Tonight, almost a year after its first teaser hit the Web, Enter the Void hits the U.S. with what both the suits and the heads would call “serious buzz.” Not only did that viral clip’s blast of hard techno, sizzling fonts, and optic drift practically telegraph “L-S-D,” but the extreme polarity of critics’ blurbs—“Pure cinema!” “Virtually unwatchable!”—sounded just like the conflicting hyperbole you get straw-polling college freshmen after their first rave. Or oral surgery. Do not take this film on a school night.
This is, after all, the first Gaspar Noé feature in eight years, which many of us spent recovering from his last one. In his 2002 breakthrough Irreversible, Noé deployed nearly every destabilizing tactic in modern film-making—reverse narrative sequence, vertiginous crane shots, seizure-baiting strobes, ultra-low frequencies—all, apparently, mere tech rehearsal for Noé’s new first-person-P.O.V. odyssey into sex, drugs, and despair, whose spectacular first-act rendition of a psychedelic drug experience only hints at the one its Tokyo-dwelling American protagonist, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), has when a fatal gunshot wound sends him/us on a bodiless, free-floating, time-jumping, spectral transmigration that probes the darkest secrets of human life.
Since I’d had my demographic’s standard reaction to seeing that finely detailed DMT hallucination unfold on the screen—not “My, what lush surreal imagery” but “Holy shit, he nailed it!”—I arrived to meet the daredevil cinematographer in the usual Noé manner: backwards and upside down, swooping along the tin ceiling of a Soho café and falling onto a stool by the bar, where the 46-year-old sat glowering before an espresso, midway through a bilious (somehow audible) internal monologue. This he punctuated by stabbing me in the guts and sending me soaring out of the café into the Manhattan sky to the majestic strains of Das Rheingold—after which a jump cut deposited me back into the chair, an hour before my murder, when Noé and I talked sex, drugs, and cinema.
“For some reason, most people expect a movie to deliver a moral statement,” Noé said with a Gallic shrug. “And they have very passionate reactions to things that are just tricks of magic. But that’s the thing: If you do a magic trick, people have to believe it.”
Hale and hearty in an avuncular mustache, he spoke softly and quickly in a gentle, often amused voice, his large eyes occasionally roving the café as he searched for le mot juste. A dozen-odd years after his intentionally pan-offensive debut I Stand Alone, he seemed neither an angry punk nor the sinister presence from Irreversible-era interviews, whose stubbled face and black-circled eyes suggested a lifestyle that yields cosmic epiphanies like the recent one he shared with a reporter: “The truth is that you can seriously not do a movie on drugs.”
The man knows whereof he speaks. “My friend who gave me my first hit of ecstasy was named Alex,” he recalled. “He asked me, ‘Do you want to want to know what a cosmic orgasm is?’—he was a real drug promoter —and I said, ‘O.K.,’ and he said, ‘Take two,’ and I felt like I was on an elevator going straight up to the stars.” Not so the lethal psychedelic plant dartura, which provides a deeper glimpse into Noé’s abiding creative ethic.
“Dartura is very scary because you can spend a whole day being in the North Pole and in Africa and all moments seem real,” Noé said. “Many people commit suicide because they freak out and don’t remember they took a drug and can be talking to a fridge or a car and believing that it’s their grandmother. It’s like going from one TV channel to another but you don’t control the dial.”
As it happens, this was much the genesis of Enter the Void, which struck the Argentine-born, then-23-year-old recent grad of École Nationale Supérieure Louis Lumière, when he was channel-surfing during a mushroom trip and caught the 1947 noir film Lady in the Lake—whose P.O.V. narrative gimmick triggered a decades-long obsession with bringing such a transcendent vision to full reality. Both experiential visionaries and cool master technicians have been flailing at this kind of thing for half a century, and none have surpassed the head-trip genre’s 1968 gold standard—the Kubrick film that shows up on a TV screen in Enter the Void, that is advertised by a movie poster in Irreversible, and that Noé has seen 40 times.
