Gaspar Noe’s ‘Enter the Void,’ a Surrealist Odyssey
By DJ Pangburn Wednesday, October 06, 2010
Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void” is one of the most experimental cinematic attempts at projecting the inner state of the mind I’ve ever seen.
It travels above and beyond Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s efforts with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “The Science of Sleep,” and “Synechdoche, New York.” In ambition, only Kaufman’s directorial debut approaches the heights of Noe’s latest film.
“Enter the Void” is perhaps the most direct descendant of Surrealism ever put to film. It is definitely beyond Fellini and even beyond the metaphysics of Tarkvosky’s “Solaris.” This is provocative, I know, maybe even hyperbolic, but my reading of the film should give dimension to the opinion that Noe’s film is a work of art.
One can almost imagine the Surrealists Andre Breton, Phillipe Souppault and Louis Aragon’s conception of the breakdown or unraveling of temporal-spatial consciousness in “Enter the Void”—the unrestrained ejaculate of the mind’s data and detritus. The sweet melancholy of life (nobile malinconia) and its attendant and unavoidable nostalgia. Nostalgia in its forms sublime, both beautiful and shocking. The continuum of existence, with sex and death its endpoints containing all points in between. The drifting of beings through the arteries of streets, articulating the city as the recumbent body containing people as cells. The kaleidoscope of lights and their shades mirrored in the void. And the Carrollian conceit that life is “but a dream,” which renders the waking life, the dream state, hallucinations and death as equally profound and equally essential to existence.
It is hard to imagine any other film so fully realizing the potential of Surrealism and the mystery of metaphysics, and using the Tibetan Book of the Dead as its vehicle. And perhaps more surprisingly, it is one of the only examples in all of cinema of a near Joycean vision. Yes, how James Joyce–the great post-modern author–wrote as if he could deconstruct and rebuild lives onto one projected strip of superimposed films: all of its beatific and terrible colors and penumbral regions on display. The drift of a narrative consciousness through a cast of characters and location—Noe’s Tokyo here instead of Joyce’s Dublin.
Noe was wise to utilize The Tibetan Book of Dead as a point of entry into the void, because its teachings—long before the genesis of Surrealism—taught essentially the same thing: the illusory nature of all states of existence… How it’s all something of a projection inside a magic lantern.
The film seems to take one of the first few lines of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and apply it to the visual and aural sensations:
“All phenomena are [ultimately] selfless, empty and free from conceptual elaboration. In their dynamic they resemble an illusion, mirage, dream, or reflected image, A celestial city, an echo, a reflection of the moon in water, a bubble, an optical illusion, or an intangible emanation.”
The movie’s full weight doesn’t hit the viewer until hours or maybe days later, even if you are familiar with Surrealist and Tibetan texts. Yes, it’s all a very visceral cinematic experience: it is, after all, very much a Noe film in its graphic depictions and underworld explorations. On a side note, I would love to explore in a critical essay on “Enter the Void,” the mirror images of the Tokyo underworld and Death’s underworld, and the umbilical cord that connects them.
Perhaps some viewers will be impacted immediately by such ideas, but I believe that the film’s nuances demand absorption, a slow digestion, in the way one might take in a Tarkovksy, a Fellini or a Kubrick film. Noe made no secret of his desire to create a film that would have the sort of meditative and psychedelic experience of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Both films are odysseys, just as Joyce’s “Ulysses” is a geographical and psychological odyssey, with its lineage proceeding back to Homer’s epic poems. Certainly, no one would have suggested that Noe was part of that lineage after “Irreversible,” but it is undeniably the case now with his work on “Enter the Void.”
Repeat viewings of “Enter the Void” will only enhance the impact on one’s ego as well as the idea of ego death, essential to the psychedelic experience, and the in-between period of the Tibetan state of existence known as the Bardo.
It’s all quite dizzying and profound and emotional, and it makes your heart want to explode and your consciousness melt and fuse itself back into the universal network whence it came (and from which it is never truly able to escape). You will be confronted with the impossible perfection of your own existence, just as the Tibetans suggest we all must when confronted with the varying degrees of hallucinations attending the periods between incarnations. You will see something familiar in the character Oscar’s journey because, as Plato said, memory is eternal and knowledge need only be remembered because it is embedded in eternity.
And this is just thematically-speaking. Visually, Noe has done something no other director, writer (except for Joyce) or artist has ever done. He’s accomplished something that scientists try to arrive at through equations, and religious leaders intimate in their texts and interpretations. He’s entered the province, the void, that only shaman with their spirit-world visitations and the Tibetans with their mind explorations have arrived at through the millennia: the quantum breakdown of time and space and memory and all the constructs of human imagination, its implications in science, religion and civilization.
In short, “Enter the Void” is a film that transcends all humanly concerns, arriving precisely at the junction of a soul’s disintegration into the metaphysical aether. It takes us into that realm—maybe not as completely as many of us would have liked, but certainly in no way any film has done before.
The camera swirls and tilts and drifts, passing through buildings and people, vanishing into lights and fractal patterns, the geometric non-Euclidean skeleton of the tangible world. All is exposed to the viewer. This film is, as Werner Herzog conceives of the best storytelling: an ecstatic truth.
It is, in a word, