Drugs, Sex and Loss

Ican say with confidence that Gaspar Noe’s EntertThe Void is unlike any other movie you’ve seen this year. Its narrative loosely tells the story of a young American, Oscar, who lives in Tokyo. Oscar is dealing drugs when he is shot and killed by the police in the bathroom of a nightclub called The Void. The movie then follows Oscar’s post-death journey through his astrally projected body in a very loose cinematic adaptation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

But I’m not particularly interested in talking about how this movie relates to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Sure, the movie follows the book, but you can read about that in any number of reviews or just read the Tibetan Book of the Dead itself.  I’m more interested in how the movie is a kind of astral projection that mirrors Oscar’s journey. The projection of the film itself simulates Oscar’s trip, and the movie ends up functioning as its own version of an out-of-body/in-body experience.

Gaspar Noe’s manipulation of film creates a new kind of transcendental experience through cinema, and the movie is its own kind of cinematic “trip” and astral projection in its own right. While the movie takes a spiritual text as the premise for its narrative construction, there is little room for “feel good” New Age spirituality in Noe’s version of the afterlife. The film is indeed largely presented through the perspective of Oscar’s spirit, but this spirit world is delivered with a heavy dose of punk aesthetics, hardcore sex and drugs, a brutally urgent urban sensibility, and an experiential primal scream.

From the opening title sequence ? a one minute and four second font pummeling ?Noe’s film throws the audience into a disorienting tailspin that does not relent for the 137-minute duration of the movie. First presented as POV, literally putting us inside of Oscar’s head while he is alive and getting high, and then moving through the perspective of Oscar’s spirit floating above Tokyo, the film is a raw, unfiltered, hallucinogenic rollercoaster ride that pretty much asks us to beg for it to stop.

Yet at the same time, Enter the Void is so beautifully photographed and so human at its core that we are caught in its grip and have to relinquish ourselves to the experience. The movie itself operates like a drug, producing an artificial state of disassociation and hallucination through cinematic manipulation. We experience the film like we are thrown over the threshold of an LSD trip, and there is no getting off the train until it stops.

When I left the movie, my first thought was that it should have been edited down, that 137 minutes was way too long and Noe should have cut 20 minutes from the finished product. But thinking about it later, I realize that cutting in this way would have been antithetical to how the movie functions. Enter The Void is all about being a cinematic overdose, and overdose implies excess. The film has to be “too much”; it is written into its form.

As we experience Oscar getting high, getting shot, and then traveling through the afterlife via a lot sex, drugs, death, pain and loss, we feel like we are literally inside his body and inside the body of the film. We’re not watching Oscar. We are being Oscar, and that requires feeling the absolute excess of his experience. Never has a movie about being dead felt so alive. Enter the Void is a whole new kind of experiential cinema that makes 3D confections like Avatar seem like outdated video games.

Noe’s association with French Extreme Cinema and his notoriously brutal film Irreversible, which features a relentlessly violent 9 minute rape scene, has led many people to steer clear of Enter The Void or to read it only as a drug and sex movie.  But the film is about so much more than sex and drugs. Appropriately, Noe refers to it as a “psychedelic melodrama.” At the core of the film is not Oscar’s own death, but his relationship to his sister Linda and how they are bound together through the tragic death of their parents in a car crash when they were kids.

Underneath the extremity of the drugs, sex and violence in this movie is the extremity of loss and death. Yes, the movie is a visceral head-spinning spectacle that seems coated in hallucinogens and sex, but the real spectacle here is the spectacle of grief and loss. Enter the Void shows how they are displaced onto drugs and sex like no other film I’ve seen, but that’s because we don’t just see the loss, we feel it, live it and experience it through Oscar and Linda.

The film strips the core of the melodrama from a linear narrative, and we feel the experiential trauma through a number of flashbacks to the car crash which finally culminate in a heart-ripping scene with the blood-soaked child Linda sitting in the backseat of the car screaming her heart out at the death of her parents. Rarely has a scream been so piercingly, painfully laden with the horror of death and loss.

