Enter the Void: An Experimental Neon Nightmare

Enter the Void‘s director Gaspar Noé is most famous for his previous film, Irreversible.  Its notoriety isn’t due to a compelling narrative, but rather the brutal 10-minute long rape scene.  With Enter the Void, Noé is hellbent on retaining his infamy in a 161 minute long* trek through time and Tokyo.

The main character Oscar is a white guy (the film doesn’t detail his nationality) living in Tokyo, who finds himself dealing drugs to re-unite with his sister Linda.  When a deal goes sour, Oscar finds himself in a strange place.

I’ve kept my synopsis brief in order to leave some narrative surprises, but the real point of discussion for Enter the Void is the way the story is told.  The film shifts through three points-of-view: either an extreme first person POV in which we are literally behind Oscar’s blinking eyelids as he speaks with Linda or his long-haired friend Alex; third person POV in which we are anchored behind an outline of Oscar’s head as he experiences various memories; or aerial POVs, in which we zip around Tokyo, through walls and buildings to witness different scenes.

The shots never depart from these three templates, and even more audacious is the film’s lack of a single cut.  Sure, there is enough computer generated wizardry going on to allow ends to each shot; Russian Ark it ain’t.  But the transitions between scenes and the CGI that link them create the effect of one long take from beginning to finish.

Oscar surveying a model of Tokyo under black light in Enter the Void.

Which is one of the many formalistic ways that the film crafts a D-Day assault on the senses.  The one take, the bright strobe-light interludes between scenes (used masterfully for the opening credits), the darkness of Tokyo in the middle of the night as we witness the depressing ways in which people react to the film’s tragedy.  It’s like a perverted version of It’s a Wonderful Life, in which you see the carelessness of your actions come to bloom.  The sordid lives of the Tokyo denizens, both lit and hidden by the neon lights, create a numbing sadness for humanity.  If Terrence Malick’s upcoming film Tree of Life is being touted as a “Love letter to God,” Enter the Void is surely a love letter from the Devil to humanity – it’s obvious he’s having a ball with us.

Neither Darren Aronofsky nor Gaspar Noé is known for subtlety.  The blatant Freudian imagery from Black Swan, or the aforementioned rape scene in Irreversible, show that these guys don’t play coy. To Aronofsky’s credit though, there is always a thematic payoff to his disturbing displays.  Filled with redemption, hope, or sometimes even despair, Aronofsky’s endings justify the painful journey.

That’s not the case with Noé’s work in Enter the Void.  It isn’t that I am against sex or violence in cinema – I’m against ridiculous amounts of either that don’t serve the film’s purpose.  At the screening I attended of Enter the Void I could hear an audible groan as the audience anticipated the second foray into the extreme first-person POV of a man having sex with a woman.  The first time, you’re trying to do something different. A second time, you’re making the audience feel a little weird.  But a shot in which we see a CGI penis from inside the vagina? The audience bursts into laughter at the film’s gratuitousness.  Not to mention the number of times we witness a horrendous car accident, which by the third time now features a screaming child and disfigured bodies.  It’s not enough for Noé to show you something, he has to rub your nose in it. Either he loves such excesses or he enjoys the discomfort he’s eliciting from his audience; masochist or sadist.  Even with motivational assessments suspended, Noe’s style undermines his narrative goals.

Ultimately the film appears to state that there is nothing truly sublime in this world (save for our moment as infants breastfeeding) and the best we can do is consume the artificial sweeteners of modern living (drugs and sex) to satiate our desires for Valhalla.

From what I’ve stated, it’s evident that this isn’t a film for casual film fans.  Yes, its formalist feats are quite an experience. Now that the mental and physical novocaine numbness I had after watching the film has worn off, I’m glad I’ve seen it; I may never see another film like Enter the Void in my lifetime.  Seeing it projected on 35mm in a dark room with a booming sound system was an experience of sensory overload that cannot be replicated at home .  Even the way in which the film comes back around to the opening discussion of the Tibetan Book of the Dead shows evidence of foresight and an intriguing assessment of life and death (Russ Fischer on the /Filmcast called it a “movie about heaven for atheists.”).

