‘Enter the Void’: A Rumination on Death

Gaspar Noé’s reputation is marked by stark oppositions. To some, he is one of film’s great artists; to others, a mere provocateur. His previous film, Irréversible, is as infamous for its violent rape scene as it is famous for any artistic merit. Enter the Void finds both of these sides of Noé on display; it features explicit sexual scenes while maintaining Noé’s reputation as a striking visual artist. Although at times the film is certainly visually stunning and even occasionally thought-provoking, it ultimately fails to maintain its power throughout its 160-minute running time. Rather, the visual techniques become tired, the mystical themes belabored, and the film as a whole increasingly tedious.

At a general level, Enter the Void explores the relationship of two siblings, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and Linda (Paz de la Huerta), who reunite in Tokyo after being raised in separate foster homes. Their respective professions, drug dealer and stripper, allow Noé to explore the seedier side of the city and are the source of some of the more potentially shocking images of the film.

Enter the Void is not marked by the visuals themselves, though, as much as it is by the method in which they are filmed. The first 40-minutes are shot as if from Oscar’s point of view by a handheld camera. We follow him through the streets of Tokyo on his way to a drug deal and what is the pivotal plot point of the movie. The remainder of the film trades between two methods of peering into the lives of its characters: an omniscient camera that soars above Tokyo and travels through building walls, and a handheld view that silently tracks the characters from behind. The camera is rarely still. Even when it focuses on an event it sways from side to side, or moves back and forth, before eventually gliding off to shoot its next subject.

At first, all these methods have a masterful effect: how we see things only increases the interest, impact, and tension of what we witness. By the end, though, the techniques grow tiresome. One of Noé’s favorite stunts is to end a scene by having the camera dive into a nearby object — a lamp, stove element, or kitchen sink – before fading to black or white. By the time you get two-thirds into the film, each dive feels like a potential end to the film rather than an interesting transition device.

The central role that the visuals play is underscored by the extras provided on the DVD. Besides the requisite trailers and posters, as well as some mildly interesting deleted scenes, three separate features focus purely on the visual spectacle of the film. One shows different scenes from the film in different stages of development: first with only minimal effects or basic CGI and subsequently with more detail added on until you get the final version from the film. The other two features, meanwhile, are short videos made up only of the kaleidoscopic visuals Noé uses during Oscar’s drug trips (think computer screensavers). All three only feature the eerie soundscapes from the film as a backdrop rather than any explanatory commentary. If you fell in love with the visual effects in the film, these extras probably would be a welcome addition. If you grew tired of them, they only add to the overkill.

To Noé’s credit, though, Enter the Void attempts to be more than a substance-less visual feast. Noé uses Oscar and Linda’s story to propel a rumination on death. The story of reincarnation from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which Oscar’s friend Alex recounts early in the film, provides a vague structure to the movie as a whole. The mystical aspects of the film, though, are all explored on the surface level, and as such they are never particularly developed. Instead, we get generic declarations and worries from all the characters about what happens after death, but little in terms of what seems like actual fear or curiosity.

The same problem is true of the Freudian themes that are emphasized throughout the film to the point of exhaustion. Repeated shots of baby Oscar sucking at his mother’s breast are set against his love affair with an older woman and his intimate relationship to his sister. Most outrageous is when Alex remarks that smoking always reminds him of the feeling of being breast-fed. In each case the message is so explicit that it is hard to take seriously.

What ultimately prevents Enter the Void from being a great movie is not that its shock value is gratuitous; Noé clearly has an intellectual vision behind the film’s content. Rather, what hinders the film is its tendency to overstate. It takes its best features and repeats them until they are sapped of their force. It shows its cards too early and too often and leaves the audience exhausted and over-stimulated rather than intrigued. On some level – the one that gets him characterized as a mere provocateur – this is part of the effect Noé wants to achieve. But there are also artistic intentions to Enter the Void. Unfortunately, these get bogged down, rather than drawn out, through repetition.

Enter the Void is neither for the faint of heart nor for those easily given to headaches. For the rest, the film has one definite selling point: there are no movies out there that look like it. That, however, is about all that sets it apart.

RATING 5 / 10