By Tara Elsen and Molly Fitz
*The article contains potential spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Gaspar Noé’s 2009 film, be sure to do so first, or proceed with reading at your own risk.
—ENTER. THE. VOID. flashes up on screen, words in succession one after another, and commands the concentration of the viewer to the nerve numbing nature of the film world; the blue and orange pulsating flicker that mirrors the lights which transform Tokyo and paint the setting. Prior to seeing the film, I had assumed one continuous shot for Birdman (Iñarritu, 2014) would be far too intense, if not verging on pretentious. However, after experiencing Enter The Void’s film technique, wherein it is shot solely through the eyes of our nondescript lead protagonist, Oscar, I found myself instantly downloading Birdman in an attempt to fall into that same cinematic engulfment. In addition to every shot directly imparting the experience of the lead protagonist, Enter The Void (Noé, 2009) depicts his most intimate and abstract thoughts – those moments we forget cannot only be cinematic as they can define the cinematic experience. These thoughts light up either via acronyms of every hard drug one can think of, or when he reflects upon his most traumatic childhood memories, both of which are interwoven to create poignant and relatable desperation.
If I am to describe the film as a journey, which it most certainty is, it is a journey of the beyond and as such, a journey into understanding. The film transgresses two-dimensionality into the dimensionless, to capture the essence of reality. We experience Oscar’s highs with him, we experience his contemplations of suicide, we even experience death with him – the transience of his spirit as it slips between the condensed labyrinth of Tokyo’s intensity via the most unique cinematographic style of choice. Most notably, the spectator experiences the sight of his soul, the retina that can see life and watch its own reincarnation – we experience a transcendence that forces us to, temporarily, believe in it beyond the film’s reality and within our own. The intensity and profundity of this experience is what I wish to explore with you, namely, the film’s use of the Buddhist concept of life after death, but also that place between life and death, a sort of purgatory, which Enter The Void extends into a couple of hours of a real-time depiction (that is, as far as the viewer is aware of, or as far as Oscar’s consciousness is aware of). It is this mind boggling element of the film that inspired me to write this review, and I can say with confidence, it is this element that makes the film well worth just under three hours of your time.
The Void is governed by emptiness.
This is a concept that, in itself, exceeds language because it cannot articulate unfilled nothingness: everything put into words is given meaning, and hence nothing means something. This train of thought is introduced by Oscar’s artistic friend, Alex, as he reads a Buddhist book called The Tibetan Book of the Dead. We also hear from Alex that the drug which Oscar has just hit up on has the effect of prolonging minutes into hours, which provides the spectator with an explanation for why his vision hovers above rooms and can morph into the back of other people’s heads to see what they see, or feel what they feel physically, for the duration of the film. As such, not only is the nothingness that governs the film existing beyond language, it’s also challenging temporality, for time gives attachment to experience and attachment gives meaning but as time is slowed down, one no longer wishes to seize the moment but rather yearns to escape it. The subtle nudges and nods to this intrinsically invisible experience of emptiness crop up enough times to perk your interest before you experience a visual trip of it yourself. The intensity of this cinematic journey is much like that which one experiences from watching Requiem of a Dream, but in the physical intensity that defines Tokyo.
This nothingness is continuously contrasted to and interweaves with the film’s portrayal of Tokyo’s isolating intensity – it’s skeletal-like drifters, lost expatriates who are ill-kept and living in apartments crowded with bric-å-brac that attempts to evade the stressful, cramped existence in this super-city Tokyo. It is a sweaty existence of underground clubs and precarious poverty by ingesting whatever new drug they can find a hovel within– they are desperate to escape the meaningless nonsense of their existence and find oblivion. This in-between land is in itself a purgatory from the city, the no-man’s-land between settlers and drifters – those who can’t leave nor stay.
