Edgar Allen Poe once asked “is all we see or seem, but a dream within a dream?” It is evident that director Gaspar Noe had the same question in mind in his film Enter the Void. Sadly, his response was to say “I don’t know. Let’s let the audience do all of the work.”
There are those who believe Noe to be one of the greatest filmmakers working today…and there are those who believe him to be among the most pretentious. His Irreversible sharply divided critics, and this film was met with a similar reaction (to the point that The Criterion Collection turned down an opportunity to license this film).
Which camp am I in? Honestly I can see both. I admire everything about Enter the Void except his technical skill, his script writing, and its immodesty. This is a film where, after the first act, no one will be able to determine what in God’s name is going on (hence why my summary will not be able to go beyond it) and many will want to walk out of the theater (or shut of the DVD player) long before the film ends
But I cannot bring myself to claim that this is a bad film. It is an ambitious one that raises many questions about life and death. The cinematography and perspective are highly inventive, and Noe’s ambition almost drowns out many of the problems. Still, it feels like he is grasping straws and cannot figure out his own film. He tries to pretend this is an asset, but it cannot overcome the flaws that are present.
The film is about a drug dealer named Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) who lives in Tokyo. His friends, including Alex (Cyril Roy) are attempting to get Oscar to abandon that life. Alex tries to introduce him to new influences, including the spiritual influence of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta). While doing a deal at the club “The Void,” Oscar is shot by Japanese police officers. From there, Oscar leaves his body and witnesses his life as it flashes before his eyes. From there, you are on your own – the film will probably end up meaning a lot of different things to different people.
There is one element about the film I unequivocally love. The entire film is shot in first person perspective. Every scene is mostly an unbroken shot, and the camera glides effortlessly through the various characters and the settings. It was certainly inventive, but also had an artistic point. This is such a correct choice that, for the first act at least, I thought that I would be watching a great film. This single artistic choice meant so many things – how the audience had become voyeurs in Oscar’s life, how unreliable memory can be, what life looks like when it happens all at once. I thought that Noe would be a natural filmmaker, and he made this technique look effortless.
But that is about ALL he made look effortless. In fact, Noe comes to depend on this technique so much that he forgets that a film should include other elements – you know, elements like characters, pacing, an ideology, and supreme technical skill. The rest of the film is a muddled mess that never decides what it wants to be. Oh sure, a lot of it looks nice, and the whole trick with the first person helped out enormously. But that is about it – the characters are poorly defined (this may be part of the point, but is still glaring) and quickly runs our of ideas. I kid you not – the beginning of the third act is a recap of what happens at the end of the first. Again, this may be part of the point, but it certainly does not feel like a natural progression of a story or an idea. By the end, I could not help but wonder what was going on and almost forgot that this was supposed to be Oscar’s examination of his own history. The film derails after a stellar opening, and never regains its footing because it is too caught up in its own gimmick.
Still, I cannot say that I hate the film. It is refreshing for anything to be so bleak and open about questions of life and death – other artists shy away from it, as though true immortality is an actual option. Noe understands that it is possible we may all go through such a journey. But Noe took an absurdist viewpoint to the whole work – there is nothing to understand, so why even try?This defeatist attitude is what prevents the film from being great. If Noe had attempted to find answers, then he would have had something. “Being about nothing” only worked when Jerry Seinfeld was involved.
What we have here may be the new version of The Last Year at Marienbad. Just as many people will call it a masterpiece as call it crap. This is a good thing. Noe goes for broke, and delivers a story that feels so personal that he does not seem to care if everyone likes it. I must confess, I tend to admire that bravery more than the attitude of those who wish to play it safe. Enter the Void is a clever experiment. Sure, it doesn’t work, but it does show that Noe is a man who is not going to give up very easily. He will become one of the premiere filmmakers in the next five years if he plays his cards right. But he is not there yet.