The Origin of the World

Gaspar Noé’s assaultive brand of psy-ops cinema isn’t known for getting laughs, other than the reflexive Freudian response to sexual horror. But his spectacular new Enter the Void has two bona fide punch lines I found funnier than the now-infamous “vagi-cam” shot (clearly, a cinephallic homage to Lumiere’s Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat). The first is when Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a young American expat adrift in Tokyo nightlife, asks if his drug dealer has “anything stronger than DMT”– dimethyltryptamine being one brain-nuke whose time-collapsing, bowel-loosening hallucinatory fugue states don’t typically beg improvement. The other comes after Oscar actually finds his elusive high in a grimy nightclub toilet, via a fatal gunshot wound, and begins the spectral transmigration that consumes most of the film and the flashbacks that illuminate his ended life-one of which includes a passing reference to his main drug supplier, a shadowy figure known as “Gaspar.”

Every auteur’s cameo is a form of autobiography — an extreme Oscar Wilde paraphrase that finds traction in several cases: Hitchcock’s spring-winding clock smith in a grid of apartment windows; Scorsese’s psychotic cuckold voyeur in the back of Travis Bickle’s cab; Godard’s aloof bystander directing les flics to Jean Michel; and maybe Noé’s masturbating patron at The Rectum. This last dashing run at the pantheon came in the opening scene and narrative terminus of Noé’s 2002 breakthrough Irreversible — an in-reverse saga of rape and revenge whose graphic sex, unbearable violence, dizzying camerawork, and dark ethos completed the project the director began with his intentionally pan-offensive debut I Stand Alone (98): to become the extreme of New French Extremity.

These days, as torture porn fills multiplexes and Scandinavian art films depict castration, the ambitions of this ex-enfant terrible are harder to discern. Long accused of spinning commercial thrill-rides as avant-garde, Noé has re-emerged with the same liminal subject as Inception, which has redecorated Freud’s chamber of horrors as a weightless celluloid Moebius strip of Hollywood’s best sets and five-star scenes whose most dreaded chimera is the end caption reveal: “Inception. The haunting new fragrance from Calvin Klein.”

At the very least, Enter the Void promotes a different product, starting with its opening titles: a 94-second font overdose that distills Tokyo, Times Square, and Las Vegas signage into one non-stop retina blast, and drops its soundtrack’s needle two minutes into LFO’s “Freak” right where that rave-engineered track peaks-all this a cinematic mimesis of something else that comes on in seconds, floods the senses, and won’t stop when you most wish that it would. If Noé is the dealer and Enter the Void the product, said product is clearly DMT, the same chemical-as Oscar’s friend says in a foreshadowing aside-that the brain secretes at the moment of death.

While death and sensory overload have been Noé’s primary colors ever since his 40-minute 1991 debut, Came, opened with the un- simulated slaughter of a horse, his vision for Enter the Void long preceded his provocateur career. He saw the light when he was 23, fresh out of film school at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure, and channel- surfing high on mushrooms. That’s when he caught Lady in the Lake, a middling 1947 noir whose POV narrative struck Noé as “the most beautiful cinematographic artifice there could be.” This sentiment hints at Noé’s most singular talent: an eye for the simplest formal device that has the most colossal, if not existential, impact.
The story of Enter the Void begins in medias res, during a conversation against Tokyo’s night sky “Linda, come here,” says an unseen male voice, bringing a leggy redhead (Paz de la Huerta) into the frame. A pointing finger in the foreground directs her gaze to a passing jet, two black screen wipes indicate blinking eyes, and with that we’re ensconced in a reality known as “Oscar” Alongside other notable POVs in films like Strange Days and Being John Malkovich, this low-affect slacker’s mind seems a relative comfort zone. Until he’s alone.