The incessant intrusion of this city into their existence in unwanted ways is heightened by the first person perspective, which is so excruciatingly precise that we even experience Oscar’s eyes blinking or coming back into focus once he’s been ‘tripping’ while blindly gazing at the ceiling which then morphs into his oozing apparitions. Despite this search for tangible reality, the plot unveils different aspects to the story that keeps us wondering: who is the unshaven, older artist friend Alex, and where does the line of intimacy lie between Oscar and his sister, Linda? Clues are thriftily fed to us to complete Oscar’s ephemeral life story, although it is a short lived adolescent one, extinguished when Oscar is shot through the door of a cubical toilet for the possession of drugs. The inevitable is not spared, because this is a film searching to unflinchingly depict reality, and two thirds of the way through our companionship with Oscar, he dies: he is bodiless. But he is by no means without consciousness.
Disputably, Oscar’s existence can be divided into three realms – the different mediums that he travels between. From the audience hall behind his eyes, we move to a hovering, blurred viewpoint above Oscar’s body which is curled around the repugnant toilet basin in a vulnerable foetal posture, the perception of an out-of-body experience, and we follow where his soul’s curiosity leads him, watching what he wants to watch through the eyes of the people he loves and the people he detests. Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes the importance of spiritual development and the karmic imprint onto the next life, like a birthmark of sorts, which Enter the Void describes with a beautifully painful aesthetic.
A brief interjection: I am certainly no expert on Buddhist teachings, and I have used Western words for Eastern thoughts; but that is precisely the point. The film’s setting contrasts with the characters’ upbringing by the clash of culture: expatriates with authorities, the clash of the neon city with organic human desires, and Oscar and Linda’s innocent childhood fractured by the car that extinguishes their parents’ lives. One can argue that Alex was Oscar’s reincarnated father, in which case the theme of incest would be further developed in this tangled plot, as Oscar also enters the eyes of Alex while he is making love to his sister – he is even given birth to by his sister. The incestuous undertone is by no means meant to create disgust or shock, rather it’s designed to move beyond boundaries, sex and its boundaries exist for the survival of bodily life, beyond that we enter an ambiguity whose confrontation terrifies us. Moreover, the theme expands on the opening minutes of Noé’s earlier, acclaimed film, Irreversible (2002 – whose date is even (ironically) reversible).
The thematic of inevitability also dominates the film, with the constantly unpredictable hand of death disrupting each relationship in the film by grabbing at budding bonds (or passionate brawls) forces loved ones forced to leave others and their possessions. Needless to mention, the greatest possession of all that Death steals is the body – no matter how addled with drugs it is – a process that is particularly explored when Oscar witnesses his body’s cremation. Simultaneously, Linda is taken by a desire to bear a child and Oscar’s vision flows into her body and witnesses the embryo, but he is still coming to terms with her lover’s personality, and Linda’s bereavement to his (her brother’s) death is stingingly tender. She performs a miscarriage (another fearless approach to a sensitive subject made by the director Gaspar Noé) and his potentiality of reincarnation is brushed pass.
We experience various protagonists’ perspectives through phone calls and flashbacks. These culminate to a breaking point where Alex and Linda bring Oscar’s soul, or consciousness, back to the tangible realm in the most vivid and intimate scene of a life-creating act you could have witnessed; first observed through the eyes of Alex, and then within Linda’s body, while a warm, visible aura irradiates from the sexual intercourse performed in the Hotel of Love, a place which does not necessarily exist anywhere. This hotel looks like a toy model we see earlier as part of a miniature map of Tokyo constructed by Alex’s roommate as his masterpiece. However, once we enter within the walls, the out of focus lens is lost and a flickering light, of red and yellow, pulsates enigmatically from human contact, a motif that harks back to the opening credits of the film. The reminiscence in cinematographic style symbolizes the return to physical life.
Doubtlessly, Enter The Void will shatter any preconceptions you have of a film or any story (despite my efforts to spoiler-alert it for you) and cause you to contemplate the crucial questions of life and death which you are usually too submerged in everyday residue to scrutinize. I assure you: your mind will be buzzing for days, if not weeks, and if nothing else, you will be left with tons of tantalizing thoughts that ground you in a sensitive essence of our vivid existence.