By Ezra Stead
Enter the Void, France / Germany / Italy, 2009
Directed by Gaspar Noe
French filmmaker Gaspar Noe has always been known for the intensity of his vision. His 1998 debut, I Stand Alone, features one of the most unlikable protagonists in cinema history (Philippe Nahon’s brilliantly realized “The Butcher”), as well as moments of shockingly realistic violence and subject matter that includes incest and the brutal beating of a pregnant woman (who, it must be noted, is at least as unlikable as The Butcher himself). His highly polarizing 2002 follow-up, Irreversible, managed to drastically raise the already high ante with its horrifyingly unflinching and lengthy depictions of murder and rape; it may have had more theatrical walkouts than any single film in history, and has only arguably been topped by Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) as the most disturbing film ever shown at the Cannes Film Festival.
Now, with his latest feature Enter the Void, Noe seems to be pushing audience tolerance levels even further, albeit in a very different way. While I Stand Alone was essentially a one man show for The Butcher’s virulent hatred of pretty much everything and everyone (kind of like a French Taxi Driver, for people who thought the original was too cute and cuddly), and Irreversible showed extraordinary technical prowess with its impossible camera angles and chronologically backwards narrative (inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Memento), both films show a great artistic restraint and clarity of vision by comparison to the sprawling head-trip that is Enter the Void. For one thing, Void is nearly an hour longer than Noe’s previous features, taking the viewer on a wild and occasionally tedious ride full of even more dizzying and impossible cinematography than Irreversible. The film is nothing if not original, and Noe’s determination to push the boundaries of what cinema can do must be admired.
Admiration is one thing, however; enjoyment is another. While there is truly no other film quite like it out there, and everything about it seems to have been carefully considered and executed to achieve exactly the effect Noe wishes to impart, Enter the Void is not an easy film to watch, and not because of the stomach-turning violence seen in Noe’s previous work. This is less a movie than an all-encompassing experience, and shrill and jarring as it so often is, it really should be seen on the big screen for the full effect.
We the audience are, from the very beginning of the film, in a subjective state, seeing everything through the eyes of the protagonist, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a small-time drug peddler living in Tokyo. Within about the first 20 minutes of the 161 minute film, Oscar is killed, shot to death by police in the filthy bathroom of a dive bar. Having been forced into such close identification with Oscar, the viewer feels this relatively brief (by Noe’s standards) moment of violence in a profound way, and it is absolutely devastating.
From that point on, Noe’s miraculous camera drifts up and out, flying through walls and back and forth across time, giving us pieces of Oscar’s past with his beloved sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta) as well as his spirit’s gradual ascension away from his former life and into the next, his journey through the titular void. This is bold and highly audacious filmmaking, and it is impossible to describe the way Noe uses the cinematic medium to create imagery and sound design that has literally never even been approached by any other filmmaker.
The problem, however, is that Oscar, Linda and Oscar’s friend Alex (Cyril Roy) – the three central figures of the film – are not especially compelling. Perhaps Noe is making a point, that Oscar represents any and all of us, that we are all just vessels for the divine spirit of humanity. For the man who made the relentlessly bleak I Stand Alone and the even darker Irreversible, this is a surprisingly New Age and optimistic vision, or so it would seem. In fact, the void to which the title refers may very well be earthly existence itself, meaning the only true freedom and beauty in existence is to be found in the interim between death and life.
There are a lot of fascinating ideas at work here, and just as Irreversible opened by tying in the character of The Butcher to Noe’s constantly progressing new vision, Void clearly takes off from the 2001: A Space Odyssey-influenced ending of Irreversible. Noe is one of the most distinctive auteurs working in film today, and his is a voice well worth listening to, but while his previous films required a strong stomach, this one requires patience and strong nerves more than anything else.
I believe great cinema should be both art and entertainment; I would argue that Enter the Void succeeds much more strongly as the former. It is a visionary and undeniably unique film, but it is not nearly as enjoyable or hauntingly memorable as his previous efforts. I recommend the film, with the previously stated reservations, but I imagine it will lose many of its strengths and its faults will be more apparent on the smaller screen. If you are lucky enough to live in one of the very few cities still showing it in theaters (New York is one), see it there first.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.