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“Q: How would you define the film’s genre?
A: Psychedelic Melodrama.”–Gaspar Noé, Enter the Void Cannes pressbook
DIRECTED BY: Gaspar Noé
FEATURING: Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta
PLOT: Oscar is a drug-dealer living in Tokyo with his stripper sister. One day he is shot and killed during a deal inside a bar called “The Void.” He spends the rest of the movie as a silent ghost, floating around Tokyo and observing his sister and friends, while simultaneously hallucinating and remembering the details of his life.
- Noé wrote preliminary scripts for Enter the Void as early as 1994; the screenplay was consider to expensive to produce until the director’s 2002 success with Irréversible made it appear commercially viable.
- Star Nathaniel Brown, a non-actor, was chosen because of his physical resemblance to lead Paz de la Huerta and because he was interested in directing. As someone with no acting ambitions, Noé presumed Brown would not be upset by the fact that his face is only seen once in the film, briefly in a mirror.
- Visual perfectionist Marc Caro supervised the set designs.
- The 100 page script indicated the action and described the visual effects, but very little dialogue was scripted; the actors improvised most of their lines.
- The paintings Alex is shown working on in the film were actually painted by Luis Felipe Noé, the director’s father.
- The original run time of the film at its Cannes debut was 163 minutes. Post production and editing continued after this debut, and, as completed in 2010, the final run time of the film (which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, 2010) as screened in the U.S. is about 140 minutes. There is a longer version of the film, however, including a 17 minute sequence where Oscar believes he has woken up in the morgue; this segment occupies reel 7 of 9 reels, and for American screenings the film was simply shown with reel 7 omitted. The extended cut is available on French DVD releases.
- Noe instructed theaters that the film should be run at 25 frames per second rather than the usual 24 frames (this fact accounts for some of the discrepancies in listed running times).
- At the Cannes premier there were no opening or closing credits. The film began on a closeup of the sign reading “enter” and ended with the words “the void.”
- Noé got the idea for the film form watching Robert Montgomery’s noir The Lady in the Lake while on a magic mushroom trip. Like Enter the Void, Lady in the Lake is filmed entirely from a first-person point of view (actually, in Void the POV is usually from about a foot behind Oscar’s head, though at other times we see events through his eyes).
- Tokyo was chosen as the location of the film partly because Japan’s strong ant-drug laws would make the actions of the police more believable, partly because Noé believed the city, with its abundance of neon, had a “druggy mood.”
- Pioneering acid guru Timothy Leary used to read “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” to voyagers undergoing LSD trips in an attempt to steer the experience in a spiritual direction.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The opening DMT trip, with its multicolored mandalas, floating planetoids, and neon tentacles seems hard to top, but it merely sets the mood. It’s the pornographic “Love Hotel” scene, with its parade of rutting couples with mystically glowing genitalia, that really impresses itself on the mind’s eye.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As the most impressive and eye-splintering acid trip movie of the decade (by a wide margin), Enter the Void gets an automatic pass onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time. The fact that the protagonist is dead throughout most of the movie doesn’t hurt its chances one bit. But the clincher, the sure sign that the movie is weird, is the walkouts. Less than halfway through the screening I saw, the sexagenarian couple who had stumbled into the film by accident (probably thanks to ad copy suggesting the movie was a sentimental ghost story about brotherly love that transcends death) walked out of the theater, leaving me alone with two same-sex couples with facial piercings and hair that glowed in the dark.
Original trailer for Enter the Void
COMMENTS: Enter the Void is an exploitation piece masquerading as an art installation, eye-candy masquerading as mind-candy; it has all the reckless visionary enthusiasm and delightful audacity of a Ken Russell picture. With the opening credits—a series of garish, frequently unreadable stills sprayed at the screen like pop bullets from a machine gun projector, set to a pounding techno score—Gaspar Noé warns us to prepare ourselves to see something different, though we have no idea what. After quickly introducing the main characters, drug-dealing Oscar (from whose POV the entire film is shot) and his stripper sister Linda, the movie segues into a wordless five minute DMT trip, an abstract rainbow odyssey of swirling, melting mandalas and gently waving tentacles. Oscar emerges from his drug reverie, still fuzzy-eyed, and the film ever so briefly enters the realm of straightforward narrative as he strolls with a drug buddy through the neon streets of Tokyo towards a fatal rendezvous. Shot to death in a men’s room, the vast bulk of the movie involves Oscar’s passive postmortem adventures, as he floats around the city observing his former friends in the expatriate community, and especially spying on his beloved sister—including, creepily, watching her real time sexual encounters. Gradually, flashbacks of his life intrude on his disembodied observations, and the movie’s storytelling becomes even more fragmented and experimental. Although his memory occasionally slips and merges with hallucination—characters change, as when a young Oscar walks in on his parents having sex, and the man plowing dear old mom suddenly sports the face of his best friend doing sis—attentive viewers won’t have much problem piecing together the backstory, which deals with Oscar’s betrayal as well as the vow he and his sister made as children to always stay together after the death of their parents. The story is serviceable, and served well by slicing it up into bite-sized tidbits; if the tale had been told straight from beginning to end it would be too bland and familiar to choke down in this quantity.
