Enter the Void (2009, Gaspar Noé)

Despite one net-acquaintance’s insistence that the correct pronunciation for “Gaspar Noé” is “What else is playing?”, I elected to spend the first night of a recent vacation attempting to make head or tail of his Enter the Void, the source of much consternation and adulation these past few years despite its financial failure. Aside from sensational clippings about his earlier work, I entered with no opinion of Noé except that there was a decent possibility his film would skeeve me out and upset me. I watched it anyway, on Netflix Instant, for you, the reader. And the disappointingly mild result is: I don’t hate it. I actually have considerable respect for it. But while feeling quite detached from it I can also see where the harsh detractors are coming from, and in the end I’ve got to tell you that I have no clue whether this movie really succeeds or not, but even if it doesn’t it’s a fascinating wreck.

Formally audacious in a vaguely threatening fashion, as befitting the eccentric director of Irreversible (there are stories about him that make Lars von Trier sound like Woody Van Dyke), Void is nevertheless far less radical than it and many audiences seem to think. It begins as a chronicle of a small-time drug dealer getting high, getting laid and walking the streets of Tokyo only to be shot, then becomes for the lion’s share of its duration a floaty and weird chronicle of the supposed afterlife, of watching over events and loved ones in a purgatorial sense unsubtly suggested early on by a lot of explicit appropriation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Oh yes, and all of this is from classic first-person perspective, in the vein of Wolfenstein 3D and “Smack My Bitch Up,” but inspired directly by the experimental Robert Montgomery film noir Lady in the Lake. That jumping off point dates from 1947, so there’s less here in technique that’s actually “new” than there first appears to be, but that doesn’t change the depth and mastery of Noé’s fluid and engrossing technique; the camera even blinks, and it’s not even terribly distracting. In its sensory explosion, Void is a fully realized and startling effort.

The thematic elements are the stronger sticking point. I kept thinking of Requiem for a Dream and not, thankfully, because of any of the empty moralizing that dominates Darren Aronofsky’s film but because of its trafficking in and fetishizing of an image set and catalog of behaviors that’s inherently unpleasant and depressing. Actually, a more reasonable line of comparison might be Casino, just pure inhuman nastiness in the guise of “realism.” That kind of story doesn’t really interest me much, and I end up finding the Tokyo underbelly and the bright lights-big city dread of Enter the Void both dehumanizing and rather cartoonish. Of course, much of this is circumvented by the film’s heavy concentration on metaphysical matters and on the seemingly heartfelt relationship of protagonist Alex and his sister Linda, orphaned years before in a car accident visualized in excruciating flashbacks. But there’s a nastiness and nihilism even in these character portraits and relationships, especially in the somewhat half-assed empathy attached to Alex himself, and the spiritual silliness laid on top of everything doesn’t help get the weird vibes out of your hair.

The first act of the film is strongest, despite the Talk to Her-as-nightmare vaginal canal and ejaculation adventures later on, thanks to its smooth rhythm and structure that comes across, as Noé intended, as a filmed dream of sorts — and a rather convincing drug trip whose effects both mesmerized me and made me want to turn my head, though clearly derived from (and less effective than) the Jupiter sequence in 2001. The hallucinations are vivid and believable enough that the actual death sequence feels a bit overwrought and overbaked, copping much more to Noé’s rep as a self-absorbed egomaniac who wants you to feel shit, man. Whatever, though. It’s a fascinating cinematic exercise in service of unpleasant things; it’s hard to look past its obnoxiousness — which begins with its inhumanely annoying (and Reddit-beloved) title sequence — but just as hard to dislike and completely fail to admire it.

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[When originally posted, this review was more heavily illustrated, and the alt-text on the images contained the following additional commentary]: Human beings occupy only limited space in Noé’s technically bravura, decadently squalid Tokyo. His obsessive filling up of the frame with busy cityscapes recalls parts of A Clockwork Orange, not the only Kubrick allusion found here. This early hallucination scene is a clear nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Though the entire conceit of the film revolves around the floaty purgatory of the Tibetan Book of the Dead‘s supposed afterlife, its most artistically impressive scenes are in the first act, which owes a debt to not just Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake and Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” but also Orson Welles’ initial, pre-Citizen Kane concept for a film adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. […] Gaspar Noé’s conception of a city [is] an intriguing comparison (see above) to John Cameron Mitchell’s cartoonish New York City a few years earlier in Shortbus.

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