There are some films that feel so uniquely off-kilter that they seem like they were made in an alternative reality. From Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961) to David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1976) to E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten (1990), such films create a bewildering cinematic experience so that even if they are despised, as they often are, they are not easily forgotten. Enter the Void, the latest film from Gaspar Noé, the Argentinean-born French director of the highly controversial Irréversible, is one such film. Combining a radical range of digital effects and cinematic techniques, Noé has delivered a mind-altering first-person experience set in a gaudy version of contemporary Tokyo, drowning in neon-lit images of sex, death and drugs. The result is an almost impossible fusion of exploitation cinema and video art.
The thin narrative concerns Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a young American drug dealer living in Tokyo with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), who works as a stripper. The entire film is shot from Oscar’s point-of-view evoking Hollywood classics such as Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1947) and the first third of Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage (1947) as well as first person computer games, the opening of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) and Jonas Åkerlund’s music video for The Prodigy’s single “Smack My Bitch Up” (1997). Noé is so committed to the idea of presenting the entire film from Oscar’s perspective that the audience even hear his thoughts and experience the screen constantly flickering to black as Oscar blinks. However, with a head full of hallucinogenic drugs and passages from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Oscar is very much an unreliable narrator.
Later in the film Oscar relives pivotal moments in his life as a detached observer following himself from behind so that, like in first-person computer games such as Grand Theft Auto, the back of his head fills the bottom-middle part of the screen as he navigates himself through his own life. The final part of the film where Oscar has an out-of-body experience and floats over Tokyo (or imagines he does), is shot from a bird’s eye view. This mesmerising and dreamlike part of the film is not unlike the haunting continuous Stedicam long take used by Aleksandr Sokurov in Russian Arc (2002), except Noé’s use of digital effects allows him to ‘cheat’ so that his camera has even more freedom than Sokurov’s did, including being able to enter light sources so that Oscar can zap himself to another part of Tokyo.
The combination of visual beauty and garishness with the film’s sleazy voyeuristic eye and contrived spirituality all express Oscar’s point-of-view about what is happening to him. As a young, naive, drug-using man with an unnatural closeness to his sister, the results are suitably wondrous, sordid and absurd. Noé wants the audience to both be drawn into the experience of Enter the Void while also being aware of the shallowness of Oscar’s experiences. One example is an early scene when Oscar smokes the hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT). The audience shares his trip and experiences the screen transforming into a series of brightly lit organic shapes that is both a beautifully sensory experience and also slightly banal in the way that the imagery resembles an elaborate screen-saver, representing the drug experience as both thrilling and tedious. It is also one of the most visually audacious and narrative-halting moments in cinema since Stanley Kubrick’s light corridor sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Gaspar Noé is akin to a Pop Art equivalent of Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke in that his films are experimental works that manipulate formal cinematic conventions to annoy, frustrate and provoke. Both Noé and Haneke are cinematic geniuses, although sometimes cruel, condescending and arrogant geniuses in their desire to alienate audiences. Enter the Void is an extremely long film that will lose many once it gets into the final part of the film where Oscar drifts over the streets of Tokyo. Other audiences will find some of Noé’s shock tactics too contrived (a close-up on an aborted foetus feels overly calculated to offend) while some moments may elicit unintentional giggles (for example, the radical perspective used for the film’s climatic shot – in two senses of the word ‘climactic’). Enter the Void doesn’t quite have the structural and thematic cohesion or discipline of Irréversible, making it fall just short of masterpiece status. But it comes incredibly close and may well be one of the most intense, hyperactive and mesmerising cinematic explorations of shallowness and sleaze.