(A quick note before I write up this review. This movie was as heady of an intellectual head trip as I’ve had for a while. I wanted to wait til tomorrow to give this movie the full review it deserves because… Jesus… it’s a doozy. But we’re watching a movie in my film studies class tomorrow and I’d like to actually write that review tomorrow and not have to wait half a week to finally do it like I did for The Public Enemy. So, I spent about two and a half hours or so working on my screenplay [the psychological horror one. not Aftertaste which I’ve written 6 drafts of], and now I feel semi-prepared to jump into a review of what I can easily describe as one of the most absolutely bat-shit insane films I’ve ever watched.)
In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or David Lynch’s Inland Empire, notions of time, perspective, and the reliable continuity of point of view are decimated in at attempt by each auteur to deconstruct their specific field of work. Pynchon’s sprawling, schizophrenic narrative was a giant “f*** you” to the literary establishment and the conventions of the structure of a novel while Lynch’s surrealist and emotionally disturbing imagery similarly bucked any idea of traditional cinematic content. Although both are essentially fantasies (Gravity’s Rainbow a dystopian delusion of World War II’s horrors as sheer paranoia; Inland Empire the frenzied breakdown of a star on the verge of madness), they capture inherent truths of their chosen medium by obliterating the traditional molds from which they are usually drawn. From a purely technical standpoint, Gaspar Noé’s 2009 indie drama Enter the Void nearly matches both of those works although it ultimately lacks the beating core at the center of those two other masterpieces.
Much like Gravity’s Rainbow or Inland Empire, trying to explain the plot of Enter the Void is a little bit of an exercise in futility as well as missing the actual point of the film. But here goes. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is an American living in Japan with his sister Linda (Choke‘s Paz de la Huerta). Oscar loves psychedelic drugs and makes his living dealing ecstasy at local Japanese night clubs. When Oscar is betrayed by a friend and killed by police in a raid at the Void nightclub, his spirit exits his body and wanders the Japanese skyline as he sees bits and pieces of his sister’s and friends’ lives after his death as well as a traumatic non-linear hodgepodge of incidences from his past. Taken as a loose, psychedelic interpretation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Enter the Void is Gaspar Noé’s attempt to paint a hallucinatory picture of what our spirit perceives right after we die.
Ignoring for the moment that I’m a “teapot agnostic” who doesn’t believe in an afterlife or that anything Oscar perceives in this film after his death would actually happen, let me just open with the fact that Enter the Void is unquestionably one of the most visually striking films ever made. I am more than willing to put it in the same league as Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life in terms of its raw visual beauty. There is not a single wasted frame in this film that isn’t either Gaspar Noé conjuring up some ethereal, beautiful, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test bit of psychedelic imagery or blowing your mind with imaginative shot after imaginative shot. I don’t care how many films you’ve seen. Even if you’re a dedicated movie fanatic such as myself, you’ve never watched a movie that looks like this before.
And much like Todd Solondz’s Happiness, Gaspar Noé isn’t afraid to disturb the hell out of his viewers with depraved and sordid subject matter while still speaking to something essentially true about darker sides of human nature. As an intentional contrast against the film’s hauntingly beautiful visuals (I seriously can’t stress enough how good-looking this film is), Enter the Void tackles some downright transgressive issues in an open and honest way. From incestual attraction to rampant drug use to rape to explicit (bordering on pornographic) sexuality, Enter the Void is one of the toughest films to sit through that I’ve watched in ages simply for the brutality of its subject matter. Death and violence and sex intermingle with the Noé’s masterful visual techniques to the point that you find yourself torn for being visually stunned by a scene while simultaneously being sickened by its content.
When the film is firing on all of the right cylinders storywise, it is almost too intimate to watch. Alongside Todd Solondz or Todd Haynes, this film tackles taboo subject matter without making judgments or presenting a side. It simply observes and the picture never turns away. Part of that functions from the film’s point of view which is told more or less entirely either through Oscar’s eyes or from over his shoulder. We never lose the sense of being right in the heart of the depravity of the film. And there are moments where you want to look away. Where you want Gaspar Noé to take us out of the horror of these disintegrating personal lives (and his imagery would often turn as hellish as the scenes they were portraying), but he wisely knows to force you to confront these issues and it makes for a wildly emotional experience.
And all of the various ways in which the film is a stunning, resounding success makes the film’s monumental flaws all the more frustrating. First and foremost, the performances are an almost universal trainwreck. Not only is Paz de la Huerta aggressively unattractive, she is an awful actress. She is completely devoid of emotion, intonation, and suggestive expression. You see more of Linda than you actually do of Oscar (who is simply a passive observer in many scenes) and the role deserved a more dynamic When Oscar is still alive, you can hardly hear or understand any of Nathaniel Brown’s monotone dialogue. The Frenchman playing Oscar’s friend Alex is no more understandable. Though at least he is somewhat expressive. And none of the other, smaller bit parts impress in this film chock full of nonprofessional actors.
And, sadly, at the end of the day, while the film may be a technical masterpiece, it is also one of the most self-indulgent and pretentious movies you will ever watch. For every moment of inspired brilliance (Oscar’s pre-death DMT trip, the various flashbacks to his parents’ death, the nonlinear gamesmanship), the film will throw in at least one or two moments that make the film drag to eternity. There was absolutely no reason why needed a view from inside a vagine of a penis thrusting in and out of said vagina and then ejaculating. Unnecessary and gross. While many of the sex scenes are intentionally uncomfortable and depraved, I’m not sure if the unsimulated sex scenes were actually necessary. For a good ten minutes or so, Enter the Void becomes a really artsy porno. I’m sure there would have been a way to maintain the veracity of the film without including actual sex.
Never have I watched a film that is simultaneously an almost peerless masterpiece while also being somewhat juvenile and deeply, deeply flawed. Despite the movie’s major shortcomings, if you’re into the post-modernist, mindscrew genre of cinema (think David Lynch or Darren Aranofsky), not only must you watch Enter the Void. You must watch it right now. It is powerful, provocative film-making and if Noé can learn to tamper just a bit of his excesses, he could jump to the forefront of international filmmakers. He is that talented. As it is, Enter the Void should enter the canon of visually triumphant cinema even if it ultimately buckles under the weight of its own ambitions and the deficiencies of its principal cast.
Final Score: B+