Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Review: Enter the Void

Enter the Void (2009, Gaspar Noé)

There is a titanic struggle which lies at the center of almost all movies, one that frequently determines how a given film shall be remembered, and sometimes if it will be remembered at all. In essence, how much weight shall both the style and the substance of said movie carry? Tilted more to one side than the other, a project incurs the risk of feeling too heavy, its momentum stalled by too much exposition, or to being too didactic, or simply too complex for retain the interest of the viewer. If the pendulum sways too far in the opposite direction, then what the audience is left with might be too many ‘bells and whistles’ or a bunch of ‘pretty pictures’, but this time pictures that don’t say a thousand words. Describing this as a contest is not entirely fair, for the goal of the filmmaking team is to naturally find a balance between the two. Not necessarily a perfect balance, but something close. When things are weighed as evenly as can be, the results can prove incredible. In that way it resembles marriage, or better still, time travel. When done well, it can be a blissful, stunningly perfect thing, but you have to work at it. Marty McFly (Back to the Future, 1985) didn’t have the option of just ‘winging it.’He had to work to save his own life, and did while singing Johnny B. Goode.

Gaspar Goé’s most recent picture, Enter the Void, experiences something of an identity crisis whose issues stem from this challenge of discovering a balance between style and substance. Does it truthfully succeed at marrying the two critical components? I imagine that the answer depends on how much one can read into the movie. That being said, while this reviewer believes that the advantage favours one component (style) over the other (substance), it would be incorrect to assume this results in the film being a failure. With regards to a plot synopsis, we shan’t dwell on too many of the details. Briefly, Enter the Void follows Oscar (newcomer Nathaniel Brown), a delivery boy for drug pushers in the slums of Tokyo. He lives with Linda (Paz de la Huerta), the sister with whom he has recently reunited after many years. Dingy apartments and slimy, nefarious characters abound, but the uniqueness of the story is the manner how the audience follows young Oscar around, for not only does the camera present a first person view, but Oscar also shot down about 30 minutes into the film and dies while being pursued by the police. His corpse falls onto the grotesque floor in a bar’s washroom. The boy’s spirit rises above and for the remainder of the movie oberves a series of people he knows, most notable his sister, and travels through back in time to reminisce about his early childhood when he and his sister were together, living happily with their parents. The newly discovered ability comes with a sense of irony for only days before a pal of his, Alex, had lend him some reading material titled The Tibetan Book of the Dead,  which explains the process by which the spirit, or consciousness, must venture prior to reincarnation. Might this be what awaits Oscar or what it left of him?

This is a movie that poses a challenge for many people. To begin with, it most certainly will, and has already, tried people’s patience, with the movie winning out in the end. At 2 hours and 20 minutes (the length of the cut I watched, fully aware that there is another one in existence), one wonders if such considerable running length was a requirement to tell the story at hand. Oscar, if he is still Oscar at all anymore, does not speak or think or word once his spirit hovers above people, shifts through walls, and flies across the streets of Toyko. Nobody in the present seems to be living a happy existence, the flashback or time travel scenes show the beginning of the end of Oscar’s and Linda’s childish innocence as their parents die in a horrible traffic accident as the boy and girl sit just behind them, scenes from Oscar’s life in Tokyo but some time before the night when he is killed show him performing less than admirable deeds, such as having sex with a friend’s mother and frying his grey matter on hallucinogenic drugs. All this through the prism of either some fancy pants first person shots or this strange floating effect that Gaspar Noé, already sufficiently notorious for Irréversible, has contacted. One can be forgiven for demanding ‘Why in heaven’s name am I watching this?’ The question is fair. Here are some of the answers I can muster.

