Sunday, September 19, 2010

Review - Enter the Void

As much as I love the films of Gaspar Noé, I find it very difficult to recommend them to people because I know there's a very good chance they'll hate the experience of watching it. Noé's films seem designed to provoke extreme reactions from the viewers one way or another. His debut Carne featured graphic footage of a horse being butchered; his 1998 film Seul contre tous gave viewers 30 seconds to leave the cinema before presenting those that stayed with a scene of brutality that justified the warning; in Irreversible, Noé was responsible for an extended rape scene and a sickening act of revenge, sequences that were made even more unendurable by his swirling camera and droning sound design. He is a provocateur, no doubt about that, but he is also a remarkably gifted artist whose work is unlike anyone else's, a fact confirmed by his extraordinary new film Enter the Void.

Enter the Void might actually be the most palatable Noé film yet for those yet to be convinced by his talents, as it is less focused on confronting the viewer with shocking imagery (well, aside from the odd cumshot and dead foetus) and it instead showcases the director's incredible imagination and technical assurance. The opening credits sequence alone is packed with more invention and energy than many features I've sat through this year, and when the film finally begins, Noé enters the mind of his protagonist, allowing us to see the world through his eyes. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is a young American living in Japan, and we join him in his apartment just as he is about to take a hit of DMT, which provokes a long, hallucinogenic trip sequence.

It's a strange and beautiful interlude, and Noé takes his time about it, as he does in a number of these early sequences, which play out in real time. Oscar has conversations with his friend Alex (Cyril Roy) about The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the philosophy of which is key to Enter the Void, and then they make their way to a nightclub where Oscar is due to make a drugs exchange. Up until this point, everything has unfolded from Oscar's point of view, with Noé even incorporating the characters blinking into his image, but when the drug deal turns out to be a setup, Oscar finds himself cornered by the police. He is shot, he stares at his bloodied hands in disbelief, and then he slumps to the floor, at which point Noé's camera rises up and observes Oscar from the outside for the first time. His spirit is leaving his body, and for the rest of the film we will follow that spirit as it floats above the world Oscar is no longer living in.

If you've seen Irreversible, you'll know what Noé is capable of with a camera, the way he can imbue his film with an amazing sense of freedom and how he can utilise CGI and ingenious editing to create the illusion of unbroken sequences. Well, you ain't seen nothing yet. Enter the Void takes the techniques Noé mastered in Irreversible to a frankly incredible new level. His camera hovers over his characters, viewing them from above, and when Noé decides to move on somewhere else, he simply takes his camera through walls, or enters one object (it could be anything from a plughole to a bullet wound or a vagina) to emerge somewhere new. In one audacious move, Noé pulls back from a scene to take in a panoramic view of Tokyo at night, and then he continues to pull back, high into the clouds, where he suddenly meets a jumbo jet head-on.

Enter the Void is the most staggering display of filmmaking technique I have seen for a long time, but you might wonder if that's all there is to it. Certainly, the biggest disappointment I had with the film is that it never delivered the kind of emotional kick in the guts that both Seul contre tous and Irreversible successfully achieved. This is doubly disappointing because Enter the Void is essentially a film about loss, memory and regret. Noé intersperses the main narrative with a series of flashbacks depicting Oscar and his sister Linda's childhood, including the traumatic loss of their parents in a car crash. After they were orphaned, Oscar promised his sister that he would never leave her, and now, with her fully grown (and played by Paz de la Huerta) his spirit keeps that promise by watching over her.

There should be a powerful emotional pull to this material, but Enter the Void never gripped me on that level. This is partly down to the fact that Paz de la Huerta gives one of the most atrocious acting performances imaginable, constantly delivering her dialogue in a wooden and slurred fashion; if ever an actress was cast for her willingness to get naked rather than her acting ability, it's her. The performance turned in by Emily Alyn Lind as young Linda is a thousand times more powerful, with her grief at her parents' death and her separation from her brother being uncomfortably real. And yet, even if Enter the Void never really affected me in an emotional way, the film successfully hit me again and again with the visceral impact of Noé's direction. While I can't defend the director on most of the charges that his detractors bring against him (his reliance on shock tactics, his juvenile philosophy, his homophobic subtext), I find his films absolutely mesmerising for the way he pushes his own abilities to the limit every single time.

Enter the Void is a cinematic trip like no other, and at times it exerts a hypnotic effect. I've seen the film twice now, both in the version that played at last year's London Film Festival and recently in a shorter cut, and I found it even more transfixing second time around, when the loss of a reel (and the loss of an incident the film is better off without) gave it a greater sense of narrative shape without sacrificing its amorphous style. With Enter the Void, Gaspar Noé is trying to expand the boundaries of what is possible in cinema, he is genuinely trying to show us something new, and for all of the film's flaws, I found the experience of watching it utterly exhilarating. As ever with Noé, you're going to love it or you're going to hate it, and in years to come people will view this film as a self-indulgent folly or groundbreaking, epochal masterpiece. All I can say right now is that I have never seen anything quite like it, and I can't wait to see it again. Surely that in itself is all the recommendation you need.

Read my interview with Gaspar Noé