'Enter the Void'

'Enter the Void' at Your Own Risk

Matt Sussman/Ryland Walker Knight October 7, 2010

Matt Sussman
: Enter the Void Is One Bad Trip

Gasper Noé''s Enter the Void is destined to join the ranks of Pink Floyd's the Wall, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Trainspotting as a go-to visual aid for casual substance users in dorm rooms across the globe. Perhaps it will prompt those same buzzed, perhaps straight and probably male viewers to muse on what happens to us after we die, or whether or not something akin to that great unknown can be experienced while under the influence, or if one can ever truly approximate either tripping or dying, or both, on film.

Noé' attempts to address all of the above in a film that for all its formal experimentation is still something of a one-trick pony. Certainly, for a viewer whose chemistry had only been mildly spiked by two cups of coffee prior to a weekday morning screening, the results are far more exasperating than profound. The trick in question—aligning the camera with the first person perspective of the film's protagonist—is actually not a new one, but Noé' adds a twist about 20 minutes in.

After a flash-bang opening credit sequence, we are looking out at the flashing neon of Tokyo through the eyes of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a small-time drug dealer who lives with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta). When she heads off to the strip club where she go-go dances, Oscar lights up some DMT and we get to experience his hallucination—blossoming biomorphic structures that evoke crystals, neural pathways, and Ernst Haeckel's engravings of deep sea fauna—in real time, making for one of Enter the Void's most beautiful passages. Still high, Oscar heads to a club, incidentally called the Void, to do another deal only to realize too late that he's been set-up by his customer, and is shot dead in the ensuing police raid.

At this point, Noé' pulls his camera up from Oscar's collapsed body, slowly draining of life, and the first person viewpoint becomes that of his spirit. Well, maybe. Certainly, Oscar's subsequent trajectory is remarkably similar to the journey the soul undertakes in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, as tidily summed up by Oscar's drug buddy just moments prior to his demise. And what a journey it is: Noé' makes his camera/Oscar fly across Tokyo's warren-like architecture and penetrate walls, travel back into Oscar's past at random intervals, and even burrow down into other character's heads so as to momentarily see through their eyes.

The vertiginous novelty of all of this otherworldly omniscience soon wears thin as it becomes clear over the ensuing two hours that while we hardly knew Oscar, there isn't really that much to know. Much like Christopher Nolan, Noé' is a filmmaker whose gifts as a technician can't quite make up for his shortcomings as a storyteller. The child actors who play the younger Oscar and Linda in oft-repeated flashback sequences give more life and emotional nuance to the siblings and the traumatic events that bind them than either Brown or De la Huerta do, lobbing their lines like lead bricks. The adult Oscar and Linda are merely a means for Noe to showcase his ambitious, and sometimes beautiful, camerawork; they are not characters.

Likewise, the druggy, seedy demimonde of Tokyo's seemingly endless nightlife that is Oscar and Linda's playland, as well as their eventual limbo, is just so much titillating window dressing. But Noe has always been eager to unblinkingly linger on the unsavory, be it drug use, murder, rape, or incest. Thankfully, in Enter the Void this fascination is more puerile, as when Oscar inhabits the heads of men who are in flagranti with his sister, than irresponsible.

It is too small a grace, though, to completely save this long slog of the soul, a teenage boy's wish-fulfillment vision of the hereafter that owes as much to Hustler as it does to Huxley. Enter at your own risk.

Ryland Walker Knight: Enter the Void  Is Designed to Provoke

There is no easy way to defend Gaspar Noé's Enter The Void. There is also no way to ignore it once you know about it, or, of course, as you’re watching it. It’s assaultive, prurient and ludicrous, but I relished the experience of it. 

By now you may know the gimmick: The film is a literal point-of-view, the camera a surrogate, for more than two hours. You share the perspective of a drug dealing expat kid named Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) in and around Tokyo’s sprawl of fluorescence and excess. The first 20 minutes (or so), we share Oscar’s eyes, with edits masked by the character blinking his lids or wiping his face, until he gets shot by the police in a grungy toilet stall.

This is not a spoiler. In fact, during those first 20 minutes, we get a complete layout of the structure to follow Oscar’s death from Oscar’s buddy/mentor, Alex (Cyril Roy), by way of his elucidation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Put simply: When you die, you see your past “through a magic mirror,” and then you float around as the ultimate voyeur until you get reborn (if and when that happens) to start a new cycle. The dialogue is clunky, but that doesn't quite matter as the pair (which includes you as a mystic third party) amble out into the night, first down an interminable staircase and then across some crowded and uncrowded Tokyo streets heading to a club called the Void where Oscar intends to sell some drugs (and where he gets shot). What matters is the buoyant immersion in this walking and the sound of the voice in your head and how, in an aside, Alex throws away a plastic bottle mid-sentence. In other words, it feels real.

The opening 20 minutes, something of a prologue, is the least compromised sequence of the film. It holds the most water in any theoretical conversation, though it’s open to almost any theoretical conversation you’d like to bring it to—and things only get more diffuse as the film stretches on and outward.

Naïve as that might sound, it seems foolish to qualify the picture: Enter the Void is best appreciated as an experience. The title is an imperative, the film is specifically about experience and its adoption of the main character’s point of view, within film, leads the conversation straight to phenomenology, which is to say perception and its redescription. No surprise then, really, to find a recapitulation of what might be construed (though I’m no expert) as some of the 20th century’s “greatest hits” of the avant-garde. Or, as others have pointed out, a lot of Kubrick’s 2001 with a lot of sex both stupid and suspicious (or, clichéd) that makes any of its claims towards transcendence problematic at best.

It's difficult to imagine leaving the Void cold. Enter the Void is designed to provoke, no doubt, any reaction—to entertain the senses with a typically unhinged punk ethos. I walked out bemused, agog at its audacity and 100 percent uninterested in calling it “good” or “bad.” It may be of the gutter, full of scum, but its mixed results (the sex is creepy, not sexy, rife with issues) invite conversation and offer a springboard for thought.