It’s the New Year, and I’ll start as I mean to go on – by finishing the stuff I failed to complete in 2010, including this post about Enter the Void, a late consideration of its cinema release, but way ahead of its appearance on DVD in the UK (you’ll have to wait until April). If it wasn’t divisive, it wouldn’t be a Gaspar Noé film, so Enter the Void is a prime candidate for a Build Your Own Review post, especially since I’m not even sure of my own responses to it. I found it a mix of fascination and frustration, ultimately a grand folly, by turns spectacular and dull; even though I looked back on it the next day with more appreciation for its ambitions, it’s meant to be an overwhelming, enveloping sensory experience, and it just didn’t do its job on my brain. So, here are some split-personality thoughts on the film, some of them mine, some of them from other critics. Please feel free to offer up your own views on the film in the comments box below.
1. The story is simple. Oscar, a young American drug dealer living in Tokyo with his sister Linda, who works as a nightclub stripper, is shot dead by police. His soul, for want of a better explanation, floats free of his body, watching over the people he’s left behind, as memories of his past appear out of sequence. We learn that he and his sister were separated as children when their parents were killed in a horrific car accident (which both children witnessed and were traumatised by), and that Oscar was responsible for bringing Linda to Japan, introducing her to drugs and the club scene. Past merges with present, actuality with hallucination, fantasy with fact as Oscar returns to a series of pivotal moments (the crash, his own birth etc.).
2. The plot is not particularly important. Enter the Void is primarily about cinema as out-of-body experience. The camera becomes Oscar’s disembodied perspective, editing together the disordered events into a comprehensible whole and making his vision inseparable from the spectator’s.
3. This seems as good a point as any to remark that the establishment of the film’s plot and themes is about as clumsy as its possible to be. Within the opening seconds, Oscar has pondered out loud “I wonder what Tokyo looks like from up there” (looking at a plane flying overhead), “I heard that you fly when you die” and “I’ve been reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead” etc. Foreshadowing of the most blatant kind. This film longs to become a cult favourite, and that’s part of the problem: Noe seems afraid that it won’t be discovered, so he signposts it for you like an over-keen party host, worried that you won’t have a good time or won’t be constantly entertained. It chokes off any enigma or mystique the whole enterprise might have had.
4. Best opening titles ever:
5. “Enter the Void is brilliant. It’s also smug, terribly acted, dramatically inert, and jaw-droppingly stupid. Oh yes, and for long sections, it’s deeply boring.[…] At various moments, the film recalls not just Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but modern-day video games and 1960s avant-gardism. Mostly though, this is a relentless experiment in post-cinema, a maddening but memorable compound of orientalism, technophilia and pharmaceutical aesthetics.” Sukdhev Sandhu, The Daily Telegraph.
6. “If you have the stomach and the endurance, it represents a revolutionary break from ordinary movie storytelling. There are characters besides Oscar in “Enter the Void,” including the damaged sister (Paz de la Huerta) he promised he would never leave and various disreputable Tokyo friends, acquaintances and lovers, and all these people’s actions do add up to a narrative of a sort. But Noé has here completed a journey he began with “Irreversible,” a film in which you could first see his desire to dissolve the distinctions between past, present and future, between happening and not-happening, between the physical landscape and the mental one, between life and death. So when Oscar is not flying through the walls, roofs and clouds of Tokyo, observing the consequences of his death, he is reliving his parents’ horrifying death many years earlier and his childhood separation from his sister, recycling the events that led to his own murder and creating scenes that could not have happened and others that never will.” Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com.
1. As close to religious ecstasy as cinema is likely to get, it imagines the point of death as a moment of lucid dreaming, realisation, epiphany. By subordinating narrative and character to spectacle, it leaves the viewer prone to its hallucinogenic flights through a collapsed time-frame where different events overlap or replay synchronically; it aims to subject you to a powerful mind-and-body sensation that is, in some ways, the very subject of much cinema – the attempt to create a surrogate sense of self, to project you into the life and mind of another. But it is striving sincerely to grasp some of the impossible, tantalising feelings we might expect to find in the moments immediately after death. It certainly beats picturing death as, well, a blank, instant void.
2. It’s a quasi-spiritual experience made by a secular provocateur, meaning that it takes a literal, materialist approach to imagining what an out-of-body experience at the point of death would look like. You’ve all heard about the soul floating out of the body, or of your life flashing before your eyes? Well, here it is, translated into aerial shots and flashbacks. In short, it’s tricksy, insincere, which tends to kill the buzz a little. Film will always fall short of capturing the nuances of real sensory input, so it seems naive to attempt to fulsome and detailed a simulation.
