Enter the Void (2009), nearly two years after this uncompromising and thoroughly authentic epic of garishness had its official premiere at Cannes, and months following its American release, might be a bit overdue. As a matter of fact, this ‘little’ review has been brewing for the past eight years, ever since I saw (and loved) Noé’s Irréversible (2002), which was merely to serve as a spring-board to his next project, set in Tokyo and based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Enter the Void, Noé’s third feature film, ended up spending several years in pre-production limbo, mostly due to difficulties in gathering the necessary funds for such an ambitious project, until its artistic ambitions and scope finally found sufficient backing and dwarfed its already impressive predecessors, I Stand Alone (Seul contre tous, 1998) and the above-mentioned Irréversible.
With these three features and a score of short films, all unified tonally and thematically, dealing mostly—on the surface, at least—with graphic representations of sex and violence, Noé has established a strong scandalous reputation for himself, spanning a wide range of derogatory labels on the critical spectrum, from ‘fascist’ to ‘degenerate’ and ‘Jew’ (on fascist blogs, such as the French site Anti-Impérialisme). This speaks to the complex persona and universe of Noé’s films, which explore the transgressions of boundaries and the limits of representation, and whose imagery of incestuous fathers, sado-masochistic drug-dealing homosexuals, grotesque transsexual prostitutes, elaborate anal rape sequences and graphic murders, are, indeed, bound to be somewhat offensive to some of their audience (it is part of their charm, appealing to the horror and Georges Bataille fan in me). And yet, I would argue, Noé’s racist/sexist/misogynistic representations are not what irks his detractors the most. As a matter of fact, they could even be said to skillfully deconstruct the ethics of fascism and racial/sexual hatred—whether or not this stems from Noé’s unconditional love of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (1975). There remains, to be sure, an aestheticization of an (un)certain ideology in Noé, as in his use of brassy and tautological slogans (for example, Irréversible’s ‘le temps détruit tout’—‘time destroys everything’), which would be typical of any populist movement. In my view, however, the over-the-top nature of Noé’s slogans-coup-de-poing (‘fist-blow-slogans’) serves the purpose of their own distancing, while also delivering the violence and exhilaration of their spectacular and oft-exploitative narrative baggage (in this, Noé can be linked to Paul Verhoeven, and particularly his fabulously jubilant Starship Troopers (1997), often called a fascist film). And, after all, there is truth, sometimes, even in the most grating and unsubtle statements: if you think about it, le temps détruit tout indeed—even asinine criticism, and since its release in 2002, for instance, Noé’s (in)famous Irréversible has gradually been acknowledged by critics for what it is: one hell of a cinematic feat and exciting thrill-ride, and not an entirely brain-less one, at that.
Yet, as I just hinted, it is not the depiction of marginal gay S&M acts or violence against women that have caused the biggest uproar against Noé. His obvious fixation with nightmarish gay loves, bathed in hellish Boschian dark red hues, and the coterminous anal and incest anxieties, would make a Freudian psychoanalyst very happy indeed, and could serve the filmmaker’s detractors to easily dismiss him as immaturely scatological, molested-child-turned-traumatized-vicious-artiste. But much like Irréversible departs from the gay bar (aptly, if un-poetically called) ‘Le rectum’ to slowly elevate itself to a lofty cosmic abstraction—although the reversed time structure of the film would imply that all ends in the gut(ter)—so do we, in the present piece, want to move away from the miasma of the subconscious and focus on what lies not beneath, but beyond and above the surface. But let us return to what bothers some in Noé. His depiction of ‘normal’ bourgeois people as dull, idle, cynical, self-congratulatory, and potentially monstrous (Vincent Cassel’s ugly mug cum ‘sexy’ persona was a perfect casting choice for the bourgeois-gone-berserk in Irréversible, beyond his real-life engagement/marriage to co-star Monica Bellucci), in line with the anti-establishment rhetoric drawn from Sade and the surrealists, is one point that certainly puts a substantial section of his audience in an awkward position: Noé will spit, if not vomit, right in your face (his cinema has aptly been referred to as vomitif, and the profusion of intestinal imagery in his films certainly supports the observation), with a vengeance, and yet the liberal bourgeois, épaté as he/she will be, will praise the film and ask for more, out of open-mindedness more so than sadism—which is entirely missing the point. Besides, more insidiously, there is a brand of perverse bourgeois decadent tenderness running throughout Noé’s oeuvre: beautiful, mostly naked female bodies are a fixture of his films, albeit one that is pleasing to look at, yet always edgy and excessive, such as for instance in his short video Eva (2005), featuring supermodel Eva Herzigova playing with a kitten in a blood-red hotel corridor, echoing the sinister underground passage tunnel in Irréversible. But the most aggravating element of the ‘anti-Noé’ camp, no doubt, is his societal message, neither nihilistic, nor didactic, but both, namely, the