Enter the Void (2009): Casar Noe’s Berserk Eruption of Sound and Fury

Cannes Film Fest 2009 (In Competition)–Even by the outrageous, over the top standards of France’s Extreme Cinema movement, Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void” is a one of a kind film, a berserk eruption of sound and fury that utilizes digital media tools and a genuinely outrageous point of view to push the medium to a place few would venture on their own.
The 162-minute work premiered on the final weekend of the Cannes film festival to a wide range of responses, eliciting both outrageous pans and Olympian admirers. Good, bad or indifferent, it teeters on the edge of madness, continually threatening to go beyond the pale in visualizing a world and time dangerously out of whack.
It’s a contemporary noir set in a Tokyo more imagined or dreamed up than actually lived in. (A great deal of the sometimes astonishing visual sequences were achieved on a studio or through computerized imagery.) “Enter the Void” is an easy film to dismiss, because of the director’s folly and penchant for the unwatchable, but the movie has something going, a tenacity, a belief in the material, that makes it compulsively watchable.
The film played at Cannes without credits and Noe reportedly finished his version just a day or two before the first screening. It’s clearly a work in progress, but the stuff that works is so hypnotic and crazily inventive, it makes up for the overreaching of the second half.
That said, pretty much everything about the movie is aggressively alienating and off-putting. It’s well over two hours into the movie before Noe employs his first eye-level shot. The director of “I Stand Alone” and “Irreversible,” the Argentine-born, Paris-based Noe is determined to provide a point of view not easily assimilated. His cinema is designed to throw you off any level of comfort and enjoyment.
Thus, characters, plot and background fly furiously at the viewer, forcing you to adjust continually to the hyper aggressive detailing of the atmosphere and backdrop that establishes the movie’s fever tone. It’s often dazzling, though exhaustive. Noe said he wrote a script of some 100 pages, but he also points out there’s relatively little (English) dialogue.  Imagine Jean Cocteau’s script for Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Les enfants terrible” updated to the present. The movie follows interlocking fates of two Americans, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and his sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta), who are subsisting on the lower depths of the city’s drug and sex trade.
Noe, who has called himself an atheist, reveres Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Visually, the opening 40 minutes is hyper subjective, that is we witness and experience everything through Oscar’s fractured consciousness. Noe is extending the first-person camera of Robert Montgomery’s Phillip Marlow story “The Lady in the Lake.” Noe ostensibly hard wires the movie to Oscar’s synapse. Every twitch, reaction, laugh, eruption, is experienced from his altered interior state.
The story follows the aftermath of an accidental killing: Oscar is shot to death in the bathroom stall of the Tokyo club the Void as he is trying to avoid being arrested during a police drug raid. As Oscar slumps to the ground, Noe floods the screen with a series of intensely impressionistic, kaleidoscopic shapes, colors, fragments and hallucinatory patterns. Oscar’s soul, or watchful spirit, soars above the city and protectively watches over his sister.
In a series of dramatic, emphatically shaped flashbacks, we discover that Oscar made a pact with Linda (sealed with blood) when they were kids that he would always take care of her in the aftermath of a family tragedy. Separated as adolescents, the two are finally brought together when Oscar’s drug profits enable him to fly his sister to Tokyo. Stunning beautiful and desperately vulnerable, Linda is persuaded by a sleazy club promoter to become an exotic dancer and stripper.
The strongest passages come in the opening 90 minutes. Noe is far from subtle or spontaneous as a director, but his craft and inventive shift between the past and present is impressively handled. The subjectivity allows for some stunning set pieces and individual moments, like the split cuts that mark elision of time or flash forwards, or it provides a sensory experience that is absolutely overwhelming, such as the stunning point of view roller coaster ride.
From the moment of Oscar’s death and the transcendence of his soul, the movie gets even nuttier; it has an hour stretch in the middle where the camera is simply untethered to physical space of laws of gravity, moving, darting, exploding through walls, above the cathedral spaces. It’s relentless and often jaw-dropping, but it is also repetitive. At times I thought I was experiencing some brand of vertigo.
Noe remains supremely confrontational. So his movie features a protracted detailing of an abortion procedure (and implies an incestuous attraction between the two that is never satisfactorily resolved). The movie’s final part unfolds in dream factory called the Love Hotel. Like the angels in Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire,” the audience becomes a direct witness to the goings on there, the sex, the drugs, the hurlyburly and anarchic impudence.
Noe doesn’t have many original thoughts, but he is a natural filmmaker. It is impossible to assign standard critical gauges to the movie, like the quality of the actors, because the camera and editing styles never slow down long enough to actually assess the quality of the performers. However, even in this very raw, unfinished state, “Enter the Void” retains enough power to mesmerize a lot of the deliberate messiness and unpleasantness of the material.