Paz de la Huerta, who after following her role as the aptly named “Nude” in The Limits of Control with this sexy ecstasy addicted stripper is quickly becoming weird movie fans’ favorite pin-up girl, delivers her melodramatic blowup scenes with great conviction. Despite portraying the protagonist, amateur Nathaniel Brown seems hardly in the movie; since the audience’s view is through a camera positioned about one foot behind him, we only see the back of his head and hear his voice, and for most of the movie he is a silent ghostly presence. Neither actor stands the slightest chance of upstaging the apocalyptic neon visuals, which are the film’s obvious reason for existing; the camera is the real star, and thanks to the POV style it actually plays the main character, as well. The movie is basically two hours of drugs and sex, and of druggy sex—especially in the jaw dropping pornographic finale—and perhaps thirty minutes of recycled hippie spirituality, delivered with arch insincerity. Whether you find the mystical glowing genitalia of the orgiastic climax laughably pretentious or ethereally erotic, you’re not soon likely to erase these sights from your mind.
Visually, Enter the Void is unconditionally stunning, and the movie is best and most honestly enjoyed on a purely sensory level, as the most technically accomplished and accurate documentation of a psychedelic journey ever filmed. The abstract pyrotechnics of the opening trip set up the visual motifs that will recur through the rest of the movie’s voyage: the fluorescent color scheme, the floating perspective, the tunnel vision and sense of being drawn into a circle of light at the center of the field of vision. Every environment in the film is deliberately over-saturated, continually bathed in Tokyo’s neon glow. When Oscar and Alex take a midnight stroll to The Void, the glowing signage makes the night as bright as day, except that the color schemes continually shift from lime to red to peach, depending on which neon font they’re walking past at the moment. Linda’s strip club glows a lustful purple when she’s onstage, changing to a lurid rose for her sex scene. Alex’s friend’s art installations radiate sapphire and ruby jewel tones. The Love Hotel is indigo and orange, with pink and yellow highlights. Even the memory flashback scenes have odd coloration, with unexplained red or golden auras. Every frame of the movie is re-tinted using artificial hues and luminosities. The everyday world is stained in the afterimage of the hallucinatory one; Enter the Void is like staring at a never ending fireworks display.
The floating and tunnel vision motifs first seen in the trip become the primary visual scheme Oscar’s death. Central concepts of the near-death-experience myth are that you become detached from the body and float outside it, and that you die when you “enter the light” at the “end of the tunnel.” Oscar’s astral journey through Tokyo is accomplished through some amazingly long and fluid crane shots; the camera appears to drift through walls, spying on one compartment after another until the camera finds something of interest and swoops in for a closer inspection. The technical mastery of the cinematography here is awe-inspiring; the effect on the viewer is disorientation in space as well as in reality, the feeling of drifting out of one’s own body. Time and time again, at the conclusion of a scene the camera will pick out some circle in the background and dive into it, transitioning into the next vision. We travel into a light bulb on a ceiling, a bullet hole (as in Performance), an ashtray, a burner on a stove top. In each journey we move towards a dot which grows into a tunnel, and when it consumes our field of view we’re treated to strobe effects and mystical abstract visuals that bring that DMT trip back to mind, before we’re spit out into the next scene. The floating into a tunnel motif meets its apex in the penultimate scene, in which we travel inside the human body to into a microscopic world that looks like it has been sculpted by psychedelic substances in a journey into what appears to be a giant planet trailing fuzzy tendrils.
In one form or another, computer-generated imagery was used on almost every frame of the film (if for nothing else but color correction), and Enter the Void is the most artistic use of a technology so far that’s usually employed only to flesh out ranks of troops in battle sequences or to create more “realistic” looking monsters. But although it’s a trippy tour de force and a true brain-bending experience, the film is far from flawless: most obviously, at over two and a half hours it’s way too long for its minimal storyline, even after Noé trimmed 45 minutes (!) from the final theatrical cut. Although the camerawork impresses, there’s only so much floating through the streets and alleyways of Tokyo that one person can take, several dramatic scenes seem to repeat themselves, and even the brilliant psychedelic sequences would punch harder at a shorter length.
