Gasper Noé situates Enter the Void firmly within the tradition of psychedelic cinema. He experiments with point-of-view, washes every frame with luminescent color, and seeds the plot with druggie philosophy. Over 160 minutes, it all looks very impressive, but does it actually mean anything?
The film begins in the Tokyo apartment of American drug-dealer Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and his sister Linda (Paz De La Heurta), who followed him to Japan and soon became a stripper. They stand on the balcony and casually speculate about the feel of death. Is it like flying or falling? They look down on a Blade Runner-ish city full of high-rises and diffuse, varicolored light. Noé‘s first experiment starts here, with a subjective point-of-view. The camera sits behind Oscar’s eyes; when he blinks, the frame briefly goes dark. He speaks with a slightly muffled and reverberating voice, as though hearing himself.
After his sister goes to work, Oscar sits down to smoke, and the screen illustrates his altered visual perception, offering a remarkably accurate rendering of a DMT trip, with the ceiling becoming a red-hued pulsation of fractally repeating ferns. Sounds grow warbly, as though heard from far away while underwater. A low mumble of conversation begins, though Oscar’s alone in the room.
Like much of Enter the Void, it’s a visually arresting scene that does little to advance plot or character. Hearing Oscar’s scattered thoughts while he trips only underscores that drug use can scatter your thoughts. Oscar’s don’t appear that profound to begin with, and his drug-taking (and dealing) later appears as a refusal to join the ranks of adults he calls “slaves.”
Noé makes clear he has deeper issues in mind, through Alex (Cyril Roy), a fellow psychedelics aficionado. Alex asks whether Oscar has read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and soon he’s monologuing about the Tibetan view of the afterlife. As this is probably the longest conversation in the film, we can assume it will have later relevance.
It does, because Oscar quickly gets shot by Japanese police. As his blood spills onto the floor of a grimy bathroom (in a club named “Void,” of course), he wonders, “They shot me. Did they kill me? Did they shoot me? I’m just tripping, that’s what it is. It’s the DMT.” (Alex later makes explicit the connection, claiming that the body releases DMT at death.)
Oscar’s apparent death (and eventual cremation) further frees Noé‘s camera, which rises through the ceiling and becomes unstuck in time. It follows his sister through her grief and anger from a disembodied remove. Its perspective removes any nuance from individual actors; they all become head-tops and foreshortened bodies, save when the camera occasionally dives into the lower, material world. Often this means zooming in on a light source until it loses all definition. When it becomes only light, Noé cuts to another, similar light, zooming out to reveal a new scene. This technique repeats many, many times.
Viewed from above, the characters become visually flat. Noé amplifies this alienation through banal dialogue delivered with flattened affect, as though all personality has been burned away by drugs or life. (Linda, especially, delivers every line as though she’s just waking up.) Without a strong sense of character, Enter the Void becomes primarily an intellectual exercise, the wooden dialogue one of several elements recalling Kubrick’s 2001. But the film’s intellectual underpinnings—its ideas—seem muddled. Noé claims to have experimented with DMT as visual research, and he supplies the Bardo Thodol (that is, The Tibetan Book of the Dead) as an interpretive framework for the film.
Neither of these influences has appeared in Noé‘s earlier work, but Enter the Void does share with Irreversible a preoccupation with violent, rupturing moments. Here the most obvious break is Oscar’s death, which enables over two hours of roaming camera-work. Earlier, though, Oscar and Linda’s parents are killed in a brutal car crash, a scene Noé returns to several times. With their parents’ death, Oscar and Linda became inseparable, nearly incestuous. This violence-spawned connection, Noé implies, ultimately leads to Oscar’s brutal death—and incessant rebirth.
The muddled (perhaps clichéd) exploration of violence and repercussions makes Enter the Void more like Irreversible than one might at first expect. Both movies are technically impressive, equally beautiful and filthy, polarizing and provocative. And as both end, viewers may not immediately understand what they’ve endured. Like a drug trip, the profundity here is ersatz: whatever Great Truth you believe you’ve attained, you can’t bring it back with you.