However, trying heroin is also probably “an experience”–but not something you’d recommend.  Enter the Void at your own risk.

-Remington Smith

*The current version of the film available on Netflix instant streaming is 142 minutes long, as opposed to the 161 minute long international cut only available in some cinemas.

10 responses to “Enter the Void: An Experimental Neon Nightmare

  1. Dale James Smith

    Remington: Hello!… The phrases that run through my head regarding Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void” is…”Sensory Overload,” and “Sensationalism.” To be clear, I have not seen “Irreversible” nor “Enter the Void.”
    Regarding 600 seconds (10 minutes) of Rape: If this is a male raping a female, I wonder how many hetero males would want to watch a ten-minute session of male raping a male?… Yes, Rape very unfortunately occurs. Rape is always wrong, so… Why would either halves of the population want to view this?…
    My personal biases are showing here….Showcasing Sensationalism and Highlighting Heinous Atrocities= Why go there?…I’ll pass, Mr. Noe–NO Can Do!
    Thank you for the review, Remington–I will not be viewing “Irreversible” nor “Enter the Void.”….My decision to NOT ‘Enter the Void,’ (alas and alack,) is….truly…’Irreversible!’
    GASP!ARgh!! NO!Ewwwwwwwww!!… is not my cup of tea!

  2. I think your comparison of Aronofsky and Noe would be better served to speak to a larger issue with narrative structure and approaches to them as these has very little to do with subtlety or thematics. It’s like trying to compare Jackson Pollack to Titian.

    Aronofsky films function within the traditional American sensibilities of what filmmaking and therefore storytelling should be about. Beginning, middle and end. Protagonist/Antagonist. Midpoint. Second Act plot twist. Denouement. This holds water whether its a masochistic wrestler, a psychotic dancer, a drug crazed matriarch. Though there is the facade that these stories are built outside of the mainstream and are therefore to be appreciated as such, as “maverick director” sort of “independent” films, if you scratch the surface a bit you’ll see that this is far from what is actually the case.

    Gaspar Noe is part of the movement in cinema definitely not for tradition. The New New Wave of French cinema. Deconstruction of narrative. Beginning. Middle and End that are only to be discussed in the most abstract and temporally accurate terms of description, blurring the lines of protagonist and antagonist. Read not for the casual Hollywood moviegoer and therefore not for the masses and therefore the best of what independent filmmaking is about.

    As for the 10 minute “uncut” rape scene in Irreversible, we could have an entire discertative discussion about why this works in cinema outside of its content. In fact, the scene is cut. Gaspar is playing within technical form here. It is violent and disturbing, but why? Not because of the rape scene surely. The rape scene in Clockwork Orange is just as if not more visually disturbing. I would posit that it is because it seems as if its gratuitous. Because there is no logic narrative line to follow. In Clockwork the viewer is forced to follow timeline that moves left to right therefore at the time of the rape scene in the film no matter how disturbing Kubrick has lead the viewer on a traditional narrative journey. In Noe’s Irreversible this is not the case the story is disjointed, the lead character himself is putting the story back together as best he can from the situation that he is currently in as he relates it to his cellmate and to the audience it has the complexities of all the haziness of thought so while it falls on the viewers eyes as being unwarranted or as too long or “get me out here, i don’t want to face that about myself”… no one ever mentions the man that appears half way through watches for a time the leaves and never returns. This is the auteur Noe at work, he realizes the uncomfortability of the audience at this point, that man who leaves is the viewer and Noe shows us our true selves in this moment.

    Now does everything work in Noe’s film with such brilliance, absolutely and completely not. Can we find a director working in American cinema is fearless, willing to risk it all to go down in complete and utter failure for the sake of their art form. Absolutely and completely not. Certainly not Aronofsky (personally one of my favorite director, BTW) as he trades in his independent filmmaking godlike status to join the Borg and direct “Wolverine XVIII”.

