Gaspar Noe frightens me. It’s true! In film and music there are personalities that I interpret as genuinely dangerous and he’s one of them. I often describe previously viewed Noe films, both I Stand Alone and Irreversible as “nihilim at 300 miles per hour”. He has this sort of breakneck pace insanity that I find both thrilling and intimidating. He inspires fear and uncertainty in me and I love it! By the time the flick fades to black, I’m left feeling fragile and nervous, mildly affected by PTSD, which usually fades overnight, but to be so damaged by a movie is unheard of in my world. Directors like Noe don’t come along often and he’s one of these directors who doesn’t work nearly enough. Years pass between projects while he carefully considers the process he’s going to pursue for his next and thank god for that because when his movies come out, they’re like nothing I’ve ever seen. It also helps that Noe regularly makes use of infrasound, that level of audio that lives just outside the human hearing range but affects us on a psychological level. I don’t toss this title out there easily and a lot of directors have worn the crown from Christopher Nolan to Chan Wook Park but right now, having seen Enter The Void, I’m going to announce that Gaspar Noe is my current pick for most exciting working director. God damn is this movie heavy.
While I’m here, why don’t I just go ahead and express my fear of French people? Not in a racist sense, mind you, but in the sense that the last ten years has brought a wave of intensity out of the country that I guess reviewers are derisively calling New Wave of French Extremity. It’s a sort of mutation on the old idea of The French New Wave, that late 50’s vibe in French film that a lot of people associate with the entire notion of art-film. It was a ripe age of new ideas as renegade directors came out of the woodwork, questioning the very foundation of narrative. It was art without a lot of the avant garde nonsense that was intruding on art film. Nowadays, however, France is producing some of the most intense, nihilistic and hateful films I’ve seen and I mean standing apart from stuff like Martyrs, Inside and Haute Tension. Ever seen Baise Moi? How about Anatomy of Hell or Trouble Every Day? Many of these Extremity titles aren’t even remotely horror movies, they’re just fucking angry. Enter The Void fits into that category, as well, but as distrubing as I found it, I’ll tell you what, and please don’t tell Gaspar Noe, I actually think it has something of a happy ending and a ray of hope hidden somewhere within all the suffering.
Oscar is an American drug dealer living in Tokyo. He specializes in selling Ecstasy and LSD and when he’s not prowling the neon-lit bars of the scuzzy district of the city that he lives in, he’s smoking DMT and hanging out with his artist buddy Alex, who turns him on the heady concepts of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Meanwhile, he saves up enough money from his deals to move his sister over to Tokyo to live with him since they’ve been separated in foster care for years since the death of their parents during their childhood. She falls in with the sleazy manager of the strip club she works at and Oscar winds up betrayed by a customer and is shot to death by the police during a drug bust. What we see following these events is Oscar’s past, going back to the car accident that killed his parents and the weeks following his death as he floats above Tokyo, shooting back and forth through his life and the ongoing tragedy of his death as a voiceless third party in everyone else’s life.
Let me just get this out of the way: Enter The Void is long. Like, really god damn long. To compound this, there are not many movies in existence that do what Enter The Void does. All of it is shot in first person perspective and during Oscar’s time alive, we see the world as connected to his eyes, including occasional screen blackouts when Oscar blinks. Following his death, Oscar’s point of view takes a non-corporeal quality which has him floating above the action and the entire city, for that matter. If you’re still not spooked by spending nearly three hours in someone else’s head, there are times in his past where Oscar’s life is recalled from behind his actual body. Seeing his face is only a rare occasion, if he looks in the mirror or something. This is hardly a novelty of the film, though. Noe’s insistence on you, the viewer, becoming Oscar is a vital piece of the experience. So is spending so much time in film-space. The film isn’t just a long piece of art for the sake of being a long piece of art, it gives you plenty of time to acclimate to actually being Oscar. This would be a great device in filmmaking, never before realized at this level of success, if being Oscar wasn’t such a bad thing. His entire life is characterized by sadness and loss and his turn as a drug dealer in Japan, where drug laws are really intense, is practically a death wish. He also has a tendency to make a lot of really poor decisions and mix with unsavory people.
Noe’s main cast, three primary players, is where the action happens, though, and it helps the movie become the holistic psychedelic experience that it’s trying to be. Our main protagonist rarely occupies the screen in the traditional sense but Nathaniel Brown makes it happen in a way that I’m pretty sure no other actor could do. He’s just present enough to separate us from the experience and remind us that we’re watching a movie about someone else but his presence is enough to be the vehicle that takes us on the ride to either his ultimate spiritual death or reincarnation or wherever it is that he’s actually going. On the flip side is his sister Linda, played by actress Paz De La Huerta, whose profile has risen lately thanks to being cast in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Of the three, she’s the weak link thanks to her out of balance skills as an actress. She’s either grossly understated or overacting in a torrent of histrionics and melodrama. I guess it’s hard to find leading ladies these days who will do sustained full-frontal scenes as much as she does, so her casting here was a natural move since the role calls on her to either act like she’s five years old, thrash around while screaming and to do all of this and more while completely naked. Picking up the slack, though, is Cyril Roy as Alex the artist who acts as Oscar’s marginally effective moral compass. He’s chatty and a bit of a guide both to Oscar’s psychedelic experiences and his time as a foreigner in Japan. Of everyone in the picture, he’s easily the most likable, which makes his ultimate fate such an unfortunate thing.
Enter The Void goes far beyond being a straight dramatic experience, though, and I hope I’m making this clear. Noe seems to be pushing his movie as something more. It’s deliberately designed to bring you on an acutely psychedelic journey that’s an awful lot like LSD, not that I have wide breadth of experience to base this judgement on or anything. An unbelievably original device in putting you in the perspective of Oscar is not the only thing pushing this along that path. Much of the movie is shot from above, stitched together as Oscar zooms around the city and into different times in his life and the entire production design moves back and forth between the painfully real to the day-glo neon-lit streets of Tokyo to an even brighter facsimile of the city in Alex’s apartment. It shifts around between all these locations, telling the story out of sequence in a fractured narrative that never feels like a gimmick and never comes together in that Pulp Fiction kind of way. It’s intentionally disorienting, absolutely slimy, looks disgusting and beautiful simultaneously and fights with its own point of view for the dominant perspective. It’s all a part of Noe’s puzzle and considering this guy’s albeit short career, it’s remarkably restrained thematically even when we’re stuck in the middle of a clinical simulation of an abortion. Enter The Void does not feel like a madman ricocheting off the walls like Irreversible or I Stand Alone. Rather, it feels like the sadness you might encounter as a spirit reviewing your life so that you don’t make the same mistakes the next time around.