For one, Enter the Void is as close to an experience in film as one can get. Many referred to their IMAX 3D viewing of Avatar an experience. Opening night in 2001 for The Fellowship of the Ring was an experience. The stories might be good or bad, but it was, at the very least, worth your time for the experience. One might not bother to watch the movie again for various reasons, but that one time was satisfactory for all the unique aesthetic, thrills, and provocative reactions it might have elicited. When Enter the Void came to an end, that was the gist of my initial reaction. I have not the faintest notion of when, or even if I shall watch the movie again, but seeing everything unfold and especially the manner with which Noé hits the viewer with scenes was oftentimes exciting and audacious. The apparent free flow of the camera which functions as the avatar for Oscar’s floating consciousness was visually arresting and made sure that scenes which might have come across as tired had they been dealt with in more traditional manner were in fact exhilarating. Everything felt fresh and new, despite the actual plot, that is, the events which Oscar’s spirit witnesses after his passing, were not the most original and sometimes felt tossed into the salad just for the sake of it. The visuals therefore compensate and help lend some camouflage to a mediocre script. It is difficult to feel invested in most of the characters involved. On occasion the editing create links between something Oscar did as a young adult and what he did as a baby, such as kissing the breast of his friend’s mother as an adult and feeding off the milk of his mother’s breast as a tiny child. Additionally, there are some subtle and not so subtle references to Oscar’s true feelings towards his sister. Being protective of his sibling is fine and dandy, but it seems as if his protectiveness might stem from some more incestuous desires. Whether or not these flourishes are warranted or whether they add anything significant is open to debate. They seemed like devices which, on a very minimal level, served the overall plot. I doubt they intended to actually get the viewers and protagonist from point A to point Z (Enter the Void is not the type of film anyhow where characters simply go from point A to point Z), however succeeded in adding to the overall visceral quality of the film. Gaspar Noé does want to make the viewer comfortable while sipping root beer and eating ginger munch. He didn’t with Irréversible and has not changed his ways since.

Say what you will about how Gaspar Noé indulges in his own cinematic styles, he is consistent in his understanding of character arc and for that reason the ‘floating consciousness’ aspect of the picture serves a purpose. Oscar is a troubled character. He loves his sister, but possibly too much. He has friends, but most are hanging out with the wrong people. He misses his past, a past which occurred long ago when the worries were few and comfort could be found in the arms of a loving mother, a sentiment he may or may not want to renew with his sibling. Sex and drugs and an subtly off kilter understanding of love are what define this lost character. The afterlife experience and flashbacks mesh together to reinforce Oscar’s defining characteristics, especially his faults. He is not a bad chap per say, only his need for comfort is awkward and seemingly gets aroused by some strange things. The purgatory his spirit ventures through is but a passage, but he alone, it seems, can decide what is to become of himself. Being born again is the destination, but how and when? Those latter two components are what make up the difficult and unorthodox test suddenly thrust upon him. When reincarnation finally occurs (the punch line of it all shall not be revealed in this review), there is an uncomfortable honesty in the fact. It could not have happened any other way. If one was hoping for something sweeter, apologies are in order, because sweetness was not on the menu for the day, even with regards to reincarnation.By the end of it, the individual moments did not always land, but the overall character arc gets its points across.

The entire enterprise that makes up Noé’s Enter the Void is bizarre, different, technically ambitious, thematically ambivalent, not entirely emotionally satisfying but enticing enough to make it a worthwhile trip. One can conclude by saying he or she ‘liked it’ or ‘did not like it’, but for a movie such as this one, that really is only telling half the story. I ‘experienced’ Enter the Void and survived. I am sure you can as well.


The Taxi Driver said...

I think it's easy for critics to get sucked into movies like this because it makes so plainly obvious what it is doing. To me that isn't style it's decoration and critics like it because it plays right into their hands and bad critics will get very excited in simply reporting on what a movie has handed to them.

I therefore think, contrary to your opening paragraph that it's not a matter of balance at all because, as many filmmakers take issue with, it's not a matter of style or substance because we can't talk about these things as if they are 2 different things. Maybe Godard said it most famously that one gives birth to the other and vice versa: the content of the story must dictate the style and the style must dictate what the story is trying to convey. They cannot be seperated and still be considered true film style.

