Gaspar Noé will be known to some for his 2002 film Irreversible in which two men avenge the brutal rape and murder of a woman played by Italian beauty Monica Bellucci. Though its style and substance (particularly the rape scene) are notorious, it’s unfortunate that its infamy has surpassed its praise because I revere Irreversible among the best films of the last decade. I’d like to encourage everyone to see his latest work, but I must caution you: if you’re among the many that couldn’t sit through that film (or wish afterward you hadn’t tried) you’re in for a similar experience.
Like Irreversible nearly every shot in Enter the Void is hand-held. Irreversible’s disorienting, sometimes even nauseating style was meant to connote the anger and fear of two vengeance-hungry men. Enter the Void is, out of narrative necessity, more graceful with its camera movements, for it’s the first-person perspective of a man full of ennui and high on hallucinogenics who hovers as a ghost above a deviant, drug-addled and horny Tokyo. Noé has modulated his style from speed-junkie to psychedelic, though much of Irreversible’s visual affectations make the cut, which leads me to a secondary caution: if you’re epileptic this film may well be unwatchable. Blinking, radiating lights and strobe effects occur frequently.
We immediately assume the role of Oscar, who settles in to a comfortable place for a cocktail of dimethyltryptamine (DMT). The Wikipedia entry for DMT states that “when DMT is inhaled, depending on the dose, its subjective effects can range from short-lived milder psychedelic states to powerful immersive experiences, which include a total loss of connection to conventional reality, which may be so extreme that it becomes ineffable.” In a way this describes Enter the Void quite neatly. Oscar first experiences a short-lived and relatively mild trip. He draws on the hallucinogenic compound, each hit taking him deeper in to the void as his modest Tokyo apartment steadily loses focus, the set lighting shifts between various hues and the now-disjointed room he finds himself in begins to fold in to his consciousness. He lies on his back to gaze at the ceiling, which transmogrifies in to a galactic wheel of gas and light in perpetual motion, forming imaginative shapes until the camera unhinges and flies through it.
We soon meet Oscar’s friend Alex, who agrees to accompany him on a drug deal to take place at a dive called “The Void.” On the way Alex regales us with his knowledge of the afterlife, a knowledge derived from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which he has loaned to Oscar and which will shortly parlay in to their lives in a way neither could have imagined. Things go terribly wrong. His buyer has turned canary and put the squeeze on him. Coppers descend from all sides, forcing Oscar into the men’s room where he attempts to dispose of his wares. This time it’s a gunshot that stimulates a “total loss of connection to conventional reality.” We find ourselves floating above the concrete jungle, as Oscar, somewhere between life and death, is forced to observe those dearest to him, the aftermath of his actions, and his entire previous life. Death is the ultimate trip.
This director is as interested in the psyche of his viewers as those of his subjects. Somehow he stretches the narrative of a single incident (and everything that preceded and followed it) for two hours, encircling the characters, building flesh upon the bone. For a western audience accustomed to convoluted tales of intrigue, of various individuals coming and going to propel a narrative, such intense focus on a small event is provocative. In our action movies and thrillers we watch faceless evils, nameless henchmen or numbered soldiers swatted like flies. Noé keeps his focus to the life and death of a single man. We haven’t simply a glance at his corpse but a glare. Death is everywhere, and Noé won’t allow us to turn away.
Oscar’s death seems to have only negative consequences for those around him. His sister’s fragile psyche—hinged as it was on a childhood pact that they would never be apart—is shattered; Bruno has to dispose of his stash and look over his shoulder; Alex is dodging the cops by living on the street, picking morsels from the waste of more fortunate souls; Viktor’s family life is fractured and he’s reduced to love hotel favors. As Oscar bears witness to this, Noé confronts us with, among other things, Buddhist notions of circularity, Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, Parmenidean oneness, and the tragedy and beauty of it all. We see the face of god wearing the mask of death. It drags in places, it’s agonizingly long, but the journey is something to behold. Enter the Void is an impressive feat of filmmaking. It’s an intense audio-visual experience. It’s… a trip.