding and pumping away in the bedrooms of ‘The Love Hotel’. From Oscar’s (and therefore our) point-of-view though, all of this sweaty, explicit copulation is entirely devoid of its worldly connotations, instead appearing for what it objectively is: part of a desperate, self-perpetuating wheel of procreation and death that he’d like, but isn’t quite able, to escape.

Enter The Void, Gaspar Noe

Bad karma? Or good drugs?

In its ambition, scope and single-minded determination to explore the outer limits of human experience, then, Enter The Void is deeply impressive. It’s already been widely compared to Kubrick’s 2001, and the comparison is an apt one; at various points it also brings to mind Sokurov’s Russian Ark and Tarkovsky’s Mirror too. In terms of a unique, immersive viewing experience it’s hard to beat and is completely unlike anything else that you’ll see this year, or maybe even this decade.

And yet, there are flaws too. For all of its technical brilliance, Noé’s film is about as subtle as a punch in the face, and there’s something decidedly meat-headed about some of the plotting. When Oscar’s life begins to ‘flash before his eyes’ for example, it does so in a very convenient narrative arc, picking out exactly those key moments that we need to see in order to understand his back-story and his post-mortal motivations. So, out are the moments when he ate a great pizza or graduated from high school; in is a 20-minute montage showing the accident that killed his parents and the moment when he was separated from his sister.

This over-literalness infects the film in other ways too. Does Alex really have to have given Oscar The Tibetan Book of the Dead just days before his death? Do they really have to talk about it so much? And when Linda’s been out on a grief-induced bender, does she really have to wake up in a children’s playground surrounded by pills?

As for Tokyo, well, it’s pretty obvious that Noé is more interested in creating a fantasy landscape, a ‘Tokyo of the mind’, than he is in shooting the real city. But does this imaginary city really need to be quite so adolescent? Couldn’t the director have filled his night-time cityscapes with something a bit more interesting than relentless sex and drug abuse?

For all of its flaws though, Enter The Void is undeniably an experience, a journey and a bravura, roller-coaster piece of film-making. After 135 minutes, I left the cinema wide-eyed and buzzing and, like a particularly unenlightened, soon-to-be-reincarnated soul, wanted to go straight back in and start all over again. Which is surely A Good Thing.

Enter The Void is out now in UK cinemas.

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