Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Death trip: Enter the Void

Central to Enter the Void is not so much a character as a point of view. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a young American living, loafing and dealing various drugs in Tokyo, is observed relatively little (though for a while we get a rather thorough study of the back of his head) yet is, in the loosest sense, present in every scene. Gaspar Noé uses Oscar’s consciousness as a cinematic vessel: we see and hear what he sees and hears, a device familiar from its fleeting employment in slasher films but, documentaries aside, is rarely used in extended duration, some memorable exceptions being Russian Ark, The Lady in the Lake, and the first part of Dark Passage, whose title could easily be substituted for the one Noé settled on for this, his follow-up to Irreversible and third feature as writer/director/editor/cinematographer/provocateur/

Enter the Void follows, or rather inhabits, Oscar as he gets profoundly stoned, walks to a nightclub, gets killed, and thence drifts in spirit-form through a narrow network of past and present. His life seems to have consisted mainly of one major source of trauma (his parents’ death in a car accident when Oscar was a child, an event he was present for) and one of comfort (his sister, with whom he’s made a pact to always be together, even after death). It is in any case these items that doggedly haunt Oscar’s afterlife and Noé’s project. Over and over we witness the accident from the backseat, the lifeless bodies, the sister wailing. The memory repeats until it no longer shocks us nor deeply troubles Oscar, the implication being, I suppose, that he’s letting go of earthly woes. Over and over we visit Oscar’s sister (Paz de la Huerta, frequently naked and, less appealingly, screaming), usually while she’s getting laid or dancing in a g-string. Oscar’s protective impulse and incestuous desire for his sister merge into a single focused longing for reunion that finally manifests in a sequence that ushers Oscar toward reincarnation via one particular anatomical dark passage that, it’s probably safe to say, the movies have never taken us through before.

Equal parts mind-blowing and incredibly boring, I can no more deny the tedium of
Enter the Void than I can its ingenuity. Maybe that’s just it: displays of ingenuity are tedious, at least when undertaken by artists who seem drawn to nothing so much as their own sublime gimmickry. (To be fair, the tedium is surely more oppressive in the 160-minute version I’ve seen than in the 137-minute version that’s screened in some theatres.) The first half-hour or so, where Oscar trips out to visions of branching galactic veins of pulsating, morphing beauty, where paranoia burgeons and fades, where his buddy Alex (Cyril Roy, oddly charismatic, and giving the closest thing to a two-dimensional performance) comes by to explain the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Noé’s source material), is easily the most engaging and witty section. Noé’s evocation of Oscar’s reeling response to his narcotic cocktail, which includes DMT, is uncanny: anyone who takes drugs for extra-medicinal purposes will recognize the sensations carefully conjured here. But once Oscar goes astral, momentum and insight is largely discarded. Yes, the soaring-over-Tokyo camerawork is wondrous, a milestone even. But Oscar’s a bland cipher, his afterlife hardly the sort anyone truly invested in spiritual questions would choose for such extensive cinematic examination. His posthumous wandering might have worked better as an installation or visionary video game, which it resembles in many respects. Stanley Kubrick and 2001 especially are touchstones, though Noé has yet to muster up even Kubrick’s negligible level of interest in characters. Enter the Void is one hell of a trip, but you may find you’ve come down long before its final fade to black.

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