Furthermore, although we’re supposed to root for Oscar and Linda because of their vows of sibling love, and because they have only each other to turn to in a foreign land, it’s hard to sympathize with the suffering of these adult orphans, since they clearly bring their troubles on themselves with their deliberately sleazy life choices. Linda is petulant and vacuous; if she has depths beyond her need to simulate a family with her brother, they’re not explored. We get to know Oscar much better, but almost wish we hadn’t. He seems a bit dull—he’s unable to grasp the concepts in The Book of the Dead, which his brighter friend Alex patiently explains to him for the audience’s benefit—but maybe the problem is that he’s too stoned to concentrate for long enough to grasp simple concepts. At one point he stresses the importance of having goals in life, but demonstrates none himself, except the desire to scarf every drug he can get his hands on and get inside the pants of every attractive woman he sees. His vision of paradise seems to be a hotel where his friends and acquaintances engage in an eternal orgy. He sleeps with a friend’s mom. seduces formerly innocent Japanese girls with cocaine, and introduces his own sister to ecstasy.
Speaking of sis, their entire relationship is tinged with not-so-subtle hints of incest. Oscar is jealous of other men who pay sexual attention to her, and swears if she gets pregnant by her current beau he’ll kill the baby (he appears to get his wish in the unnecessarily gruesome abortion scene, which treats us to the unlikely sight of Linda’s bloody fetus left lying around in an aluminum hospital pan). He watches her strip and give lap dances; he makes love to women who are strippers, like her. He sniffs her g-string. While disembodied, he twice floats into the position of a man who’s making love to Linda, staring into her eyes as her face contorts in passion. For her part, Linda encourages his unnatural passions. When she first arrives in Japan, he takes her out on a “date” and shows her the sights; they ride a roller coaster, and she kisses him on the neck and sucks his earlobe in a very un-sisterly display of emotion. She gets drunk, juts out her breasts and asks, “Have I grown? I look like a woman now?” (Of course, all these events could just be Oscar’s wish fulfillment fantasies as he lays dying). Beyond shock and provocation, it’s not clear what the entire incest subtext/subplot is supposed to add to the film; it doesn’t mesh with the film’s broader themes of illusion, death and rebirth. It certainly highlights Oscar’s emotional and psychological immaturity—he’s unable to separate love from sex in his mind—but it also perverts and detracts from the purity of their sibling pact, which is the only positive trait either of the two principals ever show.
Finally, the insincerity of the story’s stab at spirituality rubs me the wrong way. When I first saw the film I thought that Noé was trying to create an ambiguous milieu; we could choose to believe that Oscar was really going through the process of reincarnation as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or we could decide it was all his dying hallucination. (Such a structure would be analogous to, though less beautifully executed than, the ambiguous ending of Pan’s Labyrinth). The afterlife of the film seems constructed to illustrate either hypothesis. Further reflection and review, and the director’s own words in multiple interviews, have convinced me that the hallucination angle is the only viable interpretation. DMT, the drug that Oscar smokes at the beginning of the film, is possibly the most powerful psychedelic known to man, and is also produced in trace amounts in mammals (it’s unknown if it has an evolutionary function, or is just a byproduct of some other biochemical reaction). Some scientists have speculated that DMT is dumped into the bloodstream at the time of death, producing the effects reported as “near death experiences.” This speculation is presented in the film as scientific fact by Alex, the film’s wisest and most intelligent character; and as described above, Oscar’s post-expiration hallucinations bear a remarkable similarity to the visions he sees under the influence of the drug: the floating, the tunnel vision, the journey into the light. Oscar’s centerpiece hallucination in the Love Hotel takes place not in the real world, or in a spiritual way station, but inside a model built by one of his artist friends, using a sexual conceit that he himself dreamed up one day; it’s inextricably linked to his particular consciousness, not the Universal Consciousness. The film’s final shot is unexpected and undercuts the reincarnation thesis, while supporting the hallucination/near death experience theory (one explanation, though almost certainly a fallacious one, of the tunnel of light phenomenon in NDEs is that it’s a remembrance of traveling through the birth canal). And, if we needed more proof as to the fact that Oscar simply ceases to be and never gets reincarnated, we need only look to the movie’s title.
