A very, very loose and highly symbolic adaptation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void unfolds in four major parts. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is a young, drug-dealing American in Tokyo with an unusually close relationship to his stripper sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta), and a taste for the chemical hallucinogen DMT. First, we follow him through an average night, from stoner philosophizing (“DMT only lasts for a few minutes, but it feels like eternity—it’s a little like dying would be the ultimate trip”) to a drug deal gone horribly wrong. Oscar is shot by cops and then—fade to black, cut to pulsing light—floats above his body and becomes conscious of his soul’s separation from his physical form. In part two, Oscar’s life flashes before his eyes, and we learn a little bit more about his bond with Linda, to whom he made a childhood pledge: “If I die, I’ll come back, and we’ll always be together.” In the third section, Oscar’s spirit flies over Tokyo, observing how the world—particularly Linda—goes on without him. Finally, Spirit Oscar follows Linda and his buddy, Alex (Cyril Roy), into some kind of magical orgy hotel, where neon sparks and smoke pour out of and around the aroused genitals of guests. After observing the goings-on in several other rooms, he enters his friend’s body, becomes one of his sperm, fertilizes his sister’s ovum, and is reborn.
If that all reads like a lame fusion of stoner lifestyle, sexual fetish, and philosophical inquiry, well, it is—but as a technical achievement and aesthetic experience, Enter the Void can’t be as easily dismissed. Despite the necessarily long plot summary above, Void is not particularly story-heavy, and at times lapses into non-narrative pure cinema. For the majority of the film, we see what Oscar sees. When he’s relatively lucid, this means p.o.v. shots with his head shaking and eyes blinking (creating a strobe effect that ties into the film’s overall rave- and/or strip-club-sourced palette and rhythms), the sound of his dumb, mumbly internal monologue booming over the muted noises outside of his head. When Oscar gets high, Noé plunges us deep into his hallucinations, filling the screen with super-saturated molecular kaleidoscopic patterns that are, increasingly, vaginally suggestive. (Occasionally, the imagery is more literal: In a rare break from Oscar’s point of view, Noé actually shows the implantation scene as if the camera was implanted in Linda’s cervix, with the onslaught of semen coming toward us.)
Even more impressive visually are the long stretches in which the camera assumes the perspective of Oscar’s spirit, floating over, and permeating the walls and roofs of, a Tokyo that appears to be a mix of practical sets, digital effects, and full-on animation. Noé simulates the passivity of a drug trip—to watch Enter the Void is to be along for the ride, so to speak—while creating one image after another that forces you to contemplate the trip’s composition. For long stretches, he creates the illusion of unbroken takes, replicating both the constancy of real-world vision and the run-on flow of memory. Even its detractors—and there were many when Void premiered at Cannes in 2009—agree that when it’s over, the film feels like something that happened to you, rather than something you saw. (For what it’s worth, I’ve seen Void twice, once in the original, nearly-three-hour Cannes cut, and a year and a half later in the significantly shorter version that IFC is releasing; the new cut feels lighter in the third of the film’s four sections, but I can’t pinpoint anything specific that’s missing.)
Noé’s very name became a buzzword, representing the gold standard for frat-house-appropriate transgressive cinema thanks to his last feature, Irreversible, which climaxed with a violent anal-rape scene. In Void, his provocations and preoccupations seem even sillier—both gratuitous and laughable, even when the film is legitimately unnerving (a graphic abortion scene, at the end of which the camera enters the void left behind in a surgical pan, was part of the original version that I could have done without—but it made the final cut). Noé knows from base urges, but his ability to imbue a character with realistic life starts and stops with that character’s physical needs and desires; every other emotion becomes hysteria. Enter the Void may, in the end, be an extremely elaborate formal exercise about every man’s desire to crawl back into the womb, turned up a loud notch visually and adapted into every brother’s apparently latent compulsion to both impregnate his sister and suck on her tits. But, dude: I could stare at this movie for days and not get tired of the sensation. A mash-up of the sacred, the profane, and the brain-dead, Enter the Void is addictive.