Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void is a complex and challenging synesthesic roller-coaster ride that combines New Age cosmic fatalism, old-school psychedelia and state of the art digital film making to produce a masterpiece of modern nihilism. It is a tale told by a genius, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The film, which came out on DVD in late January, is told from the point of view of Oscar, an American drug dealer living in Tokyo. As the film opens, Oscar is hanging out in his apartment with his sister, studying the Tibetan Book of the Dead and tripping balls on DMT when he receives a call from his friend Alex who needs him to deliver drugs to a customer, Victor, in a downtown club named, you guessed it, The Void.
Inside The Void, Oscar makes contact with Victor who apologizes to him just as the police come bursting through the door. Oscar locks himself in a toilet stall and as he attempts to flush the evidence he is shot through the chest by the cops.
And that's when things start to get interesting. Oscar's spirit leaves his body and travels through the events of his life including childhood tragedies, his rise through the Tokyo underground drug scene and his ill-advised affair with Victor's mother. Oscar also witnesses events that take place after his death, including Alex living in hiding after the police raid and his sister falling into despair. Ultimately, he travels back to witness his own infancy and conception...or is it reconception?
The film is shot in point of view, as in Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake, video game-style over-the-shoulder tracking, as in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan and The Wrestler and in disembodied flight as in Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi. The disorienting camera work and hypnotic visual landscape can be overwhelming and off-putting, even on the small screen.
Enter The Void is also heavily influenced by psychedelic films of the 1960s, 1970s like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Trip and Performance, as well as their latter-day counterparts like Altered States and Jacob's Ladder and more recent adrenal mind romps like Run, Lola, Run and Requiem for a Dream.
Early psychedelic films were more successful at stimulating drug experiences than in simulating them. The colored water and oil gels, funhouse mirrors and lava lamp expressionism work better as entertainment for an audience that is high than as persuasive recreation of the experience of being high.
In this respect, Enter The Void is more accomplished than its groovy forebears. Anyone who has ever taken a walk through a sketchy part of town while peaking on...whatever...will recognize the agoraphobic tension of Oscar's walk to The Void. And Oscar's DMT trip is rendered so realistically that watching it while high would just be a waste of drugs.
In addition to advancing the technical state of the experiential film art, Enter The Void also breaks from the the ego-centric model of earlier psychedelia. Springing from the zeitgeist of the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the human potential movement and good old fashioned American hyper-individualism, old school psychedelic films were most fundamentally journeys of self-discovery and self-actualization.
From Dave Bowman achieving the next level of human evolution in 2001 to Peter Fonda coming to terms with his divorce in The Trip to William Hurt merging with his inner caveman (and outer Blair Brown) in Altered States, the psychedelic formula is a Campbellian monomyth inflated to solipsistic proportions. In these films, the psychedelic journey is about the elevation of the eternal, undying self to ever higher cosmic plateaus of super-selfness.
Oscar's journey is, by contrast, the slow and agonizing evaporation of the self. When Alex describes the cycle of death and rebirth described in The Book of the Dead, Oscar wonders if reincarnation means that there's nothing beyond the world we know and that we're doomed to return here again and again, never achieving or experiencing anything more.
After his death, this is precisely the scenario we see play out. Oscar does not become a Star Child. He does not have any great epiphanies about the meaning of life or the nature of existence. He does not become anything more than he was. He dies in a toilet. That's it. He leaves the world no wiser or less confused than when he entered it.
His post-mortem consciousness simply moves through a universe that contains ever decreasing amounts of Oscarness until his presence is small enough to enter an ovum and reincarnate. Or disincarnate. Or transcarnate. Or something.
It is tradition in films such as this for the filmmakers to be stubbornly coy about the literal reality of their piece. Is Oscar dead or does he live? Is he dreaming or does he really reincarnate? What is the monolith? Does the top keep spinning or does it fall over? What does it all mean? Noé has been refreshingly blunt about his vision of the story: it doesn't mean anything. He told Interview magazine that "the whole movie is a dream of someone who read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and heard about it before being [shot by a gun]. It's not the story of someone who dies, flies and is reincarnated..."
So there you have it. Enter The Void is not about life after death; it's about death after life. It's just Oscar's bad luck that he was reading The Book of the Dead and not The Tropic of Cancer when he was shot.