Enter the Void, the new film by French-Argentinian Director Gasper Noé, is a truly remarkable film. Its visceral affectivity is staggering, and is matched only by its total commitment to transforming the current state of cinema. Arguably it is just not like anything ever seen in the cinema before. This film is relentlessly experimental, and is unafraid to totally immerse and disorientate its spectators by placing them in the most abstract, frenetic and artificial of filmic landscapes. It is a classic example of a truly ambitious work of cinema which is completely unhinged from the realm of conventional representation, and operates according to a completely different schema.
Ultimately this is a work that attempts to situate us entirely within the abstract interiority of thought. Surrounded as we are by the banal hegemony of contemporary Hollywood it is tempting to believe that true cinematic innovation is dead - but Noé shatters this belief in the most spectacular way. In the past ten years only a small handful of films have even come close to the sheer immersive totality, visceral power and vertiginous disorientation of Enter the Void, and two of them were by Noé (Seul Contra Tous & Irreversible), the others being Lynch's Mullholland Drive and Inland Empire, Haneke's Cache, and Despentes & Trinh Thi's Baise-Moi. Increasingly I find that most contemporary cinema simply doesn't make me feel anything at all, and all too often I leave films feeling numb, bored and tired. Cinema, in both its 'popular' and 'art' forms, seems to have forgotten that it is primarily a visual medium, and that as such its primary means of expression should bethrough ‘showing’ things rather than 'telling' things. All too often cinema is trivialised by becoming the mere visual adjunct to explicit narrative ends. I often find myself in the cinema thinking, if I just close my eyes and stop watching the film being screened I wouldn't be missing anything, simply because I am being told everything. Moreover, far too much cinema has become entirely divorced from the activity of thought, having settled into a trite set of formal clichés that align themselves with and merely duplicate the patterns of ordinary, everyday, living.
I think that is very sad.
When I go to the cinema I don't want the everyday reproduction of the familiar - I want to be actively disintegrated. I don't want to be immersed in the familiar. I want to be taken out of myself to the point of total estrangement. I want to be transformed.
Enter the Void presents itself as a striking experiment in extreme subjective visual perspective in the style of Robert Montgomery's 1947 adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Lady in the Lake.
In Montgomery’s film the camera adopts and sustains Marlowe’s first-person perspective throughout his investigation, with the character only occasionally being glimpsed in mirrors, shop windows, etc. This is a cinematic experiment seldom pursued, having been considered a less than successful filmic novelty in much the same way that Hitchcock's later experiment with continuous editing in Rope had been.
Noe’s other obvious cinematic influences include Kenneth Anger’s magickal films, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ken Russell’s Altered States and Tarkovsky’s Mirror.
(visual effect from Russell's Altered States)
In Enter the Void the camera forces the spectator to assume the perspective of a young American, Oscar, who is living with his sister, Linda, and working as a drug dealer in a neon-suffused Tokyo. We see this world through his eyes. It is not simply achieved through a point-of-view camera shot, but is developed into becoming the closest approximation of the way the world looks through embodied eyes. Hence the camera blinks, shifts frenetically and goes blurry in odd ways. Behind closed eyelids Noé presents entire abstract worlds of light and static. The first scene with Oscar plays out as a single, real-time shot lasting over half an hour, following Oscar as he settles down in his flat to smoke the powerful hallucinogen DMT (at one point we are told that DMT is similar to the drug released by the brain at the point of death). The scene includes some of the beautiful, detailed, abstract and pulsing CGI 'interiors', designed by visual artist Glenn Jacobsen aka "Glennwiz."
These minutely detailed micro-landscapes composed of unfolding and expanding brilliantly coloured spirals, fractals and delicate tendrils, accompanied by extracts from Coil's alien sound experiments on the early ANS synthesiser, recall Kubrick's 'stargate' sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was described at the time as ‘the ultimate trip’.
As I watched this part of the film (although it is perhaps more accurate to say that I was physically immersed in the film)my body began to be very powerfully affected; I felt an intense feeling of physical anxiety, fear and excitement, as well as a strong sensation of psychological vertigo that recalled some of my most intensely hallucinogenic drug experiences. Noé, by harnessing the spectacular visual CGI work of Glennwiz with Coil’s luminous soundscape, manages to perfectly capture not just the visual micro fabric of the hallucinated interior, but also its weird pace and aural tonality. One is immediately reminded of the quite literal transformative affective potential of cinema when it is used appropriately. Why hasn’t anybody ever truly tried to visually and aurally express the psychedelic experience on the big screen before?