So therefore one must ask if Noe's visual flourish is justified here. I don't know because I haven't seen it but if we can take anything from Irreversible, then probably not

edgarchaput said...

@Mike Lippert: I made a feable attempt to reconcile the notion of style and substance by saying filmmakers on their game try to marry the two (similar to how you commented on how 'content of story must dictate style and style must dictate what the story is trying to convey').

My comments on 'Irréversible' were inspired by reviews I read and breif discussions I've had with fans and detractors of the picture because I actually haven't seen it. It is interesting that you think (and that's your business) that the visual flourishes are probably not justified in 'Enter the Void' based on what you saw in 'Irréversible' because I am the opposite sentiment. 'Irréversible' now sounds even more interesting based on what I saw in 'Enter the Void.'

JeanRZEJ said...

I for one think Noé's style in Irreversible perfectly illuminates the content: he wants to refrain from obscuring the brutality of violence done in the name of vengeance and in the name of selfish violation in order to unite the two and expose the great deal of obfuscation that a filmmaker must make use of in order to portray either as anything else. It's a deconstruction of revenge exploitation films - it takes the 'climax' of those films, moves it to the front, and then strips the climax of its catharsis. I'm not sure what problems Mike has with the film, but I doubt they would hold up.

As for Enter the Void, I think it is a fantastic use of style and a subtle but imminently important use of structure to create a simultaneous lamentation of mistakes and celebration of the possibility of a life well lived. I won't say more here, because I've said a lot in my blog already, but I agree with Mike's assertion that style is substance, and I think the style is substantial in this film and the substance is meaningfully stylized.

The Taxi Driver said...

Edgar - I haven't seen Enter the Void myself but by making the comments about Irreversible I was saying that that one, at 90 minutes was, for these eyes, nearly unbearable in Noe's quickness to place flourish above anything meaningful. His ambition outshone his actual grasp. I can't really imagine having an extra hour tacked on to that kind of experience.

I'm intrigued by the words of your fellow commenter and wonder just what my opinion wouldn't hold up against? If it's the critical whole, well that's just impossible seeing as 1) just as many people hated both Noe films (I don't pretend to know anything about his debut) as must as they were loved and 2) I can't imagine but one person speaking for the critical whole despite the employment of phrases such as "obfuscation" and who speaks of deconstruction and what not. Takes me back to my days of first year film studies classes.

It all, in the end, kind of reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend of mine who explained to me, upon learning that I hated Fight Club, explained to me that it was all a modern day send up of some philosophical or spiritual Buddhist journey or something like that and I said to him, that very well could be, but that still doesn't make it a good movie.

It's funny then that we have become engaged in a discussion of style over substance in which someone knocks me down in a comment that is more writing than meaning.

I must then tip my hat to you sir for writing a post that has inspired comments that are apparently getting people a little hot under the collars. Those are always the best kind of posts don't you think?

edgarchaput said...

@Mike: 90 minutes may not suffice for the sort of projects Noé envisions. 'Enter the Void' clearly takes more time to develop whatever it is going for. That being said, I felt as though a couple stretches were too much, so maybe making his movie longer doesn't necessarily help either.

I enjoyed your comment about the 'Fight Club' discussion you once had with someone. Sometimes people try to read too much into films just for the sake of defending them. I myself am guilty of this on occasion. I do think however that 'Enter the Void' has more to offer than some think.

About a heated discussion (or, 'hot under the collars' as you put it), that wasn't my attempt. I had never heard of the fellow who posted a couple days ago. He has an interesting site (I visited it a little bit, a habit I try to do whenever a newcomer takes the time to visit my own site and actually comment), but I'm also not sure what was up with the remark about your argument not holding up. That seemed to come a little bit of left field.

JeanRZEJ said...

Wow, what a strange person.

edgarchaput said...

Now, now. No need for name calling!