3. It’s not spiritual or religious, but more traditionally hallucinogenic, a simulation of a chemically-induced trip rather than any mystical process. As such, it is exactly as fascinating as listening to some baked losers boasting about the weirdest shit they’ve ever seen on drugs. The film wants to show you the weirdest shit you’ve ever seen on screen, but unless you’ve led a very sheltered cinema-going life, it’s not going to break too many boundaries. As usual with Noe, we’ve seen this kind of thing before, but maybe not in such concentrated doses or distended to such unnatural proportions.
4. “[It] is certainly an immersive experience that’s decidedly difficult to shake. The problem is that it’s also the most excruciating sit in recent cinematic memory. And no, the fact that it’s intentionally excruciating doesn’t make it less excruciating. […] Yes, this is that kind of movie, one crafted with genuine technical skill but completely pretentious in an “I just ate a funky mushroom and let’s see what happens” kind of way. It just goes on and on and on and – wait! Nope, still going – on, making us feel decidedly tense about which unholy vision Noe will unveil next, while simultaneously lulling us into the sort of boredom normally reserved for prisoners stuck in solitary confinement. Never has the word fast-forward whispered the potential for such bliss. […] In a strange way, though, Noe’s piece of work is one of those motion pictures that makes you glad to be alive. Upon leaving the theater, you’ll undoubtedly bask in the knowledge that you have a long, productive existence ahead of you, one that won’t require watching a single additional frame of Enter the Void.” Jen Chaney, The Washington Post.
5. “The film duly descends into gratuitous spectacle: Oscar’s death sends the camera into renewed contortions, plunging into bullet wounds and lavatory bowls. The result is both exceptionally fluid cinema and a meaningless bore, its head-on abortions and car crashes a last-resort stab at rousing an audience from slumber. While Noé remains defiant in this pursuit of extremes, the wonder and dread evoked in Enter the Void is, ultimately, childish: that of a gap-year student gawking at a live sex show, or an infant discovering their own genitalia. A must-see for Freudians, maybe; a pretty bad trip for everybody else.” Mike McCahill, Seven Magazine.
1. A provocative pioneer, Noé likes to deploy the full range of cinematic tricks to create complete spectacles of spectatorship. That is, even when he is aiming to shock, he does so carefully, with meticulous attention to detail. He is often described as self-indulgent, but really he is equally indulgent of his viewers, promising them a full, physical and sensory experience that plays on their most primal desires. He knows what his audience wants, even when his audience is reluctant to admit it.
2. Noe clearly envies directors like Kubrick, Tarkovsky and Lynch, who all managed to convey the sense of the vastness of existence without having to show it explicitly, by having it reside naturally within their particular view of a consistent but ultimately disinterested universe. Unable to see this natural propensity for poetically explaining the sublime experience of infinity in his own work, he merely transposes it into special effects and camera tricks, presumably the best analogue he can muster.
3. Homophobic, misogynist, and the worst kind of nihilist: i.e. the kind of nihilist who enjoys being nihilistic and is therefore not nihilistic at all but is just posing because it looks cool to be downbeat. Surely a real nihilist wouldn’t work this hard or give a flying cack about CGI?
4. “This is a grandiose hallucinatory journey into, and out of, hell: drugged, neon-lit and with a fully realised nightmare-porn aesthetic that has to be seen to be believed. Love him or loathe him – and I’ve done both in my time – Gaspar Noé is one of the very few directors who is actually trying to do something new with the medium, battling at the boundaries of the possible. It has obvious debts, but Enter the Void is utterly original film-making, and Noé is a virtuoso of camera movement.” Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian.
5. “Director Gaspar Noé proved a shock poet inIrreversible (2003). In Enter the Void, he’s a shockingly tedious show-off. In Tokyo, a drug dealer gets killed, and his soul rises out of his body to survey the life that led him there. Mostly, this means we watch routine doomy decadence while staring, literally, at the back of the hero’s head. It’s endless.” Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly.
6. “Enter the Void is the latest from the never uninteresting, sometimes exasperating Mr. Noé, whose films, like Irrevérsible (2002), skew toward provocations, filled with flashes of genius and irredeemable nonsense. The title of Enter the Void, which sounds like both a dare and a fun-house attraction, makes sense in a work about death and other hard times, but it also expresses Mr. Noé’s bad-boy, punk attitude, which can be hard to take seriously. His insistence on representing ugly extremes (incest, rape, murder) can be especially wearisome, coming across as weak bids to shock his audience (épater la bourgeoisie, as the French poets once said), which, already expecting (perhaps eagerly) a Gaspar Noé freakout, is unlikely to have its world genuinely rocked. But bring it on, Gaspar! And so he does in Enter the Void, where, with beauty, mild and sharp jolts, and mesmerizing camerawork, he tries to open the doors of perception.” Manohla Dargis, The New York Times.
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