By Brian Lafferty
WARNING: If you have epilepsy or are prone to seizures, do not see this film, as it contains frequent strobe effects.
October 30, 2010 (San Diego)--After seeing Enter the Void, it became clear to me that the newest film by Gaspar Noe is shaping up to be a very divisive movie. It is not for those even remotely squeamish. People either love it or hate it. I went to the screening with three to five other critics and they thought they had seen one of, if not the, worst movies of the year. I felt I saw one of the year’s best.
Playing for one week only at the Ken Cinema starting today*, the movie follows a drug dealer named Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) who is shot dead in a botched drug heist. The story is based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, with most of the movie’s two hour and seventeen minute run time featuring his spirit watching over his grieving prostitute sister (Paz de la Huerta) and seeing his whole life flashing before his eyes before finding a way to be born again.
In the past, Gaspar Noe has tried, always with success, unconventional storytelling methods. In I Stand Alone, much of the “dialogue” is actually the often silent main character’s progressively twisted thoughts. Irreversible is a brutal and heartbreaking rape and revenge story told backwards.
Noe continues his tradition of untraditional storytelling here with a device first attempted in the 1946 film Lady in the Lake. The entire movie is seen from Oscar’s point of view. This technique didn’t work so well in Lady in the Lake because it was merely a gimmick used to breathe life into an average detective story. In Enter the Void, it is integral to the movie because the material demands it. There is no other way the movie could be shot.
This method conveys the right emotional responses without fail. When Oscar is alive, it feels like we’re really him. When he blinks, the camera briefly goes dark. When he walks, the camera jerks around and up and down. We even get a series of shots lasting several minutes of what it’s like to smoke DMT. Here, we feel a little unclean.
When he dies, his spirit overlooks Tokyo from the sky, venturing from building to building. Here there is a feeling of helplessness as he watches his sister grieve after intercourse with a client. Afterwards, Oscar’s life begins to flash before his eyes. It isn’t fast but meditative. For this part of the movie, Oscar sees himself as he relives his memories. Noe positions the camera at a high camera height directly behind Oscar’s head. The flashes are assembled in a somewhat disjointed manner that provide a portrait of Oscar, his relationship with his sister, and his career in drug dealing. It acts like a mosaic. This allows us the feeling of examination and reflection.
The fourth point of view shot towards the end is similar to the second but instead of helplessness there is a feeling of comfort. Now knowing the relationship between Oscar and his sister and how much she means to him, we sense him watching over and looking out for her.
Just like Irreversible and I Stand Alone, Enter the Void contains a lot of shocking and disturbing material. At one point his sister has an abortion (only the beginning and aftermath are shown). At the end, Oscar’s spirit zigzags throughout a maze of a motel where people act out on their sexual fantasies, with shot after shot of explicit sex. This includes a shot of penetration seen from inside a woman’s uterus (there is a payoff, trust me).
Gaspar Noe is very talented and if you can get over the disturbing material, you will be hard-pressed to find another filmmaker like him. Someone who is willing to go all the way in bending cinematic conventions and deliver material that may not be entirely original but is at the same time very refreshing and aggressively and unapologetically provocative. I can’t wait to see what he will do next.
*Although it is being released unrated, Enter the Void is being treated by Landmark Theatres as an NC-17 movie. Therefore, nobody under eighteen will be admitted.