Monday, March 21, 2011

Enter The Void

I went into Enter The Void, in pretty much ideal circumstances. I'd seen the trailer, but only once and long enough ago that I couldn't remember anything except that Gaspar might be using his flying disembodied Koyaanisqatsi-cam from Irréversible and that it was essentially a story told from the first-person perspective. As far as the plot was concerned, I could have been going to see Prodigy's Smack My Bitch Up stretched out over two and a half hours.

What I wouldn't have guessed going in was that having spent a good portion of my college years dabbling in psychedelics, having read the DMT-related hypotheses of Jeremy Narby and Rick Strassman, and even reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead would turn out to be useful in understanding the film as well.

Strassman's hypothesis, which the movie touches on in the brief amount of vocal exposition we're given, is that the hallucinogen DMT which some studies show exists endogenously in mammals, not only exists in the pineal gland of the human brain, but is also released in great quantities at the onset of death (and possibly at birth). This is used to explain why users of synthesized DMT report experiences very much like near-death experiences, and why it is that when in a near-death experience, subjects generally do not feel panicked but are instead incredibly calm.

The scientific evidence supporting that hypothesis seems to boil down to the presence of an enzyme that's specifically used to break down DMT that's found throughout the body. There's nothing else that implicates any specific concentration of the chemical actually being in the pineal gland or anywhere else. So the idea's not exactly on firm scientific ground, but it is interesting enough to make a make a movie about... especially with Noé's having his character fill his brain with DMT manually before death as a way to avoid leaning too heavily on needing this strange hypothesis to actually be true.

Enter The Void opens by dropping us into Oscar's (Nathaniel Brown) perspective in what seems like a fairly ordinary night as a means of introducing us to the two main characters, Oscar and his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta). Linda leaves almost immediately and Oscar pulls out his DMT pipe to introduce himself and the audience to what exactly a DMT trip looks like from his perspective.

At this point it must be said that the effects studio, BUF, did a great job at rendering these strangely organic, yet geometrically crystalline looking hallucinations that are so hard to accurately portray in film or anything else for that matter. The ones shown in this film are among the best I've seen.

The fact that this feat must have presumably been pulled off by artists who hadn't all started their shifts with an early morning cup of ayahuasca makes it even more impressive. As Jason Shankel put it in his piece for io9, "Oscar's DMT trip is rendered so realistically that watching it while high would just be a waste of drugs."

After a couple of minutes of seeing Oscar in screensaver mode, his phone rings and takes his attention away from the visuals. As it turns out, he's got to go down to a place called The Void to drop off some drugs with his primary client. His friend Alex (Cyril Roy) stops by just before he leaves, so he comes along with Oscar to give us one of the movie's most direct exposition sequences. After explaining a bit about the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Oscar heads into the club and gets himself killed while hiding out in a Japanese squat-toilet.

It's here, with the death of our protagonist, that the movie really begins.

As he lies on the floor dying, Oscar begins experiencing overwhelming hallucinations along with time dilation. Alex had touched upon time-dilation earlier when he mentioned that when on something like a DMT trip, to us that what seems like hours may in reality only be occurring over a matter of seconds or minutes. Some films like Spun or Requiem for a Dream make attempts at showing what a time-compression experience might look like by dropping frames and speeding up the film speed. Noé gives us a time-dilation experience by showing us 2 hours of hallucinations which take place in the final moments of Oscar's brain's life.

The idea that the entire movie really is as simple as that seems to elude some people, who insist it's a first-person account of a reincarnation process or just a story about ghost incest or something. But no, it isn't, and it doesn't have to be to be satisfying. This is one of the very few times when at the end of the movie you can realize that the whole thing was essentially a dream and that's actually appropriate rather than just being a lazy and enraging plot device.

One interesting thing to notice as you go through the story is that, as a result of his experience being generated by his brain, the experiences' strangeness varies inversely to the freshness and familiarity of the memories they're based on. Those that nvolve the very familar and recent, such as the "post-death" experiences in the bathroom where he dies, are all very realistic and clear. Those that involve things from more distant memories begin to look a little stylized and hazy. Those involving places he's never been are completely generated by his mind and are often based only on tiny scaps of known information and are therefore almost entirely left up to Oscar's creativity. The love-hotel he visits towards the end of the film is in a place he only knows from seeing an artist friend's dayglo, blacklight-illuminated model, so this is all especially clear there.