statement that we live crappy, senseless lives in a world of crap, peopled with loud, brutal and deadly crap. And yet, this world of crap is filled with sublime and at times soothing beauty, which by and large completely escapes us. It appears that the scatological imagery in his films has a metaphoric dimension, rendering it all much more interesting and arresting. Noé, far better than many ‘socially’ aware filmmakers, yields an accurate picture of the dreadful situation of our world at the start of the 21st century (socially, but also environmentally speaking, with a cynical sense of fiddling while Rome is burning which seems to inhabit all his narcissistic characters). While doing so, he still imparts a sense of control, of a world whose apparent chaos is actually articulated by laws and a clearly cyclical scheme, where horrible violence occurs as some sort of twisted and blind divine ‘justice’, and where the wrong person is systematically killed in retaliation, while the source of evil goes unscathed. For example, in Noé’s medium-length debut, Carne (1991), The Butcher (Philippe Nahon) stabs the wrong man—clearly typified as a Northern African immigrant—in the mouth, for the alleged rape of his daughter (a rape he would gladly have committed himself, and which he presumably does, after being released from prison, in I Stand Alone). In his sophomore effort Irréversible, the rapist (Jo Prestia) (referred to as ‘le ténia’ – the tapeworm), watches, fascinated, as a frenzied Pierre (Albert Dupontel) reduces another sado-masochistic gay man’s face to a pulp with a fire extinguisher, in clearly coital and orgasmic fashion, thus unleashing his own sexual frustration and long repressed desire. It is not the graphic violence that is disturbing, nor even the pleasure that we derive from it, but rather, the compelling discourse behind it—a discourse that smothers us all, all the more since, beyond it lies an unreachable promise. Noé offers, at every turn, a despairing causal, cyclical mechanics of the (horribly) wrong turn, implying a teleological representation filled with the idea of an absent and yet omnipresent God (the filmmaker or the artist), following each detail with a paradoxical mix of care and detachment. The inquisitive camera, lingering on the most disturbing detail, or quizzically spinning around like some drunken fly in the room, morphing into an inescapable whirlwind going down an existential drain, is always poised somewhere between the ultimate voyeurism—an emotive, personalized view, a character within the film underlined by the camera’s baroque movements—and the cold, distanced referentiality of an indifferent god—a third person, objective mode. One is constantly led by the belief that these are the realms of Dionysus, and yet, on the contrary, we truly are in a well-disguised Apollonian scheme, perfectly crafted and controlled. Reinforcing this idea of control and cycle is the way in which each of his films are clearly connected, not only formally, but also with cameos from characters from the previous installment, or by audio-visual cues. All of the above is nowhere clearer in Noé’s oeuvre than in Enter the Void, where God (but a Homo homini deus type of god), comes down to earth once more to watch over a slice of degraded humanity.
With its putrid green-yellowish hues, interspersed with the purple, blue, red and yellow neon lights of a phantasmagoric Tokyo, Enter the Void introduces us exclusively to lame or objectionable characters, devoid of ethics, thinking only of their own earthly pleasures: Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), the young North American tourist-turned-drug dealer in order to sustain himself in Tokyo, fills the void of his existence by indulging in casual sex with girls at every turn and seeking the ultimate trip on DMT, a drug provoking particularly striking hallucinations and out-of-body sensations—compellingly recreated throughout the film—allegedly akin to the brain’s final voyage into death. Yet Oscar loves Linda (Paz de la Huerta), his borderline 19-year-old sister, and his drug-dealing endeavors derive in part from his efforts to bring her to Tokyo in order to be with her. Yet their reunion is hardly bed of roses, as he watches his sibling embrace nightlife and drugs, sleeping diffidently with a local mobster, Mario (Masato Tanno), and dancing in his strip club to make a living. Oscar’s best friend, Alex (Cyril Roy), a loopy French painter, seems quite interested in Linda’s luscious curves, but his lecherous affection seems unrequited. Needless to say, Noé’s fascination for lurid eroticism has never been more in view, but since we never really care about the characters, we watch all this with a great deal of detachment, as though, indeed, under the influence of some drug (the film’s remarkable sound design being a major factor in this). In the end—or, rather, in the beginning—it is indeed a mixture of drugs and sex, as in the best (or worst) pulp exploitation fare, that proves the protagonist’s undoing: shortly after Alex has introduced him to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Victor (Olly Alexander), one of Oscar’s clients, finds out that he has been sleeping with his mother (Sara Stockbridge), and turns him in to the police, who shoot Oscar, since they believe that he has a gun—again, the trope of the lethal blow against the “wrong man.” The diegesis, and Oscar’s ghost’s ventures, stem from there, before coming full circle as Oscar is reborn as the fruit of Linda and Alex’s absurd and unlikely loves.