Many of the movie’s fans, especially younger ones, have embraced the spiritual explanation of the film; everyone wants to believe in immortality, and the sentimentality of the notion that Oscar would reincarnate to fulfill his pact with his sister is understandably appealing. (Of course, those who embrace this interpretation will probably miss the irony that, according to Buddhism, reincarnation is a punishment, not a reward, and Oscar’s extreme attachment to his sister is the primary cord holding him back from reaching Nirvana). But I have to imagine that the atheistic Noé is secretly laughing up his sleeve at those who buy the spiritual interpretation. It’s hard to escape the nagging feeling that, when it comes down to it, Enter the Void is nothing more than a celebration of the romance of an aimless, amoral drug culture, and the exotic mystical notes it hits are offered only as hypocritical justifications for the hedonism on display. The movie’s point seems to be: death is the greatest trip of all, and religion is the most awesome of hallucinations. It’s only moral value is as a cautionary tale: don’t be like Oscar. Enter the Void won’t send most youngsters scurrying off to the library to learn about Tibetan Buddhism, but it might send them scurrying off to the nearest nightclub to pop pills, screw around, and hope that tonight’s the night they get to die young.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Not clever enough to be truly pretentious, Noe’s tiresomely gimmicky film about a low-level Tokyo drug dealer who enjoys one long, last trip after dying proves to be the ne plus ultra of nothing much.”–Rob Nelson, Variety (Cannes screening)
“…if you yourself are stoked for a lurid, oversexed, stupid-with-Freud Midnight Movie extravaganza – a trip to El Topo via Mulholland Drive – there are worse ways to spend 2 1/2 hours… The film is by turns self-conscious, ludicrous, maddening and yet exhilarating – yes, there’s no getting around it, we can’t keep our eyes off the screen – exhilarating.”–Stephen Cole, The Globe and Mail (Toronto) (contemporaneous)
Enter the Void – impressively designed site with trippy graphics, but it may take a while to load up. Contains numerous high quality stills and the pressbook (like the rest of the site, in French).
Enter the Void – IFC Entertainment – IFC’s English-language distributor’s page contains more stills and three short expository clips from the film along with the trailer
IMDB LINK: Enter the Void (2009)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Cannes Pressbook – The pressbook consists of a long and reveling interview Noé. In .pdf format.
Anatomy of a Scene: ‘Enter the Void’ – There is no director’s commentary on the Enter the Void DVD, but Gaspar Noé did provide comments for the New York Times for this quiet 2 minute scene with Paz de la Huerta
TribecaFilm.com | Features | Enter the Void: Gaspar Noé – Brief analysis of the film by Zachary Wigon, incorporating quotes from the director
Gaspar Noé’s Trip Into the “Void” – The director discusses the films, and the drugs, that influenced him with IFC
Gaspar Noé Interview: Enter The Void, illegal substances and life after death – Another interview with the loquacious Noé; in this one, he reveals his views on religion
Turn on, Tune in to a Trippy Afterlife – Profile of the director’s career and Enter the Void‘s place in it from The New York Times‘ Dennis Lim
Enter the Void Made by FX – Fxguide’s interview with Geoffrey Niquet, Enter the Void‘s film’s visual effects supervisor
Contemplating a Colorful Afterlife – Technical article on the film’s cinematography from the October 2010 issue of American Cinematographer. The article begins on page 18.
Suddenly The Maelstrom: Gaspar Noé On The Music Of Enter The Void – Commentary on the film’s soundtrack from The Quietus.
DVD INFO: Like the movie itself, the IFC DVD release (buy) is packed with extras which are high on stylish visuals but low on exposition and insight. The disc contains about 10 minutes of deleted scenes (none of which would have added much to the film). The DVD also delivers an overdose of trailers: there’s the French trailer, the wordless “world” trailer, the US trailer, eight teaser trailers (some fairly pornographic), and three unused trailers. (That’s fourteen separate trailers, not counting the numerous previews for other IFC titles!) “VFX” is an interesting, but ultimately frustrating featurette that shows some of the films visual effects, but with no commentary or explanation of what we’re seeing. We see the original scene, and then a wipe reveals what the scene looked like before color correction, or shows a grid overlay that suggests how the creators might have rendered a CGI version of the scene for a particular visual effect (you can imagine how this kind of thing might be necessary when the camera is supposed to “dive” into a pot on a stove and dissolve to the next scene, or to flesh out a model of the Love Hotel). An explanation of how the effects were achieved would have been welcome; this feature presents itself almost as just another trip sequence. Speaking of trips, two separate DMT-inspired fractal sequences are included, a five minute lightshow titled “Vortex” and a 2 minute “loop” titled simply “DMT.” These two segments would work well set to repeat and played as wallpaper at a party. The title sequence is itself so psychedelic that some super-stoned viewers might fumble the disc into the player and sit there hypnotized at it as it plays endlessly without ever watching the movie. All in all, its an impressive package, as long as you’re not expecting insight into the thought processes behind the film.
Enter the Void is also available in Blu-ray (buy) with the same features.
True Void devotees with access to Region 2 or multi-region players may want to track down the French DVD/Blu-ray releases instead, which includes the extended cut of the film.