This part of the film, where we are interiorised within the hallucinogenic realm, operates as a kind of preparation for the subsequent exploration of disembodied interior thought and memory. We will move from the abstract and synthetic meditative interior landscapes associated with Oscar’s drug experience to a more concrete and determined set of visual memories, associations and fantasies, but which are no less interior.
Called to make a drug deal mid-trip Oscar makes his way to a club called 'The Void' with his friend Alex, they have a rambling conversation about The Tibetan Book of the Dead. This conversation about the Tibetan mythology of the soul's journey after death (a journey that involves the nightmare of being confronted with versions of your past life as if in a mirror) appears to set out the narrative parameters for what follows; but in fact it is less a crude narrative device than you might initially think. At the club Oscar has been betrayed by his fellow drug dealer and is shot by the police after attempting to evade arrest.
At the point of his fatal shooting his earlier conversation offers an explanation for what it is that Oscar will be thinking in his final compressed moments as the flames from his dying brain are extinguished forever. The conversation about The Tibetan Book of the Dead provide a crude framework for Oscar’s desperate last thoughts. Noé himself has said that it is ‘a dream of someone who read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and heard about it before being shot by a gun. It's not the story of someone who dies, flies and is reincarnated, it's the story of someone who is stoned when he gets shot and who has an intonation of his own dream.’
In exploring one man's apparent spiritual journey after an untimely death, Noé manages to achieve things with point of view filmmaking that are striking in their fluidity and unfamiliarity. In ways that are reminiscent of certain scenes from his earlier film Irreversible, his camera is unhinged, it floats, dances and whirls, stitching together footage taken of reality with entirely computer-generated imagery in ways that challenge our notion of how film cameras can even move. Oscar’s disembodied soul rises up out of his lifeless body and speeds across Tokyo to check on the reactions of his friends and his sister to the news of his death, all still from his eyes - except Oscar now has no eyes, he is disembodied. So the blinking stops, as does the frenetic hand-held quality of the camera; the camera now floats and drifts smoothly across the tracks of Oscar's disjointed pattern of thought alone. This part of the film is entirely engaged in the interior perspective of Oscar's memory.
In scenes that are reminiscent of Resnais' time travel masterpiece Je t'aime, Je t'aime, the events that led Oscar to this place in time, namely his death, are shown in a series of disjointed fragments, again from his perspective, but now with a difference: it is now as if he is positioned behind his past self, watching the scenes play out with the back of his own head in the foreground. We are presented with images of Oscar and Linda as young children with their parents, the close incestuous relationship between the two siblings, the violent accidental death of their parents, the pact they make to never leave one another (which is broken when they are sent to separate foster homes), and the road that eventually leads them back together in Tokyo - he with his drug problems and her falling into a job as a stripper in the ‘Power, Money Sex’ club within her first few days in town.
Oscar's incestuous desire for his sister, which is heightened by the death of his parents, is explored in these often moving, sentimental and occasionally nightmarish flashbacks. Yet there is artificiality about the way these scenes are shot, not least in the self-conscious way the camera is positioned behind Oscar's head in the past and observed from the perspective of Oscar's present spirit self, and in the highly stylized and psychedelic presentation of a CGI Tokyo cityscape.
Massive shifts of time are spliced and linked together, with the film moving back and forth through time at the speed of thought. It is with these rapid edits of time that we realise that we are seeing a visual hallucination of Oscar's past, coordinated together into an abstract patchwork by remembered points of trauma, loss, grief, desire, pleasure and longing. In much the same way as Resnais' time traveller is oriented to repeat fragmented moments from his past through the forces of his desire, grief, guilt and a desperate need to change the past, Oscar is driven to make some attempt to try and reconcile with his sister, to make up for his act of, what he sees as, childhood betrayal. Yet this desire for reconciliation is corrupted and confused, and has now become suffused with incestuous sexual desire for the sister/mother.
If, as I’m suggesting, we are to read these interlinked moments as the compressed interior thoughts of Oscar as he lies dying, as the film progresses we are inevitably moving ever closer to the oblivion of the void. Oscar’s thoughts become more disparate, looser, weirder and more abstract. As we progress the scenes become harder and harder to recognise as the movements of the film as thought - perhaps they are closer to being the movements associated with the primal instinct towards survival, Oscar’s desires, fears, hopes and his force of will to remain in being.