So, as we experience Oscar getting high and getting killed and as we experience Linda stripping in a nightclub and fucking her way to oblivion, really what we’re experiencing is two kids adrift in a sea of loss and coping through sex and drugs. The oddly uncomfortable erotic tension between Oscar and Linda is the displacement of their bond, their family love, and their shared loss through awkwardly directed intimacy.

Yes, at the heart of this film are a couple of broken hearts, a primal loss, and the way that two people cope with that loss, and yes that loss is largely manifested through a hallucinatory trip through sex and drugs. Whether Oscar is alive and smoking DMT and hallucinating his brains out or whether he is dead and soaring through the skies above Tokyo or visiting the tragic events of his past, death and life are equally graphic and borderline pornographic. But the sex and drugs are more than just what they appear on the surface. They are used as media to facilitate a bodily experience of death and loss.

Enter the Void is about recreating the bodily experience through cinema, not just the bodily experience of getting high and fucking but also how the body is used to attempt to transcend loss through the artifice of sex and drugs. Drugs, sex, loss are all blurred together literally in the film so we feel a visceral state of mediated human feeling. The whole movie makes life and death feel like a hallucinatory drug experience filtered through sex.

Whether it is primal sex in relation to sucking the milk from a mother’s nipple or pseudo-porn sex in the Love Hotel, sex is the stand-in for an attempt to recapture something that is lost. In spiritual terms, sex is the passage to rebirth, but in Noe’s vision, it has to be mediated through artifice ? the flickering screens showing fetuses in utero in a disco or the fucking couples inside the windows of the Love Hotel. I was trying to reconcile the extended borderline porno sex scenes in the Love Hotel with the film’s overall sense of human loss and redemption. Those scenes are interesting because the sex seems “authentically” good, like the people shown are enjoying it, but it is also so overtly filtered through the artifice of the camera, which lends it a porno effect. By emphasizing the artifice of role playing, sex toys and other kink, Noe seems to be integrating the act into a post-authentic environment. In fact this kind of mingling of sincere primal human feeling with artifice (chemical hallucinogens, neon lights, and the transactional housing of sex and culture) is at the heart of what makes the film so interesting and compelling to watch.

No doubt the movie has potential for obvious psychoanalytic readings with its emphasis on primal trauma and its obsession with breasts and birth (including a vagina cam shot where we actually see the penis penetrating the vagina from within Linda’s body), but as primal as the movie is at its core, it always maintains a veneer of artifice through the medium itself. It never relinquishes its overt stance as an artificial product, something that is created through media and the feeling that everything we are experiencing is induced from chemicals and media manipulation.

The DMT hallucination scene provides a beautiful example of how the movie bridges the organic with the artificial. As Oscar smokes his DMT and his brain drifts into his trip, the screen fills with bulging, morphing, undulating psychedelic hallucinations. Hallucination scenes like this one can often be seen as laughable in their hokey artificial special-effects delivery, but Noe manages to make the hallucinations simultaneously beautifully organic and synthetic, mimicking how the movie functions overall.

The hallucinations don’t make us “see” what Oscar is seeing but rather simulate what it feels like to hallucinate. The sound of Oscar breathing as if we are inside his head, the soundtrack pulsing like a heartbeat, and the hallucinations themselves expanding and retreating into a kind of black hole work together to deliver an organic bodily experience through synthetic visual and audio manipulation. The scene reminds us both that we are being manipulated through (e.g. tripping on) cinematic artifice, but that our experience is located within our bodily senses.

I think a large part of why the film feels so totally immersive is because Gaspar Noe poured so much of his own labor into the film. He totally invested himself in the project ? shooting and editing the film himself as well as mixing the incredible soundtrack that puts the pulse into the movie. The film never sits still. It constantly moves and sweeps like a rollercoaster. One minute we’re scaling the skyline of Tokyo in a gorgeous abstract blur. The next, we’re pushing our way through a pulsing saturated color filled disco.

