Looking Down
By Michael Koresky

Enter the Void
Dir. Gaspar Noé, France, IFC Films

Like a guttersnipe’s update of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town, Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void concerns the post-death consciousness of a young person taken too soon, watching from the wings as life goes on heedlessly below. In both cases, such spiritual lingering incites frustration, regret, loneliness. Like Our Town’s Emily Webb, ripped from the universe after complications from childbirth, Enter the Void’s cipher protagonist, American drug dealer Oscar, shot to death by police in a slimy Tokyo bar bathroom during a bust gone bad, witnesses a world bedeviled by progress (industrialization for Wilder, globalization for Noé) and compromised by pain but which is essentially worth living in. Ultimately, Emily will return to Earth for one day, to relive her twelfth birthday, and Oscar will be reborn; difficult but positive journeys to transcendence both, cathartic explorations of death that finally come out on the side of the living.

Why bother comparing one of American theater’s most naggingly durable standbys and oft trotted-out arbiters of traditional moral standards, set in scrubbed rural New England Everytown U.S.A., to the latest provocation by pot-stirrer Gaspar Noé, located in a decadent twenty-first century metropolis awash in neon and urine? Posing their similarities might be useful in the way that it emphasizes the latter as little more than a shockingly traditional moralizing fable. True, Wilder’s tale of the here-and-beyond doesn’t climax with a close-to-literal audience fucking (front-row viewers of Void might want to bring raincoats), but other commonalities are revealing: the main character’s resistance to moving on, the creator’s inventiveness with audience identification (the fourth-wall–breaking narrator in the play, a stringent visual evocation of POV in the film), a focus on family dynamics as creating individual identity. Yet as Wilder wrote, he never intended Our Town as a speculation about life after death, nor a true-to-life evocation of small New Hampshire town life. Rather, “it is an attempt to find a value above all a price for the smallest events in our daily life.” That might sound Capra-corny, but at least it’s not as thuddingly literal as Noé’s motivation for making this movie, which he admits first arose as early as towards the end of his adolescence: to try to evoke the feeling of what happens after death. Noé’s proclaimed narrative model may be The Tibetan Book of the Dead, but when spread out into linear story form, it becomes something more sentimental and—as following its gleeful rubbing of its viewers’ faces in more than two-and-a-half hours of weltering putrefaction, its final sentimental philosophy seems to offer little more than miracle-of-childbirth platitudes—perhaps disingenuous.

As evidenced by his previous features, I Stand Alone and Irreversible, Noé certainly wants to be thought of as cutting edge, rather than as a peddler of cheap knockoffs of homiletic classics. But there’s always been a strain of twisted redemption in his work: ultimately there’s a sly tribute to the human spirit in both of those earlier films—it’s hinted that their main characters’ sins are ironically washed away by forces beyond human control (time, fate). In Enter the Void, there’s a lack of cynicism that might at first seem beguiling; if nothing else this is a terribly earnest film. In relating the short, sad life and premature death of twentysomething drug dealer Oscar (embodied, not really played, by Nathaniel Brown, or at least, by the back of his stubby head), Noé wishes to drench the audience in pure sensation, make them thrill to a visual and aural approximation of the ultimate high (to borrow the tagline of Kubrick’s 2001, clearly an influence here), in this case the passage from life to death to birth, from one consciousness to the next. Unfortunately Noé uses the occasion as an assault—a barrage of frankly unsophisticated technical gimmicks and purposeless touchstones of sleaze that finally serve to do little more than emotionally pile-drive the viewer into submission, at the very moment that one should presumably be deep in reflection.

Then again, one shouldn’t be in the market for meditation when entering a Noé world. It’s clear right from the opening credits—the film’s most purely invigorating sequence— that Enter the Void will pummel rather than make one ponder. The onscreen text doesn’t so much announce the film as shriek its arrival—names are dissociated, made strange, splintered into fragments, dressed up in different fonts, languages, and colors, and flying at us so rapidly that decoding and absorbing them becomes nigh on impossible. (In Irreversible, thanks to some letters being displayed backwards, the cast and crew were similarly unreadable.) Already we’re purposely frustrated: even this most basic information—the names of the people who’ve assembled this entertainment we’re about to experience—is made difficult, problematic. They sail past us in a flash of spangled neon and bluster; it’s a solid short film unto itself, patched together of little more than text on a black screen.

The good will created by these bad vibes carries over briefly, at least into the opening sequence, in which we are introduced to an eye-popping, incandescent Tokyo landscape via the balcony of the apartment Oscar shares with his sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta). Such an expansive view soon becomes oddly claustrophobic as we realize we’re seeing things strictly from Oscar’s point of view—that’s right, in true Lady in the Lake/Diving Bell and the Butterfly fashion, the camera eye is our eye, and in case we have any doubts that the director will adhere to this aesthetic entrapment, Noé even introduces little black-out “blinks.” In these opening scenes, director of photography Benoit Debie’s camera remains terrifyingly fixed—especially when Oscar gets his fix of DMT: a static shot of Oscar lighting up sends him (and the film) into a hallucinogenic haze from which it will barely recover. We hear his voice, loud and clear and stilted: though we’re unsure if his words (like “This is the good stuff” and “I know I’m not a junkie”) are meant to emanate from his mind or his mouth, it’s obvious that they were recorded in a sound booth during postproduction. They sound scrubbed and fresh, delivered in the most risible monotone this side of Keanu Reeves. A Neo-ish “whoa!” wouldn’t be the wrong response to the swirly-twirly stargate of colors and shapes that soon takes over the screen, meant to evoke Oscar’s trip but more plausibly Noé’s approximation of what viewers might want to watch in an altered state. The aesthetic has switched to freshman-year dorm room, something to hang on the wall next to that 3-D glow-in-the-dark cannabis.