As Linda (his sister) heads off to her stripper gig, Oscar’s voice becomes an echoing thought-stream that draws us deeper into a consciousness poised for drastic renovation-as we grab a stash from the fridge, sit, load a glass pipe, spark a lighter, and start the music. To a largo of deep inhalations, the center-screen ember turns fiery red to morph both the mise en scene and the film’s genre. Some viewers will see what follows as a lovely abstraction whose luminous, billowing imagery recalls the paintings of Wilfredo Lam or Roberto Matta. Others will recognize cinema’s first verité treatment of a hardcore hallucinogen experience.

The trip begins with sound: an ambient collage of children’s voices slowly fades in with Tokyo street noise, directing Oscar’s gaze – ours — upwards. Another drag turns neon signs into silent Brian Eno fireworks, and another births a lifeform in the ceiling. As the internally illuminated red organism spreads tendrils, others like it emerge to obscure overflowing ashtrays and other low-life detritus and fill the frame with a palpably man-made hallucination. By the time Oscar’s consciousness drifts out of his body-giving us the first glimpse of our head-shaved avatar-the film has sounded its own depths, which Noé will plumb further than most viewers would guess (or likely want), plunging into the dark red tunnels that run throughout his oeuvre, and hitting every major landmark of the human tragedy.

 

Yanked from his DMT reverie by the synesthetic strobe light of a ringing cell-phone, Oscar answers and betrays his disordered state of reason by agreeing to rendezvous at a place that’s literally called “The Void.” His French pal, Alex (Cyril Roy), shows up to tag along and, as they walk through neon streets, parses a book he recently loaned to Oscar, the counterculture classic known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, whose phantasmagoric afterlife Alex sketches out just five minutes before Oscar-locked in a bathroom, flushing contraband, and threatening armed cops-gets to see it for himself.

The work formally known as Bardol Thodol describes three transitional bardos following death: the bardo of death itself, which brings a scintillating light of true reality; the bardo of experience, which transfigures this reality with the Divine; and the bardo of rebirth, which sounds like an extended art-film directed by one’s karma that tends to feature lots of people boning. Naturally, these images and sturdy three-act structure have inspired plenty of screenplays, novels, and songs, including the Beatles’ experimental-rock opus “Tomorrow Never Knows,” whose original title is widely reported as “The Void” and for which john Lennon, in hopes of sounding like a hundred chanting Tibetan monks, briefly planned to hang from a rope and sing his lyrics as he spun around a microphone-thus prefiguring much of the camerawork for Enter the Void.

Noé recently revealed that the long takes and swooping cameras of Irreversible were dress rehearsals for this film, whose disembodied first-person narrator required unprecedented camera mobility and whose screenplay he’d been writing for 15 years. Act One begins with the crack of gunfire and a shot of blood-soaked palms, as we fall with Oscar into a perpendicular static shot of the bathroom floor and prepare to enter bardo Number One. Dirty tiles drift out of focus as his whisper trails off into calls to the sister he promised never to abandon-a promise that will keep him floating around the transfigured Tokyo night, as the increasingly distorting bardos grow more primal and the memories more brutal, and the film follows various tributaries of birth and death to their outer limits.

 

The pace, scope, and structure of 2001: A Space Odyssey are the very DNA of Enter the Void, but the only visible quotation from the Kubrick film appears on a TV set playing in the background. Noé reinvented the head-trip movie mostly through sheer physical investment, shooting, and editing the film, and even crafting the soundtrack himself, mixing a few tracks commissioned from Irreversible composer Thomas Bangalter (of Daft Punk), with a vast range of source music from Seventies drone, Sixties musique concrete, Coil, Throbbing Gristle, jean-Claude Eloy, and many others-blending a dark, immersive soundscape that suggests the “illbient” or “hauntology” genres and evokes a chilly space between channels.

