Wednesday, February 2, 2011
TEFB REVIEW: ENTER THE VOID
Seven years after his controversial film Irreversible (which centered on a graphic eight minute rape of a character played by Monica Bellucci) competed for the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Gaspar Noe unveiled his new project - the experimental and visually stunning Enter the Void. Prompting both exuberant and irritated responses in equal measure, Enter the Void solidified Noe's reputation, depending on which side one was on, as either a cinematic innovator and one of the most exciting modern filmmakers of any country or a hack simply hellbent on punishing his audience.
As it goes with most conclusions that are drawn after examining the subject of two extremes, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Enter the Void is without a doubt one of the most innovative films I've ever seen, and it certainly portrays its cliched story in a way I don't think we've ever seen before. But it's also deliberately repetitive and insists on departing from its main (and thin) narrative into long, abstract passages of everything from 2001 inspired subjective drug trips to scenes of explicit sex and violence.
The first aspect of Enter the Void that one will notice differs from a typical film is that it's shot completely from the first-person perspective of the main character, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) (barring a portion of the film that follows Oscar around from the third-person). It immediately opens as Oscar has a conversation with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) on the balcony of their Tokyo apartment. After his sister leaves, Oscar smokes a psychedelic drug called DMT, and trips until his friend Alex (Cyril Roy) comes over to accompany Oscar to a shady drug deal. The drug deal ends badly, and Oscar is shot and killed by the Tokyo PD. Good thing Oscar read the Tibetan Book of the Dead (given to him by Alex) because the movie would end there after only thirty minutes. Instead, Oscar's soul floats out of his body and spends the next two hours experiencing its former temple's past, present, and future in non-linear order.
What little narrative Enter the Void has to offer centers on Oscar's relationship with his sister. His soul recalls their relatively happy childhood until a car accident (which is violently shown over and over again) kills their parents and Oscar and his sister are ultimately separated. The story of how the two reconnected is slowly unfolded, intermixed with Linda's life coping with the death of her brother, Oscar's memories of an affair he had with a friend's mother, and his soul's desperate journey to reincarnation. Along the way, Noe touches shallowly on themes such as Freudian psychology and Eastern religious philosophy, but with little or no consequence. There are some who will try to say Enter the Void is "deep" or "meaningful." It's not. It's not that Noe is pretentious or even takes these aspects of the film seriously; he simply doesn't care much about them, and the film is honest about that.
Enter the Void is an exhausting watch, and not just for folks unfamiliar with or averse to directors with a predilection for such experimental extravagances. Noe's camera is constantly in motion, whether it's floating above the city of Tokyo, winding through a human orifice, or diving into a burning flame. To be sure, the film is exhilarating at times, but it's also a mental work-out. Noe plays with flickering images and seizure-inducing strobe effects that will test the endurance of the most dexterous viewer. Even the opening credits sequence threatens to tire one out before the movie even begins.
Those who are up to the challenge of continuing through Enter the Void, though, will be treated to an impressive array of visual and audio feats. With production design by Marc Caro (frequent collaborator with Jean-Pierre Jeunet on films such as Delicatessen and City of Lost Children), Enter the Void portrays Tokyo as a plush neon purgatory, with a pinball machine aesthetic. If Flynn's Arcade cannon-balled into the pool of the Los Angeles in Ridley Scott's Bladerunner, the rave-soaked wonderland that is Enter the Void's capital of Japan would be the splash's aftermath.
The film's visual splendor, though, is hampered by the frankly awful lead performance by Nathaniel Brown (who has no upcoming work listed on his IMDB page, and with good reason). This is Brown's first feature film work, and it Boggles the mind as to how he received the role. With monotone delivery and minimal inflection, the actor is a bore to listen to. Imagine Hayden Christensen's Anakin Skywalker performance. Now imagine it delivered by someone even more inept with the role. It's awful work, and although it never threatens to derail the film (Oscar doesn't have many lines, thankfully), it definitely makes an already difficult film even harder to endure.
Paz de la Huerta (most recently seen as Steve Buscemi's mistress on HBO's Boardwalk Empire), does serviceable work as Linda, and she certainly fares better than Brown does. Noe isn't concerned with dazzling you with fine acting work, though. And it shows, because every other supporting performance is almost as underwhelming as the lead's is.
Enter the Void is most definitely not for everyone, and although I was immensely impressed and completely absorbed by it I don't think I could ever sit through the whole experience ever again. It's a cinematic endurance test, and for those seeking that sort of thing it's the Holy Grail. Often trite in its narrative and loose with structure and characterizations, Enter the Void nonetheless is successful and deeply satisfying, but only for those who can withstand its punishing length, repetitiveness, graphic depictions of sex, violent outbursts, and complete dedication to style and experimentation over substance.