The whole film is shot using the POV technique, as we watch the universe of the film through Oscar’s eyes, first an active participant of the diegesis, before his death and newly acquired ghostly status puts him in some liminal status between the viewer—incapable of intervening, following the action—and the filmmaker, who chooses where to have Oscar’s ghost “look.” The film thus poses the question of directorial agency, through its various modes of subjective perspective: embodied, then disembodied, with several variations: when the ghost sees himself, as a memory of a baby bathing with his gorgeous mother (Janice Béliveau-Sicotte), or as a nightmarish projection of the future—the “bad trip.” In doing so, Noé interrogates the profound metafilmic nature of any shot, in any film, and so addresses cinematic perspective—perhaps the most difficult question of all with which a filmmaker is faced. Besides, through its use of subjective perspective, Enter the Void leaves the interpretive door wide open as to whether there is indeed transcendence and resurrection of the soul—as predicted in the Tibetan Book of the Dead—embracing a cyclical conception of the universe, or whether it is all a hallucinogenic trip/dream of the protagonist in the seconds preceding his death. Either way, the film sucks us in, for better or for worse.
For his magnum opus, Noé has picked his (mostly unknown) actors carefully, choosing common, unglamorous faces coupled with handsome (no)bodies, most notably in the case of the hyper-sexual(ized) Paz de la Huerta, whose top model measurements are in constant contrast with her spaced-out facial expressions and irritating voice—she had already been seen nude in Jim Jarmusch’s underrated The Limits of Control (2009) and the HBO program Boardwalk Empire. While the acting and dialogues are systematically flat, reflecting the characters’ own philosophical flatness, we see, as we follow them, that they are not any fouler nor more mundane than anyone else: Oscar is a clear proxy to Noé, just as Alex, the strangely-surrogate father figure who becomes the actual biological father in the end, is a proxy to Noé’s father, Luis Felipe, also a painter. Like us, these every(wo)men drift in a senseless existence, animated by a pathetic lust for life. Pathetic is not too strong a word, as we relate more to the predicament as archetypes of a new era of useless mobility of these banal ex-pats (concepts such as ‘deterritorialization’ or ‘uprootedness’ would loom large in another take on the film) than to their specific fates and actions, which we sense are going nowhere, even before the film’s conclusion.
To be sure, it is a little surprising, at first viewing, to find oneself fascinated and enthralled by a repetitive narrative of the lower-depths such as this one, so formally radical in underlining its own dullness, and rather unpleasant in its depriving the spectator from the implicative and adrenalin-inducing jolts of Noé’s previous efforts, lacking also the staggering performance of a Philippe Nahon, or the plastic beauty of a star such as Monica Bellucci (or Beethoven’s 7th symphony) for us to identify with and cling onto. And yet, the film does work. One obvious reason is the technological feat it achieves, very often seamlessly, courtesy of the hypnotic, floating camera movements and countless instances of image manipulation, deepening Noé’s formal pursuits and experiments with the fake sequence-shot, using hundreds of instances of digital stitching, facilitated by the fact that the film takes place almost exclusively at night; but also the use of miniatures of Tokyo, over the streets of which (filled with CGI silhouettes of passersby) the camera—operated by Noé himself—hovers, to the psychedelic lighting of Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie. In technological terms, Enter the Void is a pure gem, refined in places by instances of what Stan Brakhage referred to as the ‘hypnagogic’ view. While the whole film is dominated by slow, floating camera movements, it also resorts to electrifying outbursts—as in its memorable titular sequence—to quasi-epileptic editing, an efficient means of being pushed, head-on, into the void. Surely Noé has learned his lessons from the films of the American avant-garde, and the kinship with Kenneth Anger must be pointed out here as well. (For the film’s opening credits, see here.)