In the press notes, Noé claims to have prioritized the casting of his key grip over that of the actors, which is perfectly consistent with a storyteller who renders his characters’ subjectivity largely through shrewdly selected formal conceits. No story is more transformed by mere sequential reversal than the grind- house-, arthouse-, and Hollywood-beloved narrative of sexual violence, which in Irreversible Noé reframed with a gesture worthy of Duchamp: preceding the money shot with a visceral accounting of its cost, and following it with the beauty it erased. While he sold that scriptless film with little more than an updated girl-and-a-gun pitch (rape, revenge, and Monica Bellucci), Noé wrote a 100-page screenplay for Enter the Void that contained minimal dialogue.

Instead, its central story is told through a simple device that begins the moment after Oscar dies: the visual field of a person’s consciousness, signaled by a combination of floating point-of-view camera and sequences in which the back of Oscar’s head appears in the shot. This approach — with its sense of dissociation, isolation, paralysis, and loss — is also a cue that this narrative filter will filter very little, letting us feel the unmediated force of Oscar’s experience ourselves. None of the actors emote as much as Noé’s camera, but de la Huerta (whose all-nudity clause and dramatic instincts often cry for volume adjustment) gives it a run for its money, outdone only by the 6- year-old Emily Alyn Lind, who plays Linda’s younger self and supplies the film’s most devastating special effect: the sound of bottomless human grief.

The child first appears in the scene in which news of Oscar’s death reaches the adult Linda, who collapses into tears as the camera vibrates, the focus blurs, and the image blanches. As the camera closes in, a table lamp’s suffusing orange glow waxes to fill the screen (becoming one of many portals in the film’s astral architecture), then wanes as the focus sharpens on a sobbing little girl clutching a teddy bear, newly bound to her brother by a trauma that will shape their lives-a bond whose sweet and creepy union the soundtrack represents with Delia Derbyshire’s electronic version of Bach’s “Air on the G String.”

While Noé calls the film’s genre “psychedelic melodrama,” it also falls into the much older tradition of void tales whose tellers run from Dante to Dickens to Thornton Wilder. But as Wilder’s Our Town puts it, “The dead don’t stay interested in us living people very long,” and as we soar with Oscar’s soul through Tokyo skies and primal memories, the police procedurals and family dramas of his survivors hold little interest. Maybe they’re supposed to recede, with perceptual shifts announcing the last bardo, as aerial shots using tilt- shift lens photography remake Tokyo as a Lite-Brite train set or Day-Glo ant farm with residents of dubious significance. They’re merely plot mechanisms to unite Alex and Linda for a lavishly surreal study of Eros and Thanatos in which two of Noé’s fatal tunnels deliver life and death in separate, equally graphic head-on collisions.

When Linda whispers “Come inside me” to her pre-orgasmic lover, Noé’s literal-minded camera dives like Cousteau into the briny depths from whence life springs-moving through labial, fallopian, and uterine thresholds to confront the screen-filling penile head that drew guffaws at every screening I attended. This scene no doubt formed one critic’s verdict that the film’s “obsessive emphasis on sex and drugs _ _ _ makes it virtually unwatchable_” But I have to wonder where on that scale of unwatchability they’d place the scene of a blood-soaked 6-year-old shrieking at a point-blank view of real-life horror, one of the many that show that the film’s obsessive emphasis isn’t on sex and drugs but on humanity and how much of it film can represent-one of cinema’s age-old and oft-reviled obsessions.

“The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was beastly enough,” wrote another critic. “But magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting.” Thus did the virtually unwatchable begin the age of moviemaking, with Thomas Edison’s 47-second short The Kiss, in 1896. Noé has said his new film concerns “the sentimentality of mammals,” which smacks of the chilly bio-determinist existentialism of Belgian author Michel Houellebecq, who dubbed his own subgenre of French Extremity “pornosophy” But the feeling I found in the wake of Enter the Void was an ineffable sense of devotion — to craft, experience, perception, consciousness — whose only meaning is likely in the topography Thornton Wilder saw gazing into bardo: a land of the living and a land of the dead, bridged only; and tenuously by love.
© 2010 by Chris Norris