Enter the Void
A head trip through afterlife: A wild, sometimes brutal, ride
Through some mysterious bend of the creative hive mind, life after death has become a preoccupation of filmmakers lately. Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter’’ is currently in theaters and Alejandro González Iñnáritu’s “Biutiful’’ arrives soon on the wave of rapturous festival screenings. Are the end times upon us, or does it just, as usual, feel that way?
Leave it to Gaspar Noé to give us the Afterlife: Xtreme Edition. The French director of 2002’s “Irreversible,’’ which took moviegoers on a hellish backward journey through murder, rape, and fragile innocence, now pushes forward across the dividing line of existence into a hyper-poetic head trip of degradation and rebirth. “Enter the Void’’ is most assuredly not for pregnant women, the seizure-prone, or the faint of heart. Yet as chowderheaded as some of its underlying pretensions are, the movie’s still an astonishing work of cinema, alternately brilliant and disgusting, naïve and inspired, tedious and sublime. No one else could have made it. No one else would have wanted to.
Two-and-a-half hours in length, “Enter the Void’’ is told entirely from the vantage point of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a young American druggie living in Tokyo. We see what he sees: his tiny high-rise apartment and the beckoning neon purgatory beyond his balcony; the glass pipe that delivers his hit of DMT; the ravishing fractal vortex of hallucinations that follow; his pale face in the mirror.
The kid’s a damaged wretch — as are we all in Noé-land — but the film’s intent on capturing the bit of holiness within. Twenty or so minutes in, after Oscar is shot by the police in a drug bust gone sour, “Enter the Void’’ begins its real journey.
Oscar’s seedy friend Alex (Cyril Roy) has lent him a copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a visual prop that serves as an overly literal guide to what the hero and we are about to experience. You can’t tell the karmic players without a scorecard, I suppose, and as the movie propels us forward, first into Oscar’s past, then the present that survives him, and finally into a future that manages to be obscene, boring, and transcendentally moving all at once, you can almost physically feel the wheel of existence turning beneath your seat.
In part, that’s because Noé uses his standard cinematic bag of tricks to affect the audience on a submolecular level, starting with the opening credits, which whiz by in a blurt of colors and fonts: You’ve got a contact high and the movie hasn’t even started. The soundtrack music grinds away like a factory floor with its skylight open to heaven. Like “Irreversible,’’ “Enter the Void’’ is a primal experience; unlike the earlier film, it’s less interested in punishing the audience than in visualizing the unknown.
Oscar flies through the sequences of his life, the back of his head initially filling the screen’s center like a basketball player in the row ahead of you. We see his idyllic childhood, the horrific car accident that orphaned little Oscar (Jesse Kuhn) and his younger sister, Linda (Emily Alyn Lind), their forced separation and reunion years later in Tokyo (when Linda is played by Paz de la Huerta), and his numb acquiescence to her career as a burnt-out stripper. Through him, we’re witness to Linda’s tawdry fall from grace, and it’s a terrible sight to behold.
The subsequent section of “Enter the Void’’ renders Oscar, now unseen, as a ghost of the here and now, and the film’s title will probably ring all too true for some filmgoers, as Noé’s camera swoops endlessly along the alleyways of Tokyo, stopping in to witness the spiritual death throes of Linda; Alex; Victor (Olly Alexander), the teenager who turned Oscar in; Victor’s miserable parents (Sara Stockbridge and Stuart Miller); and Linda’s lover-pimp, Mario (Masato Tanno). The pace is slow, seraphic; the journey is the point, and if you can’t surrender to Noé’s void on the terms he sets, you’ll be crawling back to the land of the living known as the lobby.
Those terms are high. If there’s a shot of an aborted fetus, you just know this director will send his camera diving into it and out the other side. “Enter the Void’’ features graphic sex but it’s hardly an erotic travelogue; the coupling here is desperate and forlorn. The movie plays out in endless Tokyo night, with drug highs and orgasm the only illusory evidence of God on earth.
For all that, the director’s in a relatively upbeat mood this time, and “Void’’ ends where a proper karmic journey should. I’ll say no more other than to note the finale involves a view of sexual congress that is both powerfully moving and the silliest thing this critic has ever seen.
It’s hard to talk about the acting when the camera is doing most of it. The only performance that could be defended as such is de la Huerta’s; damned by circumstance and by choice, Linda flails through the movie like a lizard pinned to a dissecting tray. Yet the character’s also the beating, bleeding heart of “Enter the Void,’’ our squalling representative in a world that bends us to the rack.
That Linda is ultimately granted grace through an act that can only be called cosmic incest is the filmmaker’s little joke on a cruel, capricious universe. That means for once the joke in a Noé movie isn’t entirely on us. At the end of this exhausting, ravishing mind meld is an emotion entirely new to this director: hope. It’ll be interesting to see where it takes him.