‘Enter the Void’ Takes Viewers on the Next Ultimate Trip

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CHICAGO – “Dying would be the ultimate trip.” This line is uttered early on in “Enter the Void,” the extraordinary new film from Gaspar Noé, a director who enjoys referencing his previous work almost as much as his hero, Stanley Kubrick. This line pays subtle homage to the “2001: A Space Odyssey” poster prominently framed toward the end of Noé’s previous film, “Irreversible.”

Just as Kubrick delivered on his promise to present moviegoers with the “ultimate trip,” Noé seems to be making a similar promise with this wildly ambitious feature, which he defines as a “psychedelic melodrama.” Yet while many audience members took assorted drugs to enhance their moviegoing experience during the initial release of “2001,” Noé aims to viscerally convey the sensation of a drug-induced high, allowing viewers to fully lose themselves within the world of his central character. “Void” comes as close any picture in the history of cinema to recreating human perception in all of its nuance and complexity. It is a staggering achievement.

As the film opens, we are peering at the vibrant landscape of Tokyo through the hazy eyes of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a small-time dealer scrounging to get ahead who knows all too well the negative effects of drug use. He’s recently been reunited with his adoring sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), who’s just moved in to his apartment. Both siblings are weary of each other’s chosen profession. Oscar has difficulty watching men ogle his sister as she performs in a strip club, while Linda is worried that her brother’s so-called friends will turn him into a junkie. This first section of the film seemingly takes place in real time, as we follow Oscar from his apartment, where he slips into a series of drug-induced hallucinations, to a club where a rendezvous with a wronged friend turns out to be a betrayal of fatal proportions.

Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void was released Sept. 24 at the Music Box.
Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void was released Sept. 24 at the Music Box.
Photo credit: IFC Films

After Oscar is gunned down in a police raid, we continue to view the world from the perspective of his disembodied spirit as it floats through space, desperately attempting to stay connected to the sister whom he promised never to leave. The film’s distorted vision of the afterlife somewhat resembles the trajectory mapped out by “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” which is exuberantly described by Oscar’s spacey friend Alex (Cyril Roy). Oscar soon sees fragments of his life reflected before him, as he revisits memories that haunted him while he was still alive. They include the sudden death of his parents, a horrific event that inspired Oscar and Linda to promise that they would never leave each other, even in death. While the Tibetan version of the afterlife eventually culminates in reincarnation, Noé’s film ends on a note of frightening and provocative ambiguity.

From the very beginning of his career, it was clear that Noé was a filmmaker destined to alienate a significant portion of the moviegoing public. His exploration of deeply disturbing subject matter has always been uncompromising, and has garnered controversy for extreme depictions of violence, often of a sexual nature. His most notorious picture, 2002’s “Irreversible,” included two sequences of brutality so vicious and intense that they were borderline unwatchable. Yet by reversing the plot’s chronology, these climactic moments took place toward the beginning of the film, allowing Noé to study the events that led to these senseless acts, transforming peaceful humans into animalistic monsters. The effect was heartbreaking and deeply sobering, draining the material of its exploitative nature. “Void” has a similar backwards structure, following Oscar from his destruction to his “rebirth” (though there’s nothing here to rival the excruciating scenes in “Irreversible”).

Nathaniel Brown and Paz de la Huerta star in Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void.
Nathaniel Brown and Paz de la Huerta star in Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void.
Photo credit: IFC Films

By utilizing a structurally simplistic plot line designed to illustrate “how we got here,” from point A to B, Noé allows audiences to reflect on big questions that are so often taken for granted. While “Irreversible” was about the nature of man, “Void” tackles the nature of existence itself, and though Noé is a devoted nihilist, his picture achieves a spiritual power no film has matched since Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Noé forged a brilliant collaboration with cinematographer Benoit Debie, key grip Akira Kanno and visual effects artistic director Pierre Buffin in creating a world so deliriously chaotic and yet so beautifully organic that it literally seems within reach. As in “2001,” character and plot often take a backseat to the technical and visual experience masterfully crafted by a first-rate crew.

The actors all have a similarly eerie, hollow quality to them, partly because they’re stoned for the majority of the picture. The key exception is Olly Alexander, who exudes striking vulnerability as Oscar’s shattered friend, Victor. Paz de la Huerta is cultivating a career distinguished primarily for her willingness to doff her clothes for high-profile artists, such as Jim Jarmusch and Martin Scorsese. Her performance is fittingly dreamy and efficiently heart-tugging, but not enough to prevent one from wishing that a more fierce and engaging actress was cast in the role. Save for one trick shot through a mirror, Brown’s face is never seen in the film, since he’s mainly a placeholder for the audience’s viewpoint. Oscar’s stoner philosophy never extends beyond the limited perspective of lines like, “Jobs are for slaves” and “You should have a goal.” Yet Noé’s tirelessly inventive visual storytelling fills the void of traditional character development by allowing the viewer to investigate Oscar’s heart of darkness firsthand.

Dying truly does prove to be the ultimate trip, since the secretion of DMT in Oscar’s fading brain allows him to embark on a hallucinogenic journey not unlike the ones he had when he got high. “Enter the Void” is the type of film casual moviegoers may briskly label as overlong or indulgent, yet like David Lynch’s “Inland Empire,” this one-of-a-kind experiment proves to be utterly spellbinding for viewers willing to take the trip. It’s a picture that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, particularly if cinema is your drug of choice.

‘Enter the Void’ stars Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta, Cyril Roy, Olly Alexander, Masato Tanno, Ed Spear, Emily Alyn Lind and Jesse Kuhn. It was written by Lucile Hadzihalilovic and Gaspar Noé and directed by Gaspar Noé. It opened on Sept. 24 at the Music Box. It is not rated.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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