But the film, of course, is more than just a pure feat of technology, or an invitation to a mere synaesthetic ride—although it can and should be best appreciated in 35mm, sitting in the front row, where its engulfing somatic dimension will be at its most potent. Because it depicts mundane individuals, with no major interesting or illuminating plot points, arch psychoanalysis thrown in the mix and trivial dialogues, some may dismiss the script as melodramatic or mediocre. Enter the Void is, actually, quite carefully written, its structure much better than many contemporary films praised for their screenwriting, including the cleverly dialogued but ultimately (very) boring The Social Network (2010): these two films, can be compared as negative reflections of one another—the latter as a truly nihilistic exploration of nothingness parading as a humanist investigation of a man’s soul, using slick video techniques, quick cuts and relentless dialogue to try to conceal its vacuous nature and sheer lack of sincerity; while the former is a voyage into the soul of the artist parading under the guise of a nihilistic argument, deploying a falsely boring fetishism of ‘dead’ time, but filling each frame with a vibrant, vital élan and a mastery of filmic tempo. This being said, Enter the Void’s story’s matters little, and in the end, it dissolves into nothingness. What does matter, on the contrary, beyond its somatic effect, and the paradoxical life-affirming drive I just pointed out, is its philosophical affect, its personal, insolent energy, and in this sense, the story only serves as a pre-text, quite literally. It is in what lies beyond the ‘story’ that the actual cinematic experience of Enter the Void begins. And just to make this point unambiguous, the whole narrative is laid out to us early on in the film, as Alex, walking down a staircase, summarizes the Tibetan Book of the Dead to Oscar, in a clear gesture of baring of the film’s narrative structure. But in doing so, it also evokes the epic or mythical structure, summarizing the main elements of a quest before illustrating them at great lengths. The film, in scope, in length, in structure, is an epic—of the void of our existence, which we are meant to attempt to fill. The film tries to come to terms with the beauty that emerges at the very bottom of things, the light in the darkness, the spark in the eternal night of the soul, something the characters seem dimly, subconsciously aware of: their dim-wittedly pensive or stoned gazes in the thundering night club atmosphere expressing a vague fascination and yearning for immortality (the immortality of angels), the transcendental promises and a sense of spiritual rebirth and elevation. The motif of drugs, here, binds together aspirations of physical and mental escapism with the utopia of a higher state of being and consciousness.
It is not often that a film has such brazen philosophical ambitions and goals—especially in such outrageous guises—and those of Enter the Void’s are never a mystery: it wants to emulate Noé’s favorite film, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and become its equivalent for the ‘post-2001’ era, where the airplane replaces the space-ship, and thick smog prevents earthlings from seeing the stars, all ambitions diminished in scope. Noé has quoted Kubrick’s masterpiece repeatedly (most literally in the final shot of Irréversible), and in general, one can feel the great model’s operatic and sublime aesthetics lurking everywhere in Noé’s frame of a degraded, dehumanized, social-network infused, post-industrial, late (too late, I am tempted to add) capitalist society. There is quite a bit of hubris in this gesture, no doubt, and for all his talent, Noé is not Stanley Kubrick—he lacks the master’s versatility, if not his subtle perversity. As Manohla Dargis has pointed out in her New York Times review of the film, ‘for some, Kubrick is God. Mr. Noé, on the other hand, is a follower, if one to watch.’ There are several such followers, of course, among contemporary filmmakers: of the many ersatzes, we can point out two other noted directors who also clearly quote Kubrick, be it in their music videos or feature films: Jonathan Glazer and P.T. Anderson. But there is a great difference between Noé and his American colleagues: Glazer quotes shots from A Clockwork Orange (1971) - in his music video for Blur’s "The Universal" (1995) - and The Shining (1980), in Birth (2004), to no specific avail other than the pleasure of the useless pun, the postmodern homage. Anderson tries very hard indeed to become the most important living American filmmaker with each new film (nowhere more conspicuously than in his mangled epic of self-importance, There Will be Blood (2007) – a title just as bombastic as Enter the Void’s, for that matter, but without the latter’s obvious punk insolence), by recreating a series of mere visual or aural quotes from Kubrick’s work. What these American ‘heirs’ fail to understand is that what is Kubrickian, in essence, is not the over-the-top aesthetics, a certain mode of acting or framing, the operatic use of music, nor even the epic breadth: it is, clearly, about expressing a form of secular transcendence, an affect deeply present in all his films since 2001. To this, of course, one can add the notion of the (ultimate) trip, of cinema as a new philosophy, a new mode of thinking and perceiving the world, of a juncture between the fairground attraction—a Ferris wheel for the mind—and new psychotropic invention—at one point the most important of all the arts (sadly, not any more). To be sure, Noé’s film does that, wanting to expand on the final chapter of 2001 by constantly evoking its psychedelic and/or sublime imagery, but in a consciously degraded form, for instance in his quoting the star child, in the shape of a dead aborted fetus.