The experiences Oscar has seem to bifurcate and begin following seperate paths at some point. He follows his sister's reaction and how her life might unfold from the very beginning, but eventually Oscar begins reliving memories and traveling back through the lives of he and his sister as well. This leads to a potentially confusing ending where the backward and forward paths almost overlap and come to an end. At the love-hotel Oscar sees Linda having sex with his friend Alex. If we've learned anything from the flying disembodied camera by this point it's that it flies into any holes it finds, so of course it ends up shooting into Linda's glowing vagina.

By this point we've travelled back through many of Oscar's early memories of his parents and his childhood, one of which was seeing his parents have sex, so this sparks another memory in which we see a very basic birth memory, followed by an infant Oscar with his parents at their home. This memory is very hazy, and the mother's face is especially blurred out, so this progression isn't obvious to someone looking for a reincarnation angle. What they're likely to have seen was ghost-Oscar shooting into Linda's vagina, followed by him being born again and deposited in a new baby belonging to his sister. If it isn't enough that his sister had just had an abortion and probably wouldn't have loaded a new egg in the chamber just yet anyway, Noé has directly refuted any possibility of something like that being intended by those scenes, stating "It's not Oscar's sister, it's Oscar's mother..." and "It's not the story of someone who dies, flies and is reincarnated, it's the story of someone who is stoned when he gets shot and who has an intonation of his own dream."

There's lots of talk about there being pretty heavy incest themes throughout the movie, and that's kind of understandable (I am using Oscar shooting into his sister's vagina as a segway after all). If Oscar is just seeing what his brain wants to show him, why does end up traveling around watching his sister at work (she's a stripper), after work (perhaps a prostitute?), and in her free time (having sex again) the way he does? This suspicion isn't exactly discouraged when we see how comfortable Linda is being nude around Alex and how she seems to prefer staying that way most of the time... but I don't really think any of that actually has anything to do with incest.

At the most direct, maybe Noé doesn't do anything to really disqualify the idea as a way to leave it open in order to provoke people's reactions to incest taboos. But Oscar relives his recent memories of his sister, along with their relationship as children and teenagers and he never really shows any sexual interest in her at all. So while I admit that Noé does have a tendency to use everything available to make his audience feel uncomfortable, in the end I really think it's just that Oscar and Linda have a relationship that doesn't include some of the taboos that many people's relationships with their siblings do. I get a little of that myself, having a younger sister that I can talk directly and honestly with about sex or other such taboo topics if they come up. That alone seems to sometimes be enough to make other people's skin crawl. Some people had a hard time seeing how I could ever hang out at her place when she dated an old friend of mine for a while... but those sorts of social taboos just aren't things that bother me. If she was the sort to spend most of her life naked, then if someone saw one of those conversations about sex or porn or something I'd probably find myself under the same sort of scrutiny as Oscar.

One of the biggest things that shows that theirs is a nonsexual relationship is just how childlike it is. Oscar and Linda are seen in flashback-type memories over and over, so we see how their close relationship was and is maintained as they grow up. After the early death of their parents, they attach to one another and become even closer. Later when we see Linda as an adult, she's often acting so much like a child when alone with Oscar that any potentially sexual situations still seem innocent because Linda appears to have regressed to a sexually-naive and taboo-ignorant child.

They show this over and over, sometimes almost literally.

As for giving this movie a real review, there's little to be said aside from heaping praise on Noé for making a two and a half hour self-indulgent art film that's somehow not only still watchable (impressive in itself) but also completely enthralling. The watching experience isn't exactly always comfortable , but you still can't ever look away.

If at any point you break from it's spell for a moment,
you'll feel yourself making this face.

Gaspar Noé's films seem to generally keep out of the mainstream due to their experimental and potentially offensive themes, but Enter The Void is perhaps his most accessible and maybe even his most pleasant, so make sure you don't pass over this one. It's available for streaming on Netflix so there's really no excuse to not see it.

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