In another moment, we’re locked in a bathroom stall with Oscar while he’s frantically flushing drugs down a toilet and getting shot by the police. Next we are immersed in soft-focus flashbacks of Oscar and Linda’s childhood. Then we are abruptly thrown into the backseat of a car crash with Oscar and Linda’s parents’ dead bodies in the front seat. Car crashes, gun shots, cell phones, mumbled philosophy on death and drugs,  hallucinations, strip clubs, hotel rooms, naked breasts,  childhood screams, sex, blood and psychedelic lights are all mixed together in a pulsing  kaleidoscope of sensory overload.

The layers of movement within the film ? the speeding up and slowing down, the moving in and out of focus, and the dense color saturation ? produce a whirlwind of dissociation that makes us leave our own bodies and succumb to the pure sensory invasion of the film just as Oscar has left his body. The movie may be “about” Oscar and Linda, but the cinematic process ? the camera, the sound design and the editing ? are the real stars.

Emotions are delivered through bursts of color and sound, and through cuts and fades. They leak through pulsing lights in a disco. They pummel us with pounding fists on a bathroom door. They bleed onto bathroom tile or mist over in a bathtub flashback. But finally through the massive chaotic swirl of Oscar’s post-death journey, the real emotion is delivered like a machine gun through the sound of Linda’s screams as she sits covered in blood in the backseat of a car looking at her parents’ dead bodies. This is the source of the trauma, the moment that initiated the melodrama, and Gaspar Noe plays it to full effect mixing Linda’s screams so they not only feel infinitely deep but infinitely long. The screams resonate, reverberate and reveal themselves as the source of the urgent heartbeat that drives the movie.

That heartbeat is relentless and fills our ears and bodies through Noe’s amazingly artful audio mix that creates the “undersound” that drives the film. It’s like an audio sculpture that he mixed himself from such sources as Throbbing Gristle, Coil and to 60s musique concr?te, all meshed together into an audio hallucination that is organic, horrific, urgent, and painfully human within its artificial construction. The sound gives the film a sense of reeling out of control,  but it also makes us feel kind of paralyzed within its insistent and suffocating heartbeat, like we are trapped in the body of the film while being trapped in Oscar’s body.

In addition to Noe’s soundtrack, the mumbled, circular, and subverted dialogue also creates an interior experience of the film. Other effects that add to the visceral sense of being immersed in the film and make watching it feel like a bodily experience include Noe’s choice of lighting and colors. He uses very little “movie” lighting in the film but instead relies on Fluorescent tubes (discos), 30 watt bulbs (strip club scenes), and single bare bulbs (bathroom where Oscar dies) which give an organic rather than artificial feel to the film.

The scenes don’t feel staged or special-effects driven, but instead feel like direct lived experience. They feel real because they rely on the lighting of real life rather than lighting used by large production movies.  Noe also avoids cool colors but instead relies heavily on orange and red which are much more associated with the organic body. In addition, the heavy use of strobing and intentional out-of-focus effects disorient the audience and immediately throw us into a sensory experience of the film by literally destabilizing our vision and our grounding.

All of this works to make a movie that is not easy to watch on any level. Yes, Enter the Void is difficult to watch, a 137-minute assault on the senses, but it is also an incredibly beautiful, human and transcendent film. Gaspar Noe pushes the limits of the cinematic experience to deliver one of the most incredibly human films I have seen in a long time. Underneath the pulsing lights, the car crashes, the gun shots, the sex, drugs, death, blood and reeling hallucinations, we find, feel and experience the pulsing heart of human loss.

Our bodies experience a sensory overdose while watching this film, but that visceral all-consuming experience brings us straight into the heart of pain and loss like very few films I have experienced. Enter the Void is a loss and redemption narrative coated with an unflinching dose of hundred-proof reality, one that paradoxically seems even more real because it acknowledges the synthetic nature of our organic experience as humans.

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn, Avanti-Popolo, and the Berkeley Poetry Review. Someday she’ll finish her memoir book about her teenage life on the streets in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.