    Where Enter the void excels is also in its absolute fearless storytelling. The audience members must work, really work to craft the details of the story. It is interactive in this regard. It is not a passive lazy quintessential American filmgoing experience. You can sit on the couch and watch Gaspar Noe. With cinema in general you shouldn’t be able to. Cinema isn’t entertainment. Cinema is art. Hollywood is entertainment. They are mutually exclusive. You can’t necessarily have your cake and eat it too. It great when it happens. But usually if you look under the wrapping its nothing more than a frosted rice cake, if its made in Hollywood. (i.e. Inception)
    But I digress, we have no one to blame other than ourselves and the critics of movies who now tell us what, when and how to view movies. It is a recent event in the history of cinema and only thorough the progression of mediocre releases and acceptance by voting with our dollars that has caused Hollywood to continue to feed us this latest rash of bullshit that we see.

    It calls to mind Adorno’s warning about cinema in his brilliant essay “Cultural Industry”. I think there is truth in his words now.

  3. @Gregory

    First off, stating that Darren Aronofsky is “joining the Borg” by choosing to direct a movie about a subject matter or genre you may have a personal aversion to doesn’t take away from his credibility. As an artist and avid reader of comic books I am getting tired of defending the medium against people with turned up noses who feel like it has zero merit in cinema. Aronofsky chose to do Wolverine because he has a vision for it, and we should be thankful that talented auteurs are moving to invigorate the genre with quality by lending their unique skills.

    As far as “Enter the Void” is concerned, I give Noe accolades for producing an undeniably heady and fluid audio-visual experience, but its his excesses that begins to weigh it down. He forgoes subtlety and we’re supposed to justify it as art with fortitude. I can appreciate having the balls to “go there” as it were, but when you “go there and go there and go there” going there ends up being the point, with no narrative or anything else to tie it down. Human suffering and the many evils that plague our society are worth visiting, but an artist – like anyone else – has to consider if what he is representing crosses a line from nuetral observation to damn near committing an evil act himself. By your logic we could consider Charlie Manson an artist (which he considers himself) and revere him instead of loathe him. Or perhaps Hentai tentacle rape is meaningful art as well?

    What we as viewers appreciate also reflect our greater natures. “Enter the Void” made me feel dirty, and unlike similarly dark and hopeless films like “Requiem for a Dream”, the grime doesn’t come off through a process of internal deliberation. Its a sticky, nagging filth. If Noe wanted to accomplish something with more meaning and purpose, he could have exercised more restraint and gave us a more recognizable human element to cling to while braving two and a half hours of hell.

    IMO of course.

  4. I have neither stated that I have an aversion to any genre of film nor have I said that the “comic book” genre needed defense against a filmmaker and student of cinema such as myself. Show business is just that. A business. When one moves from making a career of film with sub 15 million dollar budgets into the arena of making films that have 100 million dollar budgets before prints and advertising… that person is no longer an independent artist, that person is chasing dollars regardless of whether he is artistic or not.

    This change in focus does, in fact change a person’s credibility both artistically and creatively. One cannot profess one’s dislike of the Hollywood system and all of its ills and then partake of that fruit and expect a generation of filmmakers who counted on that voice as one of the leading examples of true independent filmmaking to follow without question his decision. Aronfosky himself questions this decision in his New York Magazine article.

    His fear stems from his needed and requisite level of control moving from independent to an essentially corporate endeavor. His having to answer to “The Borg” at the end of the day. Point blank. Nothing to do with comic book and artistic acumen at all.

    Although difficult to express without delving into rhetoric, you do understand that there is a level of translative difficulty in moving from the graphic novel to the screen and from the comic book page to the screen. And it has nothing to do with the artistic or creative viability of either. I would have a similar problem with a filmmaker attempting to take a series of Roy Lichtensteins and attempting to use them as a storyboard for a film. I can expound on this if you wish but as an artist yourself I am certain that you see my point.

    Which brings me to your next point: What great artist has ever in his career shown restraint? Please name one. Artists are meant to constantly and persistently push the boundaries of their medium. They’re sole purpose in their creative life is to be relentless. Relentless in their pursuit of truth, if what they finally re-present to you as part of their human experience is not part of your truth then so be it, but just because you have an opinion to the contrary does not make it an inaccurate description of that which they hold true.

