Gutter-dwelling Agentine-French provocateur Gaspar Noé returns with his first feature since 2002’s you-can’t-unsee-it brilliant Irréversible. Enter The Void is nothing less than a two-hour-and-20-minute, neon-colored assault on the senses. It’s as if Trainspotting and the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey had a baby. Fair warning: This is eye candy for advanced viewers. Casual moviegoers could fall and hurt themselves.
The film is set in Tokyo (though it was shot mostly on sound stages in Toronto). Flashing red and blue like a cop car in a high-speed pursuit and never surrendering to the light of day, Noé’s bedazzled vision makes urban Japan look even more like a Tron set than usual. Our protagonist in this retina-burning wonderland is Oscar (first-timer Nathaniel Brown), a young American junkie living the high life on the streets of Tokyo. What Oscar is doing there isn’t exactly spelled out. What is clear is he’s got more drugs in him than a Rite Aid, and he’s just brought his little sister Linda over for company. Linda (the alluring, frequently unclothed Paz de la Huerta of “Boardwalk Empire”) hasn’t seen her brother in years. The two were broken apart as children and placed in foster homes after the untimely death of their parents. That indelible incident has left both siblings suffering from long-term separation anxiety.
Most of Enter The Void is seen through the eyes of Oscar. That’s literal, by the way. With the camera lens staring out through his eyes, we get an alternately blinkered / highly focussed look into his world. The story is told in real time in what feels like one uncut, unedited shot. Noé, crazy visionary that he is, even builds Oscar’s blink cycle into the POV. Who does that? It’s madness! But it’s exciting madness, that’s for damn sure.
The film’s scattered puzzle-piece story kicks in, interestingly enough, as Oscar is shot dead by the cops in a drug bust gone horribly wrong. Having just perused the Tibetan Book of the Dead, bound by a pact he and his sister made as children to never leave one another, and tripping balls on several random collections of letters (GHB, MDMA), Oscar decides to stick around this mortal sphere for a while. “Death must be the ultimate trip,” says a friend, more than prophetically, moments before Oscar takes a slug to the sternum.
Like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve, Oscar’s hallucinating ghost embarks on a mad flight of fancy through past, present and future. Noé’s camera—still staring out through Oscar’s (now unblinking) eyes—flits over neon-tipped rooftops, through drug-infested alleyways and into seedy strip clubs like Peter Pan on a bender. Haunting childhood memories mingle with scenes of friends and loved ones reacting to Oscar’s death. On top of that, you can mix in a steady stream of voyeuristic visions conflating frenetic sexual coupling and death. (Hey, if you can’t be a Peeping Tom as a ghost, what’s the point?) These scenes don’t do a lot to illuminate the short, sad, largely pointless life of Oscar. Even in death, our boy’s a little aimless. His formless spirit does, for example, spend an uncomfortable amount of time watching his sister do the nasty.
The technical aspects of these images, however, are absolutely mind-boggling. The camera crash-dives into light sources like a moth to a flame. It plunges down manholes, alleyways and other unmentionable tunnels like a scared rabbit. How in God’s name was this film accomplished? With copious CGI? Extensive miniature sets? Hella-expensive camera rigs? Or some manner of indescribable black magic? I’m gonna go with the latter. The amount of planning and the level of detail that went into each swooping, swirling, perfectly composed shot is simply unimaginable. Watching this film is like having somebody jam a kaleidoscope into your cornea and point it at the heart of the sun. But, you know, in a good way.
Even as the film ticks past the two-hour mark, though, it’s hard to tell if Enter The Void is a work of deep substance or just magnificent surface. Despite its ample interest in the afterlife, the script doesn’t give us much, philosophically or religiously, to hang our coats on. Are we to interpret this in a Christian, a Buddhist or a strictly Jean-Paul Sartrean way? Though it skips through time, fleshing out the various characters and their interactions, we don’t end up knowing much about them really. How are we supposed to feel about Oscar’s death? Good, bad or indifferent? Very likely, the reaction will boil down to a matter of personal taste for the viewer. Love it, hate it, think about it forever: It’s hard to gauge what your individual take on Enter The Void will be. This much I guarantee, though: Watching it is the cinematic equivalent of an out-of-body experience. ... Just don’t take drugs before you see it. You won’t need them.
Enter the Void137 minutes Unrated. (Opens Friday)