Stanley Kubrick once said The Shining was an optimistic story because “anything that says there’s anything after death is ultimately an optimistic story.” Although Gaspar Noe wants you to feel mind-raped by Enter the Void, I’d say his movie has a sentimental heart. For all the sex, and the drug-taking, this story – of a doting soul circling ’round Tokyo – is pretty mushy when you peer through the sleaze. To quote from St Paul, “Where, O death, is your sting?”…once you admit that there’s an afterlife? All the obscenity in the world can’t match the horror of oblivion. So, if you’re thinking you’re too wussy to Enter the Void: rest easy. Your deepest fears aren’t realized here (unless you have a fear of gratuitous nudity).
A small-time drug dealer is shot dead in a toilet in a nightclub called The Void. His soul is untethered, but his mind clings to Earth. A friend has told him about the Tibetan Book of the Dead (in a handy piece of exposition), so he already has a checklist of What To Do in the Event of Being Killed. First he needs to look in on his friends; then think back on his life; then muster himself for reincarnation. The person he looks in on the most, understandably, is his kid sister. She works as a stripper. The weird thing is: he only ever seems to look in on her when she’s having sex, or strutting around naked. Cynics would argue this is when the director of Enter the Void wants to watch her. Our guy is too busy
marvelling at the ultimate trip.
Gaspar Noe says this movie is about “the sentimentality of mammals and the shimmering vacuity of the human experience”. But really, it’s about watching Paz de la Huerta take her clothes off. When critics describe the “shattering intensity” of Paz’s performance, what they really mean is: she gets naked. Admittedly, she works as a stripper, and a certain amount of exhibitionism goes with the job. But wouldn’t the departing soul of her brother want to see her with a few more clothes on? Y’know…because he’s her brother, and even the brothers of strippers don’t want to watch their sisters strip. Because that would be weird, and at least a “point nine” on the (ten point) incest scale. These sorts of concerns don’t bother Gasper Noe, because he’d include a sex scene in the Mother Teresa Story. But they do raise the issue of artistic prudence, and Noe’s flagrant lack of it.
Voyeurism aside, Noe is the best technical director working today. His talent for staging elaborate tracking shots is peerless. The camera seems incorporeal in Enter the Void; it swoops, it dives, it glides through walls. Nowhere in Tokyo is off-limits…even a plane flying over the city gets a look inside. But there’s a definite schism between the level of ambition and the subject matter Noe’s obsessed with. Though the movie throws up many illustrations of this horny/genius dichotomy, perhaps the most eye-opening is the moment of *ahem* ejaculation shown from the vagina’s point of view. Most sane people would ask what that shot was doing in the movie. But for Noe, cinematic daring is worth the risk of bad laughs.
Is it coincidence that Bach’s “Air on the G String” is heard throughout? The title must have spoken to Noe. Fortunately, the mood of the music is perfect for Enter the Void: grand, sad, muscular and sweet, it’s the sound of majesty; a sound heard when you’re above things. If the trailers for the movie give the impression of a sensory assault, the experience of watching the movie is more like floating down a gutter: there’s dirt everywhere, but you feel at peace. All the actors act sedated. Explicit actions are mellowed by the sense that it’s all a dream. No matter how bad things get, a druggy boneless feeling overpowers rational thought, and you enter the protagonist’s state of mind: a wide-open consciousness.
A soldier named J. Glenn Gary once wrote: “The coward’s fear of death stems in large part from his incapacity to love anything but his own body.” You could argue that death is negated here by the hero’s capacity for love; a love that doesn’t trouble itself with mores or modesty; a love that’s invincible to death. But that noble and beautiful sentiment is tarnished by Gaspar Noe’s obsessions. He thinks you need degradation to appeal to truth. But he’s misguided. There is something sublime about this story, but it’s sublime in spite of all the porn, not because of it. The kid and his sister didn’t have to be a drug dealer and a stripper. They could have been anybody. It’s the lecher’s gaze that lets this movie down.