Alongside the game-changing 2001: A Space Odyssey, Noé cites Dennis Hopper’s post-Easy Rider near-career-ender The Last Movie as a key influence. “It’s amazing. I love all his movies, but that one is my favorite. And the industry finished him for being too crazy.” Combining this mad method-directing style with the supreme craftsmanship of Kubrick, Noé is likely this era’s most qualified essayer of the head-trip genre, which in Void he reinvented mostly through sheer hands-on physical investment: shooting most every scene himself, mixing its dark ambient soundscape, and providing copious descriptions and reference material for the psychedelic virgins in the SPFX team who created the hallucinations.
“I just tried to make it look like my own dreams and drug visions.” But unlike many of today’s soi disant provocateurs, Noé derives his art-house style not just from drugs or film school but from a youth spent in the era of undomesticated cinema—sneaking underage into Buenos Aires cinemas that showed a ’70s slasher flick one day, and Costa Gravas’ fascist-verité State of Siege the next—finding both equally terrifying and, ultimately, real. “I had a glimpse of what torture would be before [Argentina’s] coup d’etat,” Noé said. “Because Gravas was dealing with the dictatorship in Uruguay, a year before it came to Argentina.” At which point, 14-year-old Noé watched said horror film come true in his own country, forcing his family’s emigration to France.
Enter the Void tells its own tale of rootless, traumatized ex-pats, following Oscar and his sister Linda (a clothing-averse Paz de La Huerta) as they founder in seedy Shinjuku nightlife, attempting to heal the rift caused by the brutal death of their parents. In a structure based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, our disembodied visual narrator follows this vale of tears from crematorium to abortion clinic to a third-act “love hotel” that mashes-up Caligula, Tron, and France’s amusement-park trains fantôme—one of many fateful tunnels that run through Noé’s oeuvre and life (not that there’s much difference).
“Someone said you can tell it’s one of my movies because there are a lot of red tunnels,” he said. “Once I had an accident in a tunnel. I was on a motorbike and almost got crushed by a truck and then I saw The Arrangement, by Elia Kazan—where Kirk Douglas thinks of committing suicide in a car in a tunnel—and it reminded me of my accident.”
With the release of Enter the Void, Noé, who was accused of being a moralist after showing the true horror of rape in Irreversible, suddenly finds himself in possession of “spiritual” leanings—a slander that has provoked him to add a Goebbels paraphrase to his collection of sound bites for reporters. “I say, ‘When I hear the word spiritual, I pull out my gun!’ I don’t make spiritual movies or moral movies, because that implies that I have some kind of answer.”
Since finishing Void, Noé been contemplating a 3-D porn film— an especially ominous prospect after one memorable scene late in Enter the Void, where an act Hitchcock once represented by cutting from two lovers in a clinch to a train entering a tunnel gets rather more direct treatment: a screen-filing, in-utero shot of a penile nosecone—possibly an homage to the bomb-bay scene in Strangelove—that has been the most assured laugh-getter among Anglo audiences, whom Noé finds to be more easily upset by sex. (The French and Japanese get riled by drugs.)
Noé thought about calling his new film The Void, but concluded that it sounded too serious. “I decided Enter the Void sounded more like an action film.” It also better suits an inveterate button-pusher whose films often feel like military SERE training.
Shortly before I got jump-cut back to the Beyond, I asked Noé why he chose Delia Derbyshire’s gentle, twinkly electronic version of Bach’s Air as his film’s central leitmotif. “It’s a very sweet melody and there are not many that put you in this one mood,” he said. “There was a porn scene in Café Flesh that had one of Satie’s Gymnopedies in it and it made this porn scene so touching, so sweet.”
“There’s just some music that puts you in this sweet mood.” He paused to take a sip of espresso. “And you want people relaxed right before the car-crash scene.”