Saturday, November 20, 2010
Enter the Void (2009) A Film by Gaspar Noé
Enter the Void is exactly the film Gaspar Noé needed to make to lift himself from the tar-heap of extreme provocation and misanthropy he had burrowed into with his first two features I Stand Alone and Irreversible. It was quite clear that he could not ride this train for too long before being written off completely as a one-note technical wizard, even if the particular world he settled into was utterly unmatched in cinema. Granted, it's not that Enter the Void doesn't luxuriate in a familiar air of dread and nausea, but rather that it does so in ways that are not purely exhibitionist. For the first time, Noé's gross-out, freak-out sensibility feels inextricably bound to the story he's telling, to the genuine emotions he's trying to get across. In other words, the film's unsavory images (which, to be sure, are fewer and farther between than in past work) more often than not grow organically from within the film instead of being injected in for Noé's own perverse, punishing aspirations.
What's more, for all his stunning technical adeptness in the past, he has really outdone himself here with the story of an American drug-dealer named Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) who is shot by police in a drug set-up near his high-rise Tokyo apartment. After this narrative instigator, which comes twenty minutes into the film, Noé depicts Oscar's transcendent post-mortal state by letting his camera literally embody his omniscient spirit floating over Tokyo, slipping in and out of night clubs, apartments, and shadowy alleyways, privy to anything and everything. This first-person perspective, both cosmic and immediate, is what dominates the film, manifesting itself as a "blinking", flesh-and-blood presence in the pre-death "prologue" and eventually dropping in on Oscar's murky flashbacks in shots behind his head that are presumably the visions of his lingering, out-of-body consciousness. It's an unbelievable spectacle of perspective that Noé enables, disorienting and intimate in its impact, and indicative not only of the mysteriousness of the great beyond but also of the spatial and perspectival turbulence that is tied to the drug experience, specifically the powerful hallucinogenics Oscar sells and uses. In fact, drugs and death are being consciously linked throughout the film, not in some didactic, finger-pointing, or premonitory manner, but in a way that locates the otherworldly capacities inherent in both. If that makes it sound like Enter the Void is exalting the obviously dangerous, illegal practice of drug use, well, it is. To some extent. But it's not some prolonged pro-drug ad; Noé's careful to highlight the importance of not enslaving oneself to substances.
None of this should have come as a surprise. It was clear enough from interviews with Noé and trailers that this was going to be at least partly a "drug movie". This nebulous genre, if there even is one, should plunge the viewer into a cinematic approximation of the sensations of taking drugs and, hopefully, say something worth saying about it in the process. As such, Enter the Void is one of the most potent, convincing evocations of the drug experience that I've ever witnessed; it captures the ecstasy, the debilitation, and the paranoia of it with startling firsthand immediacy. (Disclaimer: I don't take drugs, but this experience made me feel like I did.) At face value, the film's tripped-out, 2001-lite visions - lugubrious gyrations of color and movement courtesy of a gargantuan visual effects department, complete with sexualized tendrils swaying about - veer close to the territory of 1990's Windows screen-savers, but they take on a hypnotic power in context largely because Noé is so skillful in getting the audience to believe they are Oscar. Every sudden swoop of the camera feels attributable to a nervous twitch or a paranoid delusion transmitted from Oscar's subconscious, and Brown's clipped, in-your-face internal monologues ("This is the good stuff," "I'm not a junkie," "Wake up") have the unguarded awkwardness of a mental voice.
Following Oscar's encounter with DMT, a hallucinogenic tryptamine existing in the brain but only released during birth, dreaming, near-death experiences, and various other naturally occurring altered states, he is called by his friend Victor (Olly Alexander) who requests he meet him at a club called The Void to sell him some drugs. Noé covers the moment of the phone call to the moment of Oscar's death in one marathon shot spanning the time it takes for Oscar and his drug buddy Alex (Cyril Roy) to descend a never-ending fire escape and meander through the bustling streets of late-night Tokyo, where an escalating tension develops in spite of the casual realism of the sequence. What struck me in retrospect was how little I was aware of and thinking about the technical bravura (all the potential "invisible cuts" aside) as it occurred, because as much as the elaborate, cumbersome nature of the shot is what makes it so incredible, it doesn't call attention to itself. Cutting would seem disingenuous here, and would spoil both the sustained first-person technique and the verisimilitude of the scene. Furthermore, one might call the whole film one long continuous "shot", bound as it is to a complete chronological document of Oscar's state of being, and Noé is constantly discovering ways to fluidly traverse the varying modes Oscar settles into, be it voyeuristic spirit or sentimental occupant of his own memories.
