Gaspar Noé is one of those directors that tends to divide an audience: while nobody would argue he’s not audacious and unflinching, many people find his movies exploitative and gratuitous. Of course there’s plenty of room to straddle both. Consider 2002’s Irreversible, Noé’s antichronological revenge tale culminating in an infamous 9-minute rape scene: not for the faint of heart, and even those who managed to make it to the end found themselves wondering if it was art, trash, or some unholy mix of the two.
It was seven years before the release of Noé’s next film, Enter the Void, just released on Blu-Ray to region 1, and audiences are once again divided. Ostensibly chronicling the (after)life of a young ex-pat in Tokyo as he completes a full revolution of the karmic cycle, Enter the Void made a few Top 10 lists in 2010. J. R. Jones at The Chicago Reader called it an “epic, psychedelic mindfuck.” No less than Quentin Tarantino placed it in his Top 20 for the year, saying “Maybe best credit scene of the decade. One of the greatest in cinema history.” The credit sequence is a triumph unto itself, made in collaboration with Thorsten Fleisch:
Over at The AV Club, the film failed to gain the unanimity it needed to make it onto their 2010 Top 15 list, but Scott Tobias found room in his top 15 to call it “phantasmagoric odyssey through nocturnal Tokyo that makes up in dazzling style what it lacks in smarts.” Not overwhelmingly positive, but at least it captures a sense that this movie stands apart, even if it’s not flawless. Perhaps Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir says it best: “This powerful, hallucinogenic journey will strike some viewers as a flat-out masterpiece and others as flatulent garbage. It actually has elements of both, so let me issue a completely weaselly, asterisk-laden recommendation: You have to see this! If (and only if) you’re into this kind of thing!”
Over at Variety, Rob Nelson is not so kind, calling it “not clever enough to be truly pretentious,” but, speaking to the film’s divisiveness, says “some viewers will nonetheless insist on calling this an exercise in pure cinema; many others will prefer to describe it as pure trash.” And at the San Francisco Chronicle, Walter Addiego gives Enter the Void a thorough pan, calling it “an unbearable exercise in provocation”; if there are redeeming features to Enter the Void, they were lost on poor Walter.
Amazingly, none of the above reviewers seems to have found the following quote from Noé, from an interview with Interview Magazine; all seem to take at face value the literal disembodiment of the central character:
The whole movie is a dream of someone who read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and heard about it before being [shot]. It’s not the story of someone who dies, flies and is reincarnated, it’s the story of someone who is stoned when he gets shot and who has an intonation of his own dream …. At the end of the movie, you don’t know if he died or will wake up at the hospital.
Given that the movie is not meant to be taken as actual events, but is all the hallucination of a (dying?) man, one could perhaps forgive the gratuitous visuals.
Noé has stated outright that Enter the Void is inspired by his own hallucinogen-induced experiences, such as watching Lady of the Lake on mushrooms as a teenager. He conducted “field research,” visiting the Peruvian jungle to try ayahuaska, source of the same DMT at the centre of the story. Noé has also stated that he intended to induce a stoned feeling in viewers using overwhelming sounds and strobing colours inspired by the likes of Tony Conrad’s The Flicker. If not stated outright, he has at least hinted that drugs would enhance the viewing experience as well; you don’t have to look very far to find people who fully endorse taking a few bong hits before hitting ► on the Blu-Ray. Essentially the use of drugs is integral to Enter the Void on every level; even if you enter the theatre sober, Noé will make you feel as if you’re not. It might be this more than anything else that divides audiences — after all, not everyone enjoys the feeling of disorientation; in the Interview Magazine interview above, the questioner describes himself “staring at the floor at one point, overstimulated. There was a point where I’m not sure I could have told you which way was up or down in the room.” The over-stimulation, the psychedelic visuals, and drug use (by the creators, the characters and the viewers) are inseparable, and not everyone’s cup of tea.
And yet, it’s the content, not the form, that seems to repel people; the reaction to Noé’s visual style ranges from grudging admiration to ebullient praise, but even those who list the film among the top titles of the year concede that it’s “dumb.” It’s paradoxical, in a way; the thing everyone agrees is irrelevant and only in service to the “mind-blowing,” “dazzling” visuals — the story — is what makes reviewers call it “banal,” “tedious,” or “boring.” Movies with scripts as bad but with less visual appeal have garnered more praise.
If nothing else, the effort to blur the lines between hallucination and cinema is more successful than any film in recent memory. To say the story is in service to the visuals might be missing the point — the visuals are the story, and the story is a hallucination. There are certainly themes, of karma, desire, portals, death and reincarnation, but they are not integral to the story. Enter the Void is not just about portals, it is a portal; the movie is about the void and it is the void, and Noé invites you to enter by mingling the story and the hallucination, and the character and the viewer, until it becomes impossible to separate them.
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