Born in Argentina but raised in France to become something of an enfant terrible of modern French film, Gaspar Noé’s movies have always been steeped in French cultural references, combining a uniquely Gallic existential sensibility with a confrontational attitude shared by many of his contemporaries in the cinema of the New French Extremism. Many have dismissed his most popular film, Enter the Void (2009) as a ‘drug movie’ for young club enthusiasts, designed to be watched while high on mind-altering substances. While this may be partly true, to generalise would be to dismiss the film’s undeniable artistic value.
The film opens with a mini masterpiece of experimental cinema. Aware that no one cares too much to read the text in a film’s opening credits, Noé transforms what is usually the most uninteresting segment into an all but overwhelming visual experience. For more than two minutes the screen ceases to be a source of information to become one of pure sensation. Everyone involved is credited, from producers to sound designers to actors, but the text appears in large, colourful and increasingly imaginative fonts which flash against a black background, each time way too briefly for the audience to read properly.
Here, the screen has become a pure light source, as close to a strobe lighting effect as cinema can come while guaranteeing the safety of its audience. In the darkness of the cinema, with nothing to look at but bright flashing colours accompanied by a fast-paced, resounding club song which makes the cinema walls and your heart tremble, the experience is completely thrilling.
As cinematographer, regular collaborator Benoît Debie – the genius responsible for everything from the crisp neons of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2013) to the stark black and whites of One More Time with Feeling (2016) – makes the poppy colours of the film’s modern Tokyo setting glow on screen. His blacks meanwhile reach a level of darkness rare in digital cinematography. The camerawork, along with the film’s extensive and gorgeous CGI combine to create such captivating psychedelic images that you will find yourself eyes wide, struggling not to blink. A vibrating club soundtrack that barely lets up and a near-constant deep hum in the sound design underline the vividness of the images, making the film a totally involving experience.
Indeed, from film start Enter the Void proudly announces itself as a real physical ‘experience’, involving its viewers’ entire bodies in the trip. Such unashamed engagement with the physical might account for the film’s difficult critical reputation, especially given the rather tiresome preoccupation with the cerebral and intellectual in dominant film criticism.
For Noé, the physical goes hand in hand with the intellectual, and here his pleasurable attack on the senses further implicates the audience in the main protagonist’s story. Killed in Japan while running away from the police for drug possession, young dealer Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) witnesses his life flash before his eyes, fearing to leave his sister Linda (an electrifying Paz de la Huerta) and all the while recalling the tragedy that has united them since childhood. The intensity of the POV image renders these deeply melancholy scenes and raw emotions extremely affecting for the audience, moving the film beyond the superficial tropes of the ‘drug movie’.
The prominence in Noé’s films of elements deemed shocking by many has also earned him something of a reputation as a provocateur, a filmmaker largely preoccupied with attracting attention to himself by making tedious films full of violence, sex and drugs. But these elements would be only shocking and immoral, irresponsible even, were the director not constantly struggling with them and their implications. Indeed, the decontextualized demonisation of violence, sex and other images deemed ‘shocking’ is surely never helpful, ignoring as it does the value of addressing such real events in the safe space of art.
Noé’s films provide a safe space to explore sensations, themes and scenes often forbidden by society or too dangerous to delve into in real life. Irreversible (2000) admirably fails to make a true apology for reactive violence while Love (2015) understands but never excuses its protagonist’s adulterous sexual reveries. Ultimately Enter the Void proves a very melancholy film, its strikingly colourful and exciting visuals set in contrast to the profound sadness of the dying character we embody throughout the film. Providing safe access to the state of mind and warped vision of a person on particularly hard drugs, Enter the Void also provides a deeply human emotional experience, evolving in a space beyond the artificial divide between the physical and the intellectual.
The film screens in full Director’s Cut at Picturehouse Central on Friday 28 October, 10.00pm