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Like if Jenny Holzer wrote film reviews. The Parallax Review is a website dedicated to dissecting movies in terms of cultural context, ideology, aesthetics, and more. From Stalker to Hackers and beyond! Run by your girl, @okaythanksmaria

Enter the Void (2009), dir. by Gaspar Noé


Enter the Void isn't a movie, it's an experience.
Enter the Void isn't about a traditional 3-act structure with a satisfying pay-off at the end, it's about a symbolic journey.
This review will also be a journey, in two parts.

I. The Beginning

The film opens with a really wild credit sequence featuring like, fifty 'leven different (amazing) fonts flashing on screen in rapid succession, set to abrasive hardstyle techno. It is arguably the most exciting sequence in a movie overripe in both concept and camerawork. From my limited experience with Noé's work, he seems preoccupied with exploring the extremes of consequences. An action and it's subsequent consequences: cheating in Love, spiking the punch in Climax. In the case of Enter the Void, it's dealing drugs.

So, we meet our protagonist, his name is Oscar. Oscar is a drug dealer and user. His personal favorite is DMT. Oscar lives in Tokyo, in this wild, crazy dream space (I mean, it's a filthy cluttered mess, but give me a chance to decorate, boooyyyyyy...). He stands on his balcony, which is nestled high above a particularly lit area of Kabukicho. His room is illuminated only by a bright sign across the street that says "ENTER." 
 
 



His sister Linda joins him on the balcony; she lives with him. Their relationship seems fraught, but undeniably, inextricably close. They have, arguably, the only important conversation in the entire film, wherein Oscar expresses a desire to be floating out in the sky, far above the city, looking down at everything all lit up in the darkness. Linda isn't interested. Says she'd have to be...well, dead.

What follows is a sequence where we follow Oscar as he does DMT on his bed, and is joined by his dark-haired friend Alex. Together, they visit a bar called THE VOID, where Oscar meets a friend who, it turns out, has set him up in a drug bust. Then, we watch Oscar—we are Oscar—as he gets murdered by police in a tiny, grimy bathroom stall. At this point, the cinematography has been dreamy but deliberate. We are rooted in Oscar's perspective; the heady rush of being in a city like Tokyo--its massive scale buildings, bright lights, hordes of humans, and endless distractions—is muted slightly in Oscar's drug-induced haze. 
 
 


By the time our lead character has died, something becomes clear: Noé isn't particularly interested in the actors. Nathaniel Brown, who plays Oscar, says his lines in a very stiff way, that's almost totally devoid of any real, felt emotion. Paz de la Huerta (the one, the only) plays Linda and, well, she is nothing if not a cliche. We are somehow supposed to believe that little innocent, naive Linda came to Tokyo to visit her protective, loving older brother. We watch as she descends into her brother's underworld.

The audience is led to believe her character gradually morphs into a hyper-sexual Lolita—even though she's giving us vamp energy from jump. Her character is recklessly meaningless. Linda is symbolism wrapped up in a manic-pixie dream-whore package. These things are obvious an hour into the film. Noé doesn't seem to care much about the believability of his characters, or their motivations. He uses them like a designer uses models: they are simply vehicles for his visual concept.

At a certain point Oscar asks Linda what she wants to do in Tokyo. She replies, "Have a great love affair."
 


 

As the film progresses, the cinematography takes on a more aggressive role, exploring Oscar's Tokyo experience from above. It also takes us, rather jarringly, into his and Linda's past which is—surprise, surprise—quite fraught. Learning the nuances of Oscar's childhood, his strange relationship with his sister, and the events leading up to and after his death is an existentialist journey made much less meaningful by weak performances. Fortunately, Noé's film is held together by his experimental creative approach: inspired by filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Kenneth Anger, and Brian de Palma, plus Noé's own use of hallucinogens growing up. The thematic significance of Enter the Void is hinted at throughout—the Tibetan Book of the Dead gets multiple shout-outs—but the director's ideas don't find their footing until the moment the movie ends.

II. The End

The film closes with the word "THE" filling up the screen in black on a white background.
Then, replacing it, the word "VOID" appears.
Black screen; roll credits.

Given the final moments of the film's narrative, these two words flashing at the close of Noé's 2 hour and 23 minute treatise on being alive are actually quite fitting. Life = The Void. When we are born, we leave the warmth and comfort and predictability of our mother's womb. We're thrust fully unformed into...well...wherever the hell the universe has decided we belong. Those final flashing words held more of a thematic punch than any swooping camera movement into an aborted fetus could ever provide: a healthy dose of existentialism.
 
 

Existentialism, on a base level, argues that life is meaningless, but it's up to us to give it meaning, if any. It's a void. Oscar's decisions have led him to Tokyo, to living with and lusting after his sister, to dealing and doing drugs, to tragically dying in the dingy bathroom of a bar. It's obvious Oscar is searching for some kind of meaning to his life. As his spirit floats above Tokyo in what The Tibetan Book of the Dead calls bardo, or the middle realm between death and re-birth, we experience his thoughts circling around significant life events, like water circling a drain. The strange intimacies of his childhood, his parent's tragic death, a violent separation from his sister. We experience it over and over as Oscar searches for meaning in these moments. Making connections from his past to his present to the future he is re-born into at the end of the film.

The void (life) is everything out of our control, and it's up to us to find or give meaning to the choices we make based on our experience and understanding of life (the void) . Oscar understands he can't control the family he was born into, his parent's death, or the way he and his sister grew up. Yet he can't avoid making connections, seeking meaning in the events of his past as explanation for his behavior, his desires, and fears in the present. His time in bardo is particularly poignant. He observes, as an ethereal non-entity from above, his sister and his friends have sex, scream, and struggle to survive. The top-down perspective of Noe's camera provides an intimate yet emotionally removed perspective that is key to understanding the existentialist bent to the film. The meaningless toil of life—his own, Linda's, his friend's—is both inescapable and an opportunity to escape. 
 


In the final moments of his time in bardo—as he is about to be reborn, to enter the void once again—the viewer can only hope that Oscar was able to gain insight from contemplating his life. We hope that the meaning he drew from those events that were both in and out of his control will equip him to do better in the next life. Wherever he lands, wherever the void takes him, may he live free.
 
My Letterboxd rating: 2.5 ⭐
 
All film stills via Film-Grab


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