The former, and that which comprises most of Enter the Void's lengthy running time, employs the most groundbreaking stylistic device in a film peppered by various groundbreaking stylistic devices. To communicate Oscar's free-floating, out-of-body state, Noé takes the hyper-literal, Christopher Nolan-esque route and has his camera actually float above the drama underneath, flying across the entirety of Japan's expansive club scene to eventually pause on an individual room where details of interest, both to the narrative and to Oscar's subconscious, are revealed. Where Noé differs from Nolan - whose Inception actually shares much of the exposition-heavy tendencies of Enter the Void (its long-winded establishing of rules is reminiscent of the pat summarization of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in Noé's film, which suspiciously mirrors the narrative blueprint) - is in the fact that his blunt visual excess has real substantive weight to it, eventually taking on a poetry of its own that is exclusive to its function as a narrative crutch. There's a pulsating rhythm to these God's-eye-view angles that is endlessly satisfying (and in some cases, willfully disorienting), especially when Noé and cinematographer Benoît Debie indulge in optical tricks like alternating the wideness of the lens mid-shot so that it becomes a kind of drunken expansion of viewpoint, moving from close-up to panorama in order to dwarf characters in their emotional desolation, or when they find endless black orifices (a bullet wound, a drain-hole, a vagina) to enter and emerge from in another space.
It should be clear from reading this how little I care about the ostensible narrative of Enter the Void, and by extension, how negligible it is to enjoying and experiencing the film. I'm not sure if Noé would agree that his narrative is simply an excuse for large-scale immersion in visual and sonic experimentation, because it seems he's unexpectedly genuine and sincere with the human story that keeps Enter the Void's wheels turning, but there's no doubting that it takes a backseat to the phenomenological qualities of the film. Like in Irreversible, the drama is shred-thin and not always very believable or nuanced; Oscar is plagued by a backstory of exile from his parents, who died in a car crash that he miraculously escaped from alive, and from his beloved sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), who has recently reunited with him in Tokyo, quickly becoming seduced by the flashy allure of the city as a maelstrom of drugs, alcohol, partying, and sexual soliciting. Visually, the flashbacks that underscore this traumatizing history are often extraordinarily affecting, but whenever the character's open their mouths, they articulate melodramatic pacts that are designed in such an airtight manner, meant to draw attention to the breaking of these pacts that Oscar's death brings. Oscar and Linda's relationship is never particularly convincing as a three-dimensional familial affection. Noé pays the most attention to their offhand incestuousness, which seems to at least partly fill the void in Oscar's life for a nurturing mother and also continues a very frank Freudian preoccupation throughout the film.
The nexus of Oscar's nostalgic pain, or the scene of his parents' death, is repeated numerous times as the film mounts the various levels of its emotional anguish. If the vision of a massive bus pile-driving a small sedan in a highway tunnel is shocking and devastating the first time, one would expect its power to diminish in ensuing representations, but this is hardly the case. Noé manages to re-insert the scene in instances that feel predictable and yet register a heightened sense of emotional vulnerability and alarm in the audience. It's as if the audience is made one with Oscar's consciousness and post-consciousness, privy to his fractured traumas and aware of the escalating patterns of associations he makes. Moreover, Noé repeats specific scenes, such as his death, from the behind-the-head perspective, as if to examine them from every possible angle. Narratively, there's no justification for all this redundancy, and one might make a case for the film only needing to be, say, 30 minutes to really "do its job", but by mulling over scenes, recycling motifs, and trumpeting seemingly inconsequential details, Noé excavates Oscar's entire being. And the film is nothing if not a totalizing immersion into the mind and body of one person. Noé may not be a dramatist, but the base of bare emotions he works off of here is perhaps the ideal complement to this experiential approach. Enter the Void pushes cinema to its breaking point, wiping away all notions of conventional narrative to become pure experience.