My Body is a Cage
Those of you who have escaped the foreboding lure of Gaspar Noé's infamous Irréversible (2002) may find yourselves drawn into the psychedelic clutches of his latest film, Enter the Void (2009). In comparison to its predecessor, which featured a grueling, nine minute long-shot of the beautiful Monica Bellucci being raped (not to mention a sequence showcasing the graphic, lethal bludgeoning of a man with a fire extinguisher) , Enter the Void is fairly accessible from a narrative standpoint. The film focuses on Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a drug dealer running the streets of Tokyo, trying to make ends meet so that he can support his displaced sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta). As the film opens, we watch as Oscar and Linda look down at the neon-soaked streets of the alienating metropolis. After a brief discussion about the city and their lives together, Linda leaves for work at a strip club and Oscar indulges his work habit, which produces a stunning array of interlocking, atomic flakes. Shortly thereafter, Oscar is summoned to a nearby nightclub, the Void, in order to hook his friend Victor (Olly Alexander) with some drugs. When Oscar arrives, he discovers that Victor has ratted him out to the local police. Fleeing to the bathroom to dump his stash, Oscar is pursued by the police, shot, and killed. From the twenty minute mark on, we watch as Oscar enters the void, both literally and metaphysically, his life flashing before our eyes, colliding with his experiences as a spirit in the afterlife.
Noé films this first sequence in a fluid, nearly seamless first-person style. We, via our alignment with the camera, are Oscar (notable examples include Lady in the Lake, Dark Passage, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). We experience the streets of Tokyo, literally, from his point of view. This is, for all intents and purposes, a subjective film, a rarity in filmmaking. The normal or "classical" mode of filmmaking (as analyzed by David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Janet Staiger) involves a complex series of stylistic devices that ensures that we, the viewer, are never left with our feet off the ground for an extended period of time. For instance, even in a film limited by the perspective of a first-person narrator (think of Fight Club or Memento), we're given establishing shots to help us understand the geography of the diegesis, psychological motivation, and editorially clear patterns of cause and effect that aid us in comprehending the narrative.
Noé, with Enter the Void, isn't interested in narrative clarity driven by such devices. The narrative sequences are undercut by his disavowal of the rules. The camera never stops moving and we are forced to hover over cramped spaces which we struggle to place in proximity with one another. When a cut takes place, it isn't out of producing a chain of cause and effect but a psychological association between images. The film owes more to the Tibetan Book of the Dead than it does to Ghost (1990). The film is not meant to be narrative about life and death; the film is an experience of life and death.
Yet, the film offers us much more than just a barrage of lights and sounds during its two-hour long equivalent to the Stargate sequence from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). There are small twists in story to give us something to hold onto: it turns out that Oscar and Linda's parents were killed in a car accident when the kids were young. From that point on, Oscar took it upon himself to protect his sister, not bothering to stop at the point when protection takes a turn for an incestuous relationship. There are other such reveals, but they tend to exist as a trail of breadcrumbs for the audience to guide themselves through the maze of pure cinema that Noé has constructed for us.
Despite the technical mastery and amazing attention to film form here (one particular sequence involves a car accident, a tunnel giving way to traffic lines on the pavement, and an airplane---a rather perverse variation on the city symphony genre), the performances and the story of Enter the Void welcome our critique. Paz de la Huerta, for some reasons more obvious than others, lacks the screen magnetism and talent of Monica Bellucci. She's good at standing around naked and getting fucked but when she tries to stretch beyond the sex object role, it's rather painful to watch. Moreover, with regard to the film's story. I don't fault Noé for dealing with uncomfortable subject matter (incest, the abundance of uncomfortable sex going on here in other forms) but I do think that he needed a bit more material to sustain the film's 154 minute running time. Instead of providing more focus on Oscar and Linda's relationship, Noé presents and re-presents the same events multiple times, sometimes to shock but always in service of his associational form of montage. Yet, after the first two times, maybe even three, these replays feel as if Noé doesn't know where to go from here. It's a difficult task to try to find a compromise between experimental and narrative cinema and I applaud the filmmaker for trying, yet he isn't as successful in bridging both modes of film practice as his hero, Stanley Kubrick, was. As one of the film's characters notes, "Death is the ultimate trip" and, despite these minor criticisms, I'd encourage you to buy the ticket and take the ride.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.