    Your job as a viewer and as an artist is to decide what part(s) are useful to you within your own work in order to broaden your audience. It helps to clarify your thoughts when expressing them also. What is true? is the only question an artist should be concerned with when working in his medium, the debate or “restraint” of that truth are your own moral issues rearing their ugly and societally castrated heads again. It is your own limitations and not the artist’s concern.

    As for Hentai being art (answer: of course it is) and Charles Manson claiming to be an artist and should I respect his art as such (answer: yes, again). My moral disagreement with Manson’s actions as a person has very little to do with whether or not, I respect his decision to call himself an artist. To me art is a religion, so perhaps my view is skewed. If someone chooses to call themselves an artist they are in pursuit of a truth, this journey I know and respect. Technical acumen or creativity in this regard have nothing to do with the steps in the journey. To make the first one, the attempt, the first painting, the first film, the first poem or story or dance demands another artist’s respect. It is just matter of course. Do I agree with the causation of sadness and torment he has brought on others, absolutely and completely not. Can I distance myself from that and view his art for what it is, can I see what truth he might be trying to glean from his work, can I appreciate his effort? Yes.

    The same goes for the pornographic Hentai? Yes. the Japanese did not invent
    cartoon drawings of sexual activity. If you look to the what was etched on the walls of Pompeii and Herculeanium you will understand how long standing an artistic tradition this really is. So can I appreciate it as being something innate in man so much so that he must revisit it in order to gain a truth that the artist might not even have realized is existent in him? Yes.

    I get that Enter The Void might not been your cup of tea. Ok. But to say that the artist must be restrained in his expression of creativity is not only a foolish statement but one that borders on the absurd… coming from an artist such as yourself.

  5. The observations you made about Hollywood and the state of independent film do ring true, and perhaps my response was triggered partially as a result of previous arguments. No need to dwell on that. However when it comes to my thoughts on artists showing restraint, I can elaborate.

    Let me use an analogy. Back in the day I was in a few different bands; one of which I wrote most of the material for and incidentally we ended up headlining for national acts within several months of us getting together (which is here nor there.) Now there was a bunch of in-fighting in this band about musical direction; who got to jam a guitar solo at a certain part in the song – how to end the song etc etc. There was a point where in order to please everyone playing the music, the arrangements became convoluted and unfocused. The songs began to suffer in quality and cohesion because quite frankly we were doing too much, and it was – again – simply for the sake of pleasing ourselves, making sure that each contributing “artist” in the band was happy. It ceased to be about the songs.

    You see what I’m getting at right? In our pursuit of self satisfaction, the actual music began to suffer from the excess. If we were making “art” it was tainted by our personal needs to be noticed, or to have a say. My band members would get upset with me for writing all of the parts even though 9 times out of ten they were exactly what the song needed. When I gave into their needs, I needed to sacrifice quality.

    When Gasper Noe plays too many riffs it ruins his song! This is what critics like to call self indulgence or masterbation, and if we as viewers can make those distinctions it takes away from the power of the piece, it becomes more about ego and less about what works on all the levels we need something to work.

    So is he an artist? Sure we can call anyone who expresses his or herself an artist. Then we proceed to determine if said art is any good! The disappointing thing about Gasper Noe is that he plays some damned compelling riffs, but because he can’t restrain himself, his song becomes more about his desires and less about our experience.

    I suppose thats the best way I can put it.

  6. I appreciate most your candid and unabashedly honest confession of how through personal experience you have had to exhibit “restraint” in the midst of creative collaboration. I get and understand that.

    Our discussion in terms of artistic expression is founded on a totally different and much more esoteric premise however, is it not?

    To quickly recap, what is good for the goose is not necessarily always good for the gander as it were.

    My point in reference to your well stated and thought out reply is simply this: there is a world of difference between the collaborative restraint that you mention within the world of musicianship in order to make beautiful music collectively and the restraint that you mentioned that comes as a result of the societal pressures that would cause an artist within any medium to censure himself.

