“They say you fly when you die,” a character says early on in Enter the Void, the third film by French-Argentinian director Gaspar Noe – and his first since 2002’s notorious Irreversible, with its nine-minute rape scene and graphic murder by fire extinguisher. Fortunately, Noe is in a gentler mood this time: Enter the Void is not a violent film (also: best opening credits – ever). But it is guaranteed to generate more walkouts than Irreversible did.
Using 1947’s The Lady in the Lake as his central inspiration (with a heavy dose of the stargate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Noe aims for the ultimate mind-trip movie – a picture that never once leaves the protagonist’s head. We see everything either through the eyes of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a young American drug dealer living in Tokyo, or from behind his head as he walks around. The only time we see Oscar’s face is when he looks in a mirror, something that happens once or twice.
During the film’s audacious opening 20 minutes, in which the action unfolds entirely from Oscar’s point of view (complete with eye blinks, inner monologues and some DMT-induced hallucinations), some viewers may be suffer mild motion sickness. That passes, though, after your stomach gets used to Noe’s gravity-defying camera, which ventures into places no other camera has gone before (including one place that will make many a porn-film director smack his forehead and say “Why didn’t I think of that?”. (It should be noted that the film’s sexual content is plentiful, even superfluous in stretches, and leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. Children under 17 have no business near this movie.)
The plot of Enter the Void follows what happens after Oscar, who has been reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead on the recommendation of his pal Alex (Cyril Roy), is set up by his customer Victor (Olly Alexander) and shot and killed by cops. For the rest of the film, we discover you do, indeed, fly when you die – or at least hover, the way Oscar does over Tokyo. He watches the police examine the scene of his shooting and his autopsy. He looks in on his distraught sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), who works as a prostitute and has been his best friend since their parents were killed in a car accident. He peeks in on the guilt-ridden Victor, who might have betrayed Oscar on purpose after discovering his friend was having an affair with his mother.
More than half of Enter the Void unfolds via overhead shots: The camera floats above Tokyo, from its neon-lit downtown to its darker, seedier slums. At times, it soars so high that it crosses paths with a passenger jet. Other times, it pulls in close to things you rather not look at then goes in a little closer, and then inside.
As he did in Irreversible, Noe tinkers with chronology: After Oscar is killed, the story circles back to his childhood, showing us exactly how this young American came to die in a grimy toilet stall so far from home. Our inability to see his face hinders the emotional connection we might have made with him. Staring at the back of someone’s head gets really dull after a while, unless you happen to be playing a video game. Instead, you start to wonder how Noe pulled off certain camera tricks or try to spot his invisible edits – until something happens onscreen that draws you back.
But testing your endurance is part of what Noe is up to here. Enter the Void, which runs a grueling two and a half hours, was about 30 minutes longer when it premiered at Cannes in 2009, a length that must have made it unendurable. I groaned when I checked my watch and saw there was still an hour to go (the trimming of another half hour would have done the movie much good). But in hindsight, I’m glad for the experience. Despite the sliver of a story, this is, above all else, a sensory ride down a cinematic flume – a movie to be felt, not told. Watching it may not always be a pleasurable experience, but there is something about Noe’s relentlessness that worms into your psyche, the way aspects of the work of David Lynch and David Cronenberg sometimes penetrate.
“I hated that” will be a common refrain among people leaving showings of Enter the Void. Don’t be surprised, though, if you find yourself still thinking about the movie the next day. Bold and intrepid film buffs: The gauntlet has been thrown. Here’s something you don’t see every day – thank goodness.