Enter the Void

February 7, 2011

Some time ago, a close friend of mine sent me a message in which he enthused about Enter the Void, stating that I had to check it out and that he could barely walk in a straight line for ten minutes after leaving the cinema that he watched it in. How’s that for a recommendation? I had no opportunity to see the film in a cinema, sadly, but I nonetheless managed to see what proved to be one of the most interesting viewing experiences of last year. Written and directed by French filmmaker Gaspar Noé, Enter the Void was initially filmed between late 2007 until the spring of 2008 but went through over a year of post-production before a rough cut was shown at Cannes in 2009. More post-production followed and the final film wasn’t released until 2010. The critical reception was quite divided on this film, and it isn’t difficult to see why. Although technically dazzling with some stunning visuals, this film is clearly not for everyone.

Enter the Void opens with a phenomenal credit sequence of flashing, high-speed, neon intensity which Quentin Tarantino and I agree is probably the best of the last decade. From there we meet Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), an enterprising young American who has chosen to earn his living as a drug dealer in Tokyo and who has invited his sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta) to live with him there. Oscar gets really fucking high on his own supply and Linda finds work as a dancer in a strip club. Oscar’s mate Alex also turns up to ramble on about The Tibetan Book of the Dead and recommend it to Oscar as a safer transcendent alternative to drugs. This is in no way a plot-driven film so it does little harm to throw out the following spoiler: on a routine drug deal at a bar, Oscar is ambushed by the cops and is shot in a bathroom stall after attempting to warn the police (falsely) that he is armed. The entire film is shot via Oscar’s POV which at this point “leaves” his prone body and begins drifting through the time and space of his lifetime in the manner of a disembodied spirit adhering to the procedure laid out in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Oscar’s spirit journeys around Tokyo tracing the aftermath of his death and the effect on his sister and friends whilst also moving in and out of key moments of his past including traumatic memories from his childhood and the beginnings of his inappropriate feelings for his sister.

Neon Tokyo is about to explode.

Gaspar Noé described this film as a “psychedelic melodrama” and the temptation here is merely to declare it to be trippy as fuck and leave it at that but a lot of effort was invested in this beast and it’s clearly more than just a self-indulgent music video spun out into a full-length feature. The dazzling crane shots in Noé’s Irreversible, with their 360° angles pulling the audience deep into the bowels of “La Rectum” nightclub, were apparently a mere training exercise for the ambitious camera work necessary for this film. Designed to look like one continuous shot from the perspective of the protagonist’s consciousness, the seamless fluidity whereby the camera floats about in rooms, zooms into light bulbs and out of plug holes, through walls and even into people’s bodies, was achieved via extensive digital manipulation. CGI was apparently necessary for every single scene of Enter the Void, hence the lengthy post-production period. This certainly appears to have paid off as the end result is a quite stunning and unique hallucinatory feast. Amongst the main challenges herein, however, is the running time. At 155 minutes, it’s a long-haul for what is a rather straightforward idea and there is a danger that you can feel done with the film, having fully grasped what it is telling you, only to realize that you’re only two-thirds into the experience with plenty more to come. For me, this all paid off in the climactic scene of the movement through the hyper-realized neon Tokyo, seemingly a conflation in Oscar’s mind between the real city he lives in and a black-light, scale model constructed by an artist he visits in a flashback memory. The viewer is pulled into the “Love Hotel”, each room of which is occupied by a variety of copulating couples (including Linda and Alex) whose bodies, specifically their entwined genitals, emit ethereal tendrils of light. This seemingly conforms to the details of the third bardo, the sidpa bardo of rebirth, in The Tibetan Book of the Dead but I found the scene invoking in my mind an elaborately eroticized imagining of the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson, although I very much doubt that was Gaspar Noé’s intent. Most likely, it was a mere subjective impulse of my own.

Although not normally an approach I would advocate (especially on a first viewing), the challenging pace and run time of Enter the Void may be overcome if it is viewed with the aid of recreational psychoactive drugs. Being decently stoned or mildly tripping (or a little betwixt the two) could perhaps be the perfect condition in which to immerse yourself in this film, especially in lieu of the opportunity to watch it in a cinema. Your attention is likely to be more “in tune” with the tone and pace of the movie, the slightly altered mind far more receptive to the combination of the visual experience and the length at which it is delivered. It’s likely the writer/director himself would approve of this approach, having been inspired to make a film about the afterlife whilst watching Lady in the Lake (1947 film shot entirely from a first-person perspective) in the midst of tripping on magic mushrooms and having traveled to the Peruvian jungle to guzzle down Ayahuasca in the name of research.

Void entered.

Another target for this film’s detractors has been the central performances. Enter the Void isn’t really an actor’s film and the cast weren’t chosen with a rigorous view to how they would inhabit and realize the characters. Nathaniel Brown was selected for the role of Oscar specifically because he wasn’t an actor, but rather a young aspiring filmmaker himself, whom Noé felt would be more comfortable with only the back of his head appearing on screen. The role of Alex went to a guy who only turned up at auditions held in Japan for an opportunity to talk to Gaspar Noé. Cyril Roy was just a fan of the director’s work whose talkative personality alone found him cast in the film. This is not to argue that amateur, non-actors are destined to ruin a film but they’re certainly a gamble, as some excruciating scenes in the otherwise brilliantly realistic films of Ken Loach can attest.

Enter the Void, despite its visual and cinematic intensity, is notably less of an assault than Noé’s previous work, Irreversible. There is certainly explicit imagery here and the familiar use of unsettling music, but the overall effect is less manipulative. An audience seeking a more meaningful film may be put off by the lack of subtlety in the pyschosexual Freudian imagery and the tedium of the drug culture content but it would be a mistake to look too deeply into this one. As dubious and uncertain as Gaspar Noé’s motives may remain, his skill and commitment to realizing such a technically complicated and challenging film is to be applauded. This is a work of ambient, hallucinatory beauty that is at times both languid and feverish in its execution. Best served chilled, and mildly baked.



  1. Nail on the head.

  2. Cheers man.

    Took a little longer than I planned. Still haven’t managed to see the Wall Street sequel. That is to say: I haven’t actually tried.

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