    Tolstoy wrote an entire essay on “What Is Art?” as the question is in reality the only question of any relevance to anyone who ventures toward creative endeavor.

    As for the critics belief in what is art and what is artistic and creative masturbation, I would say they, like lemmings serve a different master. It stems from their inability or lack of intestinal fortitude to pick up the mantle and do what it is that we do. Their opinion, in the total scope of things, means little to me. George Bernard Shaw was the last critic who actually had the right to be critical of anything that dealt with the theatre. Since then, charlatans all.

    Again I am fine with the fact that you did not appreciate Gaspar Noe’s work. If it means anything to you, it is ok with me, really. My jumping off point for this discussion is your perceived right to speak in sweeping generalizations as to the merit of that in terms of artistic endeavor, they are completely different things.

    And no you cannot call anyone who can pick up a paintbrush and a canvas, an artist. No more than you can call anyone who picks up a wrench and a quart of oil a mechanic.

    You can only judge both of them by their work. By whether or not at the end of the day the things they set out to, do work for you, were they instructive or did they give you pause to reflect and consider you or morality or mortality?

    That is the mark of an artist. A true Artist. But enough of esoteria.

    You’ve said that Noe is to be commended for his ballsiness and providing a heady audio visual experience. Where is it that he failed as an artist then? To me that would be a rousing accolade, a great review. The rest of your commentary is silenced by the din of that cheer alone. But interject my own opinion without waiting you response.

    Which I eagerly do, BTW.

  7. Well perhaps instead of arguing whether or not Noe is an artist – which I couldn’t argue that he isn’t because that would be unfair – I would rather consider this an examination of a particular piece. I have never seen Irreversible or his other works, but in the case of “Enter The Void” I feel like he could have done more to reinforce the visual journey with a redemptive factor that was missing. This goes further than suggesting the movie is overlong or overwrought, which I believe it is. Here is a decidedly bold and effective visual experience; undeniably potent because it elicits pure revulsion and discomfort throughout. When certain elements are so strong it also amplifies any flaws, I.E in “Black Swan” where the script relies on conventional foreshadowing early on through the dance instructor offering a tidy summary of the popular ballet to his students when we all know professional dancers would already be thoroughly familiar with that plot and story and thus making it obvious that such dialogue is meant to educate us “the audience” on the particulars.

    Anyways, “Enter The Void” hits us over the head with its subject matter repeatedly without actually getting into the subject. Its pure voyeurism without an ounce of sympathy for the suffering it represents – thus at least giving the impression of glorification. In other words “I’m going to show you a video of a man cutting off his own penis, and that’s that. Aren’t I a rebel? Respect me for my rebelliousness!” Ok, so your being a rebel. Now make that mean something, because otherwise your just a wayward schoolyard bully who relies on shock value and negative response to get by. A good person would recognize there are issues that need to be addressed or that bully will feel unopposed and completely justified in his actions.

    So in Noe’s case, he betrays his strengths by relying completely on a single dimension, which is disappointing because with more of a narrative texture could have been great. It doesn’t have to be a conventional, straightforwards narrative – David Lynch is a fine example of that – but if you are going to give us a dazzling picture show than at least balance it out with a little contrast; a bit of good with my evil as it were.

    I don’t know if any of that makes sense but there you go.

  8. Bravo and well done.

    I see your point of view and there is merit in what you say. Not that I agree with it as it stems from an opinion away from a knowledge of a body of work to focus on a singular piece leaving a somewhat skewed view of the whole, but I do think your reasoning is valid.

    For what it is worth. It makes sense to me.

  9. Oh its definitely opinion; after all in the end all art is subjective and its up to the viewer to draw his own conclusions. Reviewing movies is a lot harder than reviewing video games or even books because there are always technical issues that can be exploited as fact.

    I should probably mention that I gave “Enter The Void” a favorable rating at 70% on Rotten Tomatoes. This is just me nitpicking which I do compulsively. I still have the ever fading dream of becoming a filmmaker myself.


  10. Pingback: The Tree of Life a lyrical study of the soul | The Filmsmith

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