Film Review: Enter the Void

A cult movie is born with the release of Gasper Noé’s dazzling and demented tour-de-force.
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Gasper Noé’s heady and unintentionally hilarious exploration of life after death, Enter the Void, is an example of exceptional technique used in service of a half-baked idea that’s been dragged out to interminable length. But oh, that technique! If Noé were any less skilled a showman, it would be easy to dismiss Enter the Void as a grand filmmaking folly that the general moviegoing public would be better off avoiding. And as it is, this isn’t the sort of movie you’d casually recommend to a co-worker or acquaintance unless you’re deliberately planning on burning that bridge for good. But serious film buffs and fans of cult movies in general owe it to themselves to check out what Noé hath wrought here, if only to witness the rare sight of a director going completely off the deep end in service of his vision.

That vision includes, among other things, onscreen drug trips that strive to outdo the famous Stargate sequence from Kubrick’s 2001, graphic and prolonged sexual encounters, a suicide attempt followed by a queasy depiction of an abortion and, last but certainly not least, what may very well be the first cum shot ever filmed from the perspective of a woman’s vaginal canal. Lest you think that Enter the Void is nothing but a two-and-a-half-hour parade of depravity, there are also moments of startling grace and beauty courtesy of Noé’s visual conceit (or, if you prefer, gimmick) for the movie. See, Enter the Void is shot entirely from a first-person perspective…even after the death of its main character.

Confused? Here’s how it works: The film’s first half-hour chronicles the final night in the life of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), an American living abroad in Toyko who earns a modest living by dealing drugs. So far, it’s shaping up to be an average evening for the twenty-something dealer and recreational user: He snorts some cocaine, experiences a far-out vision, welcomes over a buddy and shoots the shit about this crazy book he’s reading, The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Then he goes out to a nearby nightclub to meet a connection, where he’s promptly set upon by undercover cops and shot to death in a toilet stall. All of this plays out entirely through Oscar’s eyes, with Noé even regularly fluttering the camera shutter to mimic the effect of blinking.

Once Oscar is killed, the camera follows his spirit out of his body and hovers above the action, looking down on the world and people he’s left behind, specifically his emotionally fragile sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta). As foretold in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Oscar’s spirit also travels back in time, reviewing the highlights of his sad little life—the violent death of his parents when he was a child and his subsequent separation from his sister, moving to Tokyo and falling into drugs, bringing his sister across the Pacific only to watch her embark on a career as a stripper—as he prepares to move onto the next stage of existence where he’ll have the chance to be reincarnated.

This brings us to the movie’s sure-to-be-legendary final act, where Noé reveals that the next stage of existence is, in fact, a neon-red lit carnal palace where men and women writhe in passion as glowing light emanates from their nether regions. After observing and rejecting countless pairings, Oscar’s spirit finally follows the light into a thrusting couple and rides a wave of sperm to his host’s uterus, from which he emerges nine months later as a bouncing baby.

Descriptions of Enter the Void don’t really do the movie justice—it’s even more overwrought and hysterical than this synopsis indicates. Noé’s self-seriousness just makes the damn thing funnier, especially in the reincarnation sequence, which is difficult to watch with a straight face. At the same time, though, the filmmaking is so absorbing, it’s possible to be enthralled by what’s happening onscreen even while you’re rolling your eyes and laughing. Coming off a diet of rigidly programmed summer blockbusters, there’s something liberating about seeing a director unshackle himself from convention in such an outlandish way. No doubt aware of the ridicule and scorn his movie will invite, Noé nevertheless fully commits himself to this depiction of the afterlife, never holding back even when restraint would be the wiser course of action.

But his admirable artistry behind the camera doesn’t excuse some of the movie’s more glaring flaws, beginning with the fact that Oscar and Linda are generally irritating and unlikeable people for whom the audience has little sympathy. And at two-and-a-half hours, the film is punishingly long; the middle section in particular drags on and on, rubbing the audience’s face in the characters’ misery and needlessly repeating scenes we already witnessed in the first act. One thing’s for sure—if you make it to the other side of Noé’s demented trip through the void, it won’t be a journey you forget anytime soon.