A temporary bliss-out gives way to the shivers and shakes of reality: following this strong dose, a mind-addled Oscar receives word that he’s to meet a friend at a local bar for an important hand-off, and he must get his shit together. (Here, Noé is admittedly exceptionally skilled at putting the audience in Oscar’s paranoid, blurred state—as he struggles from bed to bathroom to break back to reality, every camera lurch and swing makes us feel like we’re about to disappear into oblivion.) Accompanied to the rendezvous by his blustery friend Alex (Cyril Roy), Oscar descends quite literally, down a seemingly endless staircase in a single vertiginous take that continues to track him as he spills out onto the Tokyo backstreets—all the while veritable book clubber Alex prattles on about his recommended read, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, outlining to Oscar what it details will happen when you die, and in essence establishing the film’s trajectory as strenuously as Ellen Page did in the first expository hour of Inception. Soon enough, Oscar will become a player in Alex’s presaged saga of the afterlife—if only this clearly straining-at-visionary work had more to add to this conceit than hoary psychodrama.

For the interminable remainder of Enter the Void’s running time, Noé lays out the facts of Oscar’s life and death. In a hobblingly literal aesthetic choice, hovering Oscar looks down on the world by, well, looking down on the world. Everything drifts by in a nonlinear, spatially disorienting overview—the floating, twisting, hiccupping camera that Noé instituted in Irreversible is given quite a workout here, and one can’t help but wonder if this film’s entire reason for being was simply to exploit this visual approach. These questions grow insignificant in the face of the wearisome imagery Noé wants to batter us with. Naturally, this being Noé, one of the first images we’re treated to is that of sister Linda, a stripper, natch, being groped and fucked by her boss in backroom of the gel-drenched club she works at. Oscar simply watches, so we watch; the suspense is heightened as her cell phone rings during her defilement, presumably with a message informing her of her brother’s death. After she finally checks her voice mail, we get the money shot: a crying jag, splashed in flickering lights and colors. It’s an infinitely cruel scene, made even queasier when the camera gets so close to Linda’s throes of passion that Oscar’s point of view in essence takes over that of the man making whoopee with her. It turns out this is no mistake, since the film goes on to take great pains to tease a near-incestuous relationship between Oscar and Linda, who have been bonded together inextricably ever since their parents were killed in a violent car accident when they were very young.

Naturally, in between almost seizure-inducing Paul Sharits–like strobes of color and light, we see this blood-strewn, child-terrorizing car accident over and over. This is Noé’s tactic: keep the audience in a state of floating trancelike reverie and then, wham, smash into them with a graphic image (which in the course of the film will include an aborted fetus sitting gingerly on the side of an exam table, vaginas glowing like the suitcase in Kiss Me Deadly, and a penis in close-up splooging all over the audience). One could argue that this is meant to rhythmically evoke Oscar’s traumatized subconscious, but Noé seems vastly more interested in ripping into his audience than treating his characters’ old wounds. The saga of orphaned Oscar and Linda ultimately comes across as nothing more than a bundle of Freudian tricks: we even get a primal scene, in which Oscar sees his parents doing it doggie-style. Noé’s lack of originality is hammered home by some head-slapping decisions: a shot of Oscar suckling on the chest of his best friend’s mother (an affair which contributes to his demise) cuts to an image of him as a child breast-feeding; stunted, childlike Linda clutching a teddy bear, her oft-bared breasts hanging out sloppily for the Oscar-cam; an overreliance on circular objects (ashtrays, lights, bullet holes, urns, vaginal cavities) that the intrepid, twirling camera never ceases to enter; “Rock-a-Bye Baby” recurringly cooed on the soundtrack for maximum ironic effect, in case we aren’t sure whether or not the cradle will fall.

It’s slowly revealed that Oscar is responsible for Linda’s downfall, as he had lured her to Tokyo and took part in her descent into drugs and exhibitionism—thus the tragic events of his life playing in a purgatorial loop slowly take on greater significance. But the longer the film attenuates Oscar’s subconscious flotations, the more hectoring, sentimental, and moralizing this thudding, redundant experience becomes. For Oscar, Enter the Void is a particularly long, gooey episode of This Is Your Life: as depicted by Noé, your afterlife apparently is just your own personal bloated biopic, if gussied up in unpleasant, intestinal imagery. By comparison, Thornton Wilder seems downright edgy: as one character bemoans from the great beyond near the end of Our Town, life is “to be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion or another.” This is how viewers of Enter the Void might feel. It’s perhaps meant as a voyage to a higher plane of consciousness, a liberation, but it feels more like being trapped in Noé’s own artistic self-regard, where poignancy and putrescence go hand in hand, and life is but a bowl of mottled cherries.