Every year there are a few reviews that I hear about from readers for months after, movies I recommend that they seek out and they hate.
This is going to be one of those reviews.
While I loved Enter the Void, Gaspar Noe’s amazing new film, many people will despise it. I don’t think they’re wrong, as Enter the Void isn’t for everybody. It’s punishingly long and self-indulgent, filled with bizarre imagery and bad actors playing loathsome characters. At least they won’t be wrong if they simply say ‘I fucking hated this movie but acknowledge that it is an astonishing work of cinema, and a milestone in film language.’
Big praise, but totally earned. Noe’s film, loosely an adaptation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, is experimental from beginning to end, but so many of the experiments pay off that the film must be classified as genius. The film begins in first person mode – we even see the character’s blinking eyelids – seeing life from inside the head of Oscar,an American living in Tokyo with his stripper sister, selling drugs. Before long Oscar is shot dead by police and his spirit leaves his body and we see, first hand, the stages of death as described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead (and helpfully explained before death by Oscar’s friend Alex. It’s a complete explanation of everything that will happen over the next two and a half hours). Oscar’s consciousness, represented by the eye of the lens, floats around Tokyo, revisiting those people nearest to him. It begins to re-experience important memories from his life – again and again – and we understand the moments that brought Oscar to a dirty bathroom with a bullet wound in his chest. And slowly, over the very long course of a few hours, Oscar begins to be drawn to the next level, the next stage of consciousness and of life itself.
Enter the Void is a fractal movie – every element of the film is present in every other element. Visuals, themes and concepts echo and reverberate across the film, which makes the movie’s lengthy running time pay off. For some these elements will be repetitive and boring – a valid complaint – but if you sink into the trance that the film’s astonishing visuals intend to induce, you’ll find these elements part of the ebb and flow of the movie’s meaning. That ebb and flow is important and purposeful; The Tibetan Book of the Dead was repurposed by Timothy Leary as a psychedelics manual, and the film feels a lot like a mushroom trip. The visuals are psychedelic but not hallucinatory, and the way Oscar’s recollections of his life spring organically from what he sees around him (post-death) feels like the stream of consciousness aspect of a very good psilocybin trip. It’s no accident that Oscar is a drug dealer.
Those psychedelic visuals are part of Noe’s incredible work that feels like it’s birthing a new film language. 3D is the buzz word of the moment, but Enter the Void manages to create utterly immersive textures and tableaux without making you put on glasses. Depth is achieved in two dimensions, but in a way that more closely approximates how we actually see the world than the 3D diorama effect. There are long stretches towards the end of Enter the Void, when the movie has really gone off the rails, where the only thing you can do as a viewer is luxuriate in the visuals and the sensual camerawork and lose yourself in the repetitive nature of the storytelling. The sense of surreality that Noe is able to evoke is complete and sneaks up on you, leaving the viewer suddenly unsettled and a little confused. One sequence where Noe uses tilt shift photography to reduce real world Tokyo into a miniature is breathtaking in its simplicity and effectiveness.
Some of Noe’s storytelling choices are also breathtaking in their simplicity and effectiveness. As Oscar connects the dots between his final days and the moments in his life that led him there, he keeps returning to his previous traumas. The car accident that killed his parents looms large for him, and the horror of those moments where he watched his mother’s bloody body spit out its final breath gets more and more intense with each of its repetitions. For some this will be exasperating, but for those who give in to the film’s flow (relax and float downstream as John Lennon once sang about tripping, paraphrasing The Tibetan Book of the Dead) the slow build up of psychic impact is shattering. It takes time for that impact to build up properly. Noe also allows Oscar’s deeper, weirder issues – psychosexual issues about his sister and deeply Freudian stuff about his mother – to slowly coalesce over a long period of time through use of repetition. Scenes slowly accrete meaning.
Enter the Void is less in-your-face than Irreversible, but it may be harder to sit through for some audiences. There’s violence and degeneracy and explicit sex in spades here, but the movie never rubs your face in it the way Irreversible did with its famous fire extinguisher scene or the extended rape. I was scared at first - Enter the Void‘s opening credits are aggro and insane and brilliant – but the movie eschews the instant shock for the slow burn. And unlike Irreversible, Enter the Void feels incredibly upbeat by the end. That’s a weird thing to realize (and even in the context of the film the ‘happy’ ending is kind of fucked up and sick), but there’s some kind of hope presented at the end of this movie – perhaps the ultimate hope available to us as mortal beings.
I don’t know that I could ever sit through Enter the Void as a whole again but this is definitely a movie whose Blu-Ray I will revisit again and again in chunks. And it’s a movie that’s taken up residence in my brain; there are spiritual ideas in here that intrigue and fascinate me, like the concept that hell is our own consciousness revisiting pain from our own lives, that it’s brought on by ourselves. There’s a sense of discovery that comes with the movie, seeing the connections in Oscar’s life and his psyche, that thrilled me in ways that no action scene could accomplish. And there’s a feeling of truth here – if not for the actual mechanics of the afterlife then for the way that our lives accumulate like snow on the plains of our minds.
The biggest stumbling block to really giving myself completely over to Enter the Void is the fact that I despised every single character and that almost every single actor was terrible. Spending time with these people can be painful and interminable, but Noe’s mindblowing cinematic work kept pulling me through stiff performances and miserable people. And the endlessly inventive and beautiful cinematography kept pulling me right through to the film’s final moments even as I kept wondering when (and honestly, if) this movie would end.
A test of your cinematic manhood, a beautiful exploration of life and what’s beyond, a groundbreaking feat of filmmaking, a mess of horrible characters and rotten performances: Enter the Void is all of these things. It’s a landmark film that’s hard to watch, a work of genius that will alienate 90% of the audience, a self-indulgent wank filled with insight and meaning. It’s unlike any movie you have seen and probably unlike any other that will come anytime soon. With Enter the Void Gaspar Noe enters the rarefied air breathed only by visionaries and madmen. The last filmmaker to taste this air may have been Jodorowsky, and Enter the Void could be seen as the spiritual successor to The Holy Mountain. I hope that you take a chance on this film and give it a serious shot. Even if you end up hating it – and the odds are that you will – it will be a movie that will change you on a molecular level in ways that you won’t even begin to realize until weeks, months or years later. Being exposed to this work of sheer genius will change you just as surely as being exposed to radiation would. Mutate, evolve, ascend.
9 out of 10