Exhilarating, exasperating, inspired and redundant, Enter the Void is a film of equal parts greatness and silliness, a psychedelic head-trip that only irregularly achieves the grandeur it seeks. Expanding upon many of the ideas addressed in his prior Irreversible, Gaspar Noé’s latest is often a frustratingly shallow creation in terms of characterizations, dialogue and narrative plotting, all not-inconsiderable shortcomings that can hamper direct engagement with the action at hand. And yet the writer/director’s formal gifts are often so remarkable that they prove up to the challenge of his ambition, with his story – about an American drug dealer in Tokyo who [spoilers follow], after being killed in a deal-gone-awry, follows his sister around Tokyo as a hovering spirit – conveyed in such purely cinematic ways that the effect is stunningly transportive. To be sure, at 160 minutes (a brisker 137-minute version will receive U.S. theatrical distribution), Noé’s newest provocation is often self-indulgent and repetitive, with recurring scenes and motifs only sporadically developing the material’s underlying preoccupations. Nonetheless, Noé’s directorial flair and imaginativeness have never been more assured, and the cumulative effect of his gonzo theatrics is to situate one in a uniquely mesmerizing netherworld free from traditional boundaries between past and present, waking and sleeping, life and death.
The first segment of Noé’s wannabe-masterpiece assumes the Lady in the Lake-style first-person POV of Oscar (Nathanial Brown), who – after a brief chat with his stripper sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) in their Tokyo apartment – puts a pipe to his lips, smokes some DMT, and has his mind overwhelmed by neon-bright hallucinations of flowering organic shapes. Throughout his saga, Noé intermittently returns to these visions of spiraling tentacles, which find visual and thematic kinship in a late aerial shot of nighttime Tokyo’s glowing city streets. The interconnectedness of life, and specifically the paths that lead from birth to childhood to adulthood to the grave (or, in this particular instance, the crematorium fires), are Noé’s underling focus as he patiently charts Oscar’s trip to a drug transaction, his death at the hands of cops secretly lying in wait, and his subsequent spectral surveillance of Linda’s grieving. These observations, however, are interrupted during Enter the Void’s middle section by a prolonged montage of memories that lay out – a tad too neatly, given that they aren’t guided by free-association links, but by a storyteller’s need to provide necessary plot info – how Oscar came to arrive at his demise in the bathroom stall of club Void (a place akin to Irreversible’s “Rectum”), curled up dead on the floor in a fetal position.
As in Irreversible, Noé’s camera is piercingly expressive, whether assuming the position of Oscar’s eyes, a third-person view just over his shoulder (in memories), or a disembodied perspective floating through walls and over city streets (in ghost form), with this last mode’s topsy-turvy cinematography conveying a world unmoored and unstable, and yet beholden to a certain sort of circular logic. Once again using 2001 as a touchstone, Noé aims to capture a sense of human evolution, or more specifically the evolution of every human life, and his outlook proves fixated on the pain of inevitable separation and the inescapable reality that (to borrow his past film’s statement-of-theme) “Time destroys everything.” Even so, there’s also modest hope to this phantasmagoric portrait. Reflecting the teachings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which he’d been reading before his death, Oscar’s spectral incarnation operates within a dream-logic state of continual destruction and, crucially, creation. And if Noé’s vision of the afterlife can sometimes be more than a tad ridiculous – climaxing, pun intended, in a distended visit to a toy-high-rise-made-real called the Love Hotel in which Oscar watches lots of people with glowing crotches have sex – it can also be aesthetically ravishing and emotionally potent, as when ghost-Oscar enters into Linda’s mind and bestows on her a disquieting dream of his resurrection.
Far less interested than before in punishing viewers with juvenile shocks to the system, here Noé casts his graphic material – including Linda’s eventual abortion, which culminates with another of the film’s many Star Child-esque images – as natural extensions of his larger concerns. Enter the Void’s dearth of three-dimensional characters and excessive duplication of thematic and narrative points can often be a drag, but Noé’s indulgences remain in tune with his outsized aspirations, and supply additional layers to his sensory feast, in which form not only takes precedence over content, but actually becomes something like the content itself. Repeatedly revisiting the traumatic car crash that began Oscar and Linda’s journeys toward their respective presents – odysseys overflowing with incestuous/Oedipal urges, friendship and romantic betrayals (a familiar root cause of trouble in Noé’s cinema), and a longing for reversion to a happier past – the film’s style is so bold and emotive that, despite its protagonist’s fundamental thinness, it gets inside Oscar and finds a universal condition of sorrow, longing and regret. That such an investigation comes equipped with hordes of diamond-colored lights, avant-garde strobe effects (over Kubrickian blank-white screens), and a trip down Linda’s fallopian tubes is merely part and parcel of this grandly screwy work, whose lofty aspirations lead to both folly and, more frequently, magnificence.