The third, and perhaps most impressionistic and challenging, part of the film, deals with the aftermath of Oscar's death. The perspective we adopt once again floats the camera through walls as Oscar watches in mute helplessness as his body is disintegrated and the most important people in his life fall to pieces in the most repellent ways. For me, one of Noé's greatest achievements emerges from the fact that by this point, as a viewer, you have become so immersed within the interior perspective of Oscar through the visual medium of the film that Noé is able to somehow convey the emotional state and thoughts of a character who has absolutely no voice and no way of communication. This aspect of Oscar has become pure observation and abstract movement between images, yet he has distinct and recognizable emotional responses to the world around him that he sees, yet cannot affect. You realise at a certain point that this is being achieved through us having become immersed within Oscar as his brain dies. We are Oscar at the point of a profound mutation, perhaps the profoundest mutation of all, namely death, the void. Again, at this point one recalls the startling final sequences from Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Throughout the film, from the point Oscar has been shot, there is a relentless rhythm associated with the continued movement into the saturated pulsing/strobing realm of light and flames, almost as if one is circling around oblivion, as the last circulations of blood pulse around the brain and the final synapses fire. The linkages between images where we are plunged into oblivion match onto these neurological pulsations, and we become unhinged, floating and driven by the desperate surges of desire that had fundamentally animated Oscar's brief life. We float through the venal amphitheatre of the 'Money, Power, Sex' club, as grubby, nihilistic and bestial as the club 'Rectum' in Irreversible, before Oscar's spirit floats through the hallucinogenic sex chambers of the 'Love' hotel in the final moments of the film. Both ‘Money, Sex, Power’ and the ‘Love Hotel’ operate as ciphers for Oscar’s mammalian instincts and desires, with the latter signalling the complete realisation of the fantasy psychedelic neon model of the ‘Love’ Hotel that we glimpse earlier in the film. Here what Oscar feels as a purified love towards his sister (i.e. purified of money and power), his desperate need to reconcile and make amends for having abandoned her in childhood is identified through the only matrix of desire he knows, sex. In weird scenes reminiscent of a Murakami novel, all of the characters from Oscar's present life are engaged in passionate sexual acts where the energy generated by their sexual organs floats from them like psychedelic ectoplasm. He discovers his sister and his best friend Alex fucking in this spectral set of love chambers, and in his final moments, in a move contextualised by his recent reading/conversation about The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Oscar 'decides' to become transubstantiated into one of Alex's sperms and to reincarnate as his sister's child. Oscar becomes his father as he fucks his sister, and then becomes his own seed which impregnates his sister become mother. This vertiginous spiral of desire signals the last mad moments of Oscar’s life, his desperate desire to continue to cling to existence as he nears almost total oblivion.
In the final scene (again, a scene which directly echoes the final scene from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) we see Oscar reborn as his sister's child, his sister having now become his mother. This is profoundly illusory. This is the hallucinated spectacle of the dying Oscar as he swirls vertiginously around the void, desperately clinging hold to his past and seeking a way, any way, to persist in being. Ultimately, I think this is another of Noé’s films about the primal human desire, in the face of suffering, misery and death, to persist in being, to find a way to adhere to life. Think of his butcher in Seul Contre Tous as he considers killing his daughter and himself at the end of the film, as he contemplates ‘entering the void’.
Whilst Enter the Void offers no false condolences about the unremitting nature of material reality (about this it is almost Gnostic in its view of the world), and whilst it might appear to offer the Buddhist no-exit sentiment regarding the wheel of life (we will persist in being come what may), ultimately Noé offers the certain exit to the void. All we see, all we hear, all we feel, and all we think during this film are the compressed moments of Oscar's dying, expanded and cinematically laid out, and his desperate efforts to reconnect the fragments of his life, his desire and his hopes into a persistence of being. But Oscar must die, and like we all must, he enters the void. I suppose one might understand this as an ugly, yet ultimately optimistic, form of nihilism.
I think that what is finally so remarkable about this film, and what places it alongside classic transformative films such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Resnais’ Je t’aime, Je t’aime and Lynch’s Eraserhead, together with other recent masterpieces such as Lynch's Inland Empire, is that this is a highly accomplished and ambitious film which explores the everyday, damaged and corrupted, spiritual dimensions of subjectivity. Oscar is no idealised hero-protagonist, like us all he is fucked up, confused, damaged and damaging, but the peculiarities of his interiority are no less compelling for that. I believe that this is a realm to which cinema is uniquely suited to explore, yet so rarely does. I left feeling that all cinema should be about grasping this vital possibility for exploring the labyrinthine qualities of spiritual interiority, and I left with an overwhelmingly powerful desire to immerse myself in this thrilling and spectacular film again. And I just don’t say that about too many films anymore.