Enter the Void
You can’t fault Gaspar Noé‘s ambition, give him that: even if the audio-visual overkill, gutter-level mise en sc&232;ne and sheer unpleasantness repulse you, not many filmmakers attempt to kill you, take you through hell on earth and get you reincarnated in 135 minutes. From the hardcore techno assault of the titles onwards, Noé attempts to take you places that cinema rarely goes. The pre-film warning ‘likely to trigger a physical reaction in vulnerable viewers’ was appropriate, even if you’re unaffected by the strobe effects and camera motion…
We are Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a young American drug dealer (LSD, MDMA) living in Tokyo with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta). I say ‘we’ because the whole film is shot from Oscar’s point of view (Enter the Void is probably the first full-length film to attempt this schtick since the Marlowe misfire Lady in the Lake in 1947). So, we are in Oscar’s head when he smokes DMT, has intense psychedelic visions and then heads out to meet his violent doom with hippy mate Alex (Cyril Roy). Post mortem we are floating between life and death, a spirit or soul observing the fates of Alex, Linda, the snitch Victor (Olly Alexander) and others who had a hand in our life and death as they suffer the legal and psychological fallout from the killing. We are also travelling backwards and forwards through Oscar’s largely tragic existence, in scenes of increasingly nightmarish quality. He has made a solemn promise to Linda as a child that they would never leave each other, and thus he is tethered to this world, and we are tethered with him, unable to alter events as they progress, as death, grief, sexual exploitation, abortion and all manner of psychological distress are played out before us. And there’s not a damn thing we can do about it, until a resolution to Oscar’s state in the afterlife is reached… We are reminded that DMT is a chemical released by the brain at the time of death, and Enter the Void plays with the suspicion that this is all Oscar’s trip, based upon his reading of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, that he is showing himself the worst world he could imagine…
I’m sure the question many film-goers will be asking is, ‘if we have to die, and go through heaven and hell, couldn’t we go with nicer people?’ Psychedelics are noted for inducing a state of euphoria, but there’s precious little joy to be found here. We are among losers, victims and low-level criminals. There isn’t much in the way of witty banter, and dialogue is mostly given over to delivering information. This is an artificial, candy-coloured world of coercion, tension, and lurking horror. Noé describes Enter the Void as a ‘psychedelic melodrama’ and this seems about right: the story is not especially complex or unpredictable, the characters generally run to type, and the whole thing has the momentum of an inevitable tragedy. We never see Tokyo in daylight, and only see glimpses of the natural world in flashbacks to Oscar’s youth in Montreal. We fly through walls but rarely soar, moving from tiny drug dealers’ apartment to strip club to mortuary to sleazy ‘love hotel’ in one long continuous flight - it’s a nasty world to witness so intently. Linda’s story especially is upsetting. She barely seems, at times, to have a will of her own; the shape of her childhood has led to her desperate desire for affection, and the way this vulnerability is exploited by the men around her is almost unbearably emphasised by the film’s unique point of view. It’s curious that the ‘god shot’ camera angle, normally considered a distancing device, should seem so intimate here.
If I’ve made this sound like just another French wallow in the sewer, that’s because Noé’s artistry lies not in the story as such, the words on the page, or even in the performances, but the way the story is related. It’s the most immersive audio-visual experience I’ve ever had in the cinema. The woozy shifting viewpoint from unfamiliar angles, the vivid acid neon-drenched visuals, the dense soundtrack with its background chatter and heavy yawning, rumbling bass frequencies, the flights into and out of lights, bullet holes and everybody’s heads make the film a dark, oppressive, utterly involving experience. Noé wants you to feel Oscar’s childhood pain, his adolescent trauma, the sweaty, jealous, too-close relationship with Linda, so he makes you a backseat driver in his skull. It’s clearly a vision that has been worked on for many years: some of the camera technology was first tried out in Irreversible, and to an extent that film was a dry run for what’s being attempted here. I found Irreversible astonishing, but ultimately unbearable because of its trajectory, but while Enter the Void is an equally tough watch in places, you are never in doubt that Linda loves Oscar and Oscar loves Linda; there is tenderness, and even a little hope here. The film’s visual language is rich in colour and symbols; Oscar’s life is linked to water, his death to light, and Tokyo’s neon seems to be full of messages, ENTER SEX MONEY POWER LOVE… While it seems wilfully abstract in places, and avoids conventional linear sense, it rarely loses sight of story or character, though after the full-on headfuck of the first hour or so, the film does lose power (partly because we can guess where it’s headed) and drifts somewhat. It has lost 20 minutes since its screenings at the London Film Festival and Cannes in 2009, and frankly I’m glad, but it never, for this viewer at least, becomes comfortable or dull.
Any way you shake it, and I suspect that many are going to loathe it, Enter the Void is an extraordinary piece of work, continually working miracles with picture and sound from beginning to end, a heady, grimy, powerful trip created through pure cinema. If you judge the worth of films by vision and ambition, and by the sheer effect on the audience then Enter the Void is a goddamn masterpiece. The screening I attended had a few walkouts, and a number of clearly irritated critics, but the majority seemed astonished and stunned, shell-shocked and floating off into Soho’s neon embrace, with their eyes wide open.