2001 was a voyage to the confines of human nature and destiny (and beyond), offering the promise of a new stage in human evolution; Enter the Void proposes to glimpse at such exalting perspective and then remain prisoner of a vicious circle for all of eternity, but not completely so. As Alex lackadaisically tells Oscar: ‘It’s a little bit complicated, you know.’ Lulling and jolting us, the film constantly revisits its own internal spatio-temporal geography, taking us back to scenes previously visited, but always with a variation—a line of dialogue will change, an action will be altered, and of course the camera’s ghostly perspective will shift—so that it is not only the angle or point of view that is modified, but the texture of reality, almost imperceptibly, acquiring the vague and un-crystallizable, ever slightly elusive, quality of a dream. And by the end, Enter the Void abandons all verisimilitude, as we see all the film’s protagonists indulging in one grotesque orgy, Linda’s and Alex’s embraces ironically (and yet somewhat touchingly) fulfilling the promise of the brother and sister’s reunion beyond death. It makes no sense that Linda would have sex with Alex, especially considering that, as she picks him up, he is stinking and feeding on back-alley restaurant trash (a detail lost in the US cut). It makes no sense, and yet it imposes itself to us, because such is Noé’s design. When he offers a truly ridiculous shot of Alex’s gigantic gland ejaculating inside Linda’s vagina—inescapably, a visual pun on the notion of cinematic climax—the line is drawn: between those who will, like Noé, embrace the over-the-top and ridiculous dimensions and inhale, live through the experience fully, warts and all, and those who will have long relinquished the opportunity.
Enter the Void, in spite of its anesthetic, hypnotic aural and visually overwrought nature and floating images, is a challenging, uncompromising work. In this sense, it is jarring and oftentimes the viewer will be genuinely taken aback by Noé’s aesthetic parti-pris. But the minor miracle happens precisely then: almost each scene starts with a mise-en-scène choice that one can reasonably question—the dialogue will sound arch, the music will be grating, the whole situation uselessly tasteless. And then, gradually, the choices impose themselves, the irony emerges, the idea comes through and shines, against all odds, imposing the scene’s full artistic integrity and earning the viewer’s respect. Take Linda’s abortion, for instance, or the scene in which Oscar returns as a zombie, only present in the (17 minutes longer) European cut, as it illustrates the concept of ‘bad trip’ which is almost entirely absent from the US version, and which compels the anti-hero to be reincarnated. And this demands a very active—pro-active, even— dimension on the spectator’s part, something the floating, spaced-out, limbo-like universe of the film, again, does not seem to lend itself to whatsoever, even in its brief violent outbursts (the car crash in which Oscar and Linda’s parents are killed, most notably).
As a deceptively difficult, ‘writerly’ film, Enter the Void continues a trend in cinema that I once called ‘transmodernism’. Transmodernism, in my view, is both a continuation or revival of modernist impulses (in the films of, say, Alexander Sokurov or Bruno Dumont) or a superseding of postmodernism, but having incorporated traits of the latter, as is clearly the case in Enter the Void, with its echoes of pop aesthetics bordering on camp fare and Japanese B cinema of the seventies. In a slightly less garish way, one can see a similar phenomenon at work in the recent films of Gus Van Sant, such as Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005) or Paranoid Park (2007). As so often with (post)modernist art, Enter the Void bears a dimension of self-reflexivitiy, not referencing overtly the act of filmmaking, but being profoundly, over-determinedly about cinema, if only in its acquiescing and inviting the work of the viewer, something the Cahiers du Cinéma’s new chief editor Stéphane Delorme failed to understand in his punishing (and perfunctory) review of the film, stating that ‘the film [was] yet to be made’ (‘le film reste à faire’), and lamenting the fact that he, the critic, did not find in the film what should have been there. Clearly, one must participate and must do one’s work in order to live the film fully, and gain its many rewards. It is not enough to take the smoke into the mouth—one has to take it in the lungs to venture into Noé’s despondent, yet life-affirming trip. A trip which grows with every viewing, qualities taking over the flaws and general conceit standing the test of time. With this film, Gaspar Noé has cast aside his guise of extremist and provocateur, to concentrate on the adventurer, the explorer, the inventor—one of the few left in contemporary cinema. His latest effort is already considered great by some (surely it has acquired a ‘cult’ status), and as trash by others (a friend suggested that I tattoo the title of the film on my rear end), but one thing is for sure: Enter the Void captures our contemporary morally and environmentally degraded and yet detached zeitgeist to perfection, a lurid picture of our very existences in a decadent era—one of art’s fundamental purposes. If not a great film, Enter the Void is, at least, great cinema—and there goes another tautological slogan, no less true for all that.
Author's Note: I would like to express my gratitude to Marcelline Block for her diligent copy-editing of this piece.
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