Monday, November 15, 2010

Something Dan Watched: Enter The Void

Well, considering that I've recently purchased a box set of Hou Hsiao-Hsien films that I'm doggedly working my way through, I was hoping my next Something Dan Watched post would cover something a little more prestigious or, you know, respectable. Instead, less than a week after covering Liquid Sky, I find myself discussing another trippy, drug-conscious, offbeat cult oddity: Gaspar Noe's Enter The Void, which just came to D.C.'s new West End Cinema this past weekend.

Enter The Void isn't really about its plot, so much as it is about its style, but let me briefly synopsize anyway. It tells the story of Oscar, an American drug dealer living in Tokyo with his younger sister. One night, a drug deal goes bad, and Oscar ends up getting shot to death by the cops. For more movies that would be the end, but things continue as Oscar's soul leaves his body. It experiences a strange journey, watching over Oscar's friends and family, reliving the formative experiences of his life, and eventually SPOILER being reincarnated as his sister's son. Or, as the film hints, this all may just be a hallucination Oscar experiences as he lays dying on the bathroom floor of a sleazy club known at The Void.

Like I said, though, it's not so much about the story as it is about the way Noe tells it. Enter the Void is the most stylistically rigid and all-around ballsy film I've seen in theaters this year. The whole film is shown as Oscar's subjective experience: the early scenes, when he's alive, are filmed from Oscar's POV, as though the camera was his eyes (this includes frequent black frames to suggest blinking, and a spectacular sequence where he does some heavy hallucinogens and trips for a while); after he dies, the camera assumes a weightless, god's-eye-view perspective as it flies around Tokyo, passing through solid objects like walls and people, as Oscar watches over the people from his life; the life-flashing-before-his-eyes scenes are filmed from directly behind Oscar, never showing his face, almost like you might see in some video games.

The only previous Noe film I've seen was his controversial Irreversible, which was so nihilistic and intent on rubbing the audience members' faces in filth and human misery that it was almost comical... yet I still respected its ambitious visual style and structure, in which the scenes were show in reverse chronological order, and each was staged as one continuous, elaborate take. Enter The Void spectacularly brings that one-take style to its most insane extreme (some shots are designed to appear "continuous" for what seemed to me to be nearly a half hour or so in length).

I've read several valid complaints about this movie, criticizing that it is style over substance, that the actual story of the film isn't as interesting as the visuals, that Noe includes too much of his trademark human degradation and miserableness. Those folks have a point. The screenplay never much bothers for subtlety (minutes before Oscar's death, he and a friend discuss the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and everything they discuss directly correlates to what happens to him in death) and I do think the exhilaration I felt during much of the filmed flagged about 90-minutes-ish in when it focused for too long on Oscar's friends and family in the aftermath of his death. Yet there's something about Noe's balls-out, go-for-broke style that redeems these flaws. Although I've gathered that Noe shares my lack of religious beliefs, and that the spiritual components of the film are ultimately just Oscar experiencing the "ultimate trip," as chemicals flood his brain as he dies, there's something about the way Noe conflates death, spiritualism, hallucination, subjectivism, reincarnation, etc., as different ways of looking at the same thing that makes the film energizing. It should be a downer but it feels like a positive experience.

Many will (perhaps rightly) hate this film, but those who appreciate bold aesthetic statements will find it was at least worth watching. (Also, I'm pretty sure this is going to be a cult item amongst stoners for years to come.) The best I can describe Enter the Void: it's like a four-way collision between Wings of Desire, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lady in the Lake and a Stan Brakhage short, and yet it's still not quite like anything you've seen.


Mr. Subtlety said...

Finally saw Enter The Void at a E Street Midnight Screening. Weirdly full of button-down middle age types, who turned more and more hostile as the film went on (they boo'ed at the end! who the fuck does that?!)

but yeah, I was pretty much in love with this one from the first frame, and would be able to love it without reservations of any kind were it not for the painfuly and unnecessary 45 minutes of family and friends reactions stuck in there right as the film should be building towards a finale. The central relationship in the film is the (surprisingly effective) one between Oscar and Linda, but once Oscar is dead Linda's reaction, and especially her reactions to the various men in her life, is pretty pointless. The best friend also has a complete non-story, and its annoying to keep coming back to him as if we care what happens to him.

So, by the time the end gets legitmately crazy (the tiny neon city, love hotel, etc) the film already feels a bit like an endurance test. In my opinion, Noe makes a tactical error by having the film build to the reincarnation. We already know what's going to happen, and its telegraphed from fucking space but takes forever for the film to get there. By the time we get to the vagina-point-of-view shots, its not nearly as much fun as it should be. The heart of the film is Oscar and Linda, and focusing the climax (uh, yeah, thats definitely the word I want) of the film with Linda and that French fucker deflates most of its emotional core.

Which is a shame, because in terms of cinema this film is just stunning. The Love Hotel sequence alone would make this a beloved classic if it had just the slightest bit more substance to it at the end. The intensity of the imagery (heightened by the crazy claustrophobia of the fixed subjective perspective, as we discussed before) is literally unlike anything I've ever experienced in the cinema. It's a stunning, masterful work which unfortunately loses sight of its actual purpose, after awhile. A shame, but obviously Noe's gonna make his masterpiece soon and its gonna change everything.

One thing: After we experience birth for what seems like fucking ever, wouldn't it be great if the film just looped and started all over again infinitly until the audience got the point and walked out? That would be a boss move. Next time, Gaspar...

Dan said...

Shit dude. I've been to a few of the E Street midnight shows. I skipped this one because I already own the bluray, but knowing you were there kinda makes me wish I had gone. We should totally meet at one of those in the future.

Anyways, I agree like 95% about the narrative/momentum problems, but I found on 2nd viewing that they mostly go away because you know what's coming, you can accept it and just go along for the ride. I'd call the film a case of (amazing) style over (simplistic) substance, but actually this is the sort of film where'd I'd argue that the style IS the substance. I almost have grown to enjoy how nonessential a lot of the story is in the later parts of the film, because it allows the plot to sort of become background noise while you focus on the technique.

Mr. Subtlety said...

I love E Street cinema (cheapest drinks in NW, natch!) but I have to admit that for some reason their midnight movies tend to actually be less interesting than their regular run films. It's like 75% ROCKY HORROR and THE ROOM. But every once in a while they get something cool like ENTER THE VOID or (over Christmas) the awesome RARE EXPORTS. It's fun to see things like THE THING or TRON on the big screen (I'll probably go see TAXI DRIVER in June - never seen it in a cinema) but I wish they'd be a little bolder in their selections and go with some unknown gems.

Actually, the place you really need to go is the Washington Psychotronic Film Society. It's in a weird backroom at the Passenger and is definitely for hardcore cinefiles. I've seen a lot, and I mean LOT of obscure films in my day, but most of the shit they play I've never even heard of. A sampling of the films I've seen there: GRACE QUIGLY (Katherine Hepburn's last starring role, kind of a HAROLD AND MAUDE with hitmen), A BOY AND HIS DOG, GRUNT! (Italian caveman comedy, no dialogue at all except grunting), RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK (Christopher Lee as Rasputin!), RADIOACTIVE DREAMS (Albert Pyun, with a little more effort and originality than usual). Next Week is NIGHTMARE CITY which I'm sure you've seen. It's a mix of different types of films, but they all have unique elements of greatness (some also have significantly larger elements of shittiness, but that's the nature of this kind of thing). Plus, the Passenger is a cool little place to hang afterwords and digest. Their website is

I figure we outta have a drink there or at E street sometime. There are too few Washingtonian cinephiles for us not to band together!

Anyway, it's an awesome time and a great chance to catch some truly out-of-the-way cinema.

As for VOID, I totally dig that the point is the style; its actually the repetativeness of the god's-eye-view section which eventually wears thin. Zipping from one scene to another across town gets kind of old when you don't care at all about the content of the scenes you're zipping off to. It's full of stunning imagery which would be hard to let go, but its sort of a slog even when you appreciate things like the long circular zoom on the stripper in an Argento-flavored blood red bar. Too many relatively normal scenes of Linda and his friends having domestic issues or crying or whatever make the wait for the next stunning shot feel like an eternity.

On the other hand, like i said, I think its sort of the point that it ends up feeling a bit exhausting, so maybe its just as well that they didn't trim the fat a little, even if it makes it a little less fun.

Dan said...

That sounds cool, yeah, I'd be down for either. Let's maybe keep our eyes peeled for something mutually interesting in the near future. My younger brother just graduated from UCONN and is back in DC, he's also into movies and Psychotronic Film Society sounds right up his alley, so I should let him know about that too.

Also, were you at the midnight show of THE THING back in December/January (whenever it was)? Because I was totally there.

Shenan said...

Wooo! That just unintentionally happened!