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.
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.
*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.