Enter the Void of Gaspar Noé’s World

Enter the Void (IFC)

The third feature from Gaspar Noé (and his first since the grueling, brutally violent and at times tender Irreversible in 2002) opens with a strobing, neon-blasted barrage of credits that don’t announce so much as hit and run, flashing by with such momentum that you barely have time to register names let alone make sense of it all. They’re a hoot, a knowing, comic exaggeration of his reputation as a filmmaker who assaults the senses and sensibilities of his audiences.

Noe's neon purgatory

In past films the assault is through the violence perpetrated by and on his characters and (in his debut feature, I Stand Alone) the festering, foul hatred of its angry, brutal anti-hero, like he’s daring the audience to endure what he’s dishing out: transgression as art. And yes, there is that element in Enter the Void, a spacey, oddly spiritual drama of an American brother and sister in Tokyo shot entirely from the POV of an American junkie, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), who gets high (see the world disintegrate into the void), gets killed (in a seedy club called, now get this, The Void), watches his life flash before his dying eyes (or possibly relives his regrets) and then floats above the world to watch the people he left behind. It channels the same uncomfortably voyeuristic perspective of his earlier features and the bravura visual fluidity of Irreversible while it surveys the underworld of drug dealers, sex clubs, corrupt cops and social outcasts scrambling along the margins of an alien culture. Noé slips back and forth through time and memory, hovers and floats over scenes like a lost spirit, and soars through space over the city and through the human body, all with a camera that never stops moving and a momentum that gives it the feeling of an unbroken shot, even as it detours through the pulsating void of abstract fractal imagery and galactic clouds of afterlife infinity between scenes. (The strobing actually had a physical effect on me and more than once I had to avert my eyes to stop the nausea; as I say, Noe assaults the senses.)

A conversation at the beginning of the film frames it all with a simplified recap of  the philosophy of life, death, karma and reincarnation in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, as interpreted and simplified by Oscar’s French junkie buddy. And in this film, by Noe himself. For all the bravura of his suspended shots and floating POV and temporal slips through the past, Noe doesn’t offer much complexity of vision, only texture. We are assaulted with flashes of the car wreck that left Oscar and his sister orphans as he dredges through the broken promises of his childhood and the short-sighted plans to make good with a reunion in Tokyo funded by drug sales. His grown sister Linda is a teenage innocent he brings into his dead-end world, but the bee-stung lips and pouty expression of actress Paz de la Huerta gives her the look of a jaded fashion model already corrupted before her descent into the Tokyo sex trade. A nearly explicit abortion scene is tossed in for shock effect and sweaty, fleshy, often emotionally disconnected sex acts are part of the spectacle, and he tops that with what I can only call a womb’s perspective of intercourse. Is it purgatory, a spirit tethered to the place of his greatest failures or just a ghost story conceit put to the service of a conceptual showpiece more interested in the texture of the experience than the meaning of it?

The technical accomplishment, cinematic momentum and visceral immediacy does offer a kind of curious engagement on a physical level, but he remains so emotionally disconnected that the character narratives are more a matter of curiosity than drama. For Noe, the Void could be death, regret, spiritual stasis, a chemical high, a dead-end life of mistakes or the spiritual emptiness of its characters. For me, it’s sometimes the feeling that he just doesn’t know how to care.

At 160 minutes long, this film can be an ordeal, but it is undeniably a unique experience, somewhere between an out-of-body experience and a nightmarish trance. His dispassionate perspective aside, he manages to find human emotion and spiritual transcendence within this bottom-feeding existence of the flesh trade. The miracle of life is present in even the most tawdry sexual acts, if only on a visceral level. It’s just not necessarily a life that Noe seems to care for outside of its long, strange trip.

The supplements are not traditional featurettes but montages of special effects shots at various stages of completion. “VFX,” the longest as 11 minutes, is the most illustrative as it shows the finished shot and then peels back layers of effects in wipes to suggest the stages of creation without really explaining any of it. “Vortex” and “DMT” loop show various stages of the “void” imagery. There are also deleted scenes, a poster gallery and trailers, including three trailers that were unused.

The disc comes from the IFC Films label (distributed by MPI) and is a fine if unexceptional digital master. It was originally available via OnDemand in 2010 and may have come from the same cablecast master, which is a little coarse with digital grain, mostly evident in haze of darker scenes and in the void scenes themselves.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

1 thought on “Enter the Void of Gaspar Noé’s World”

  1. Great review. I love Noe’s propensity to do whatever the hell he wants to beat up his audience. I’ll never forget the story of Irreversible’s premiere. Crazy.

    This one also just became available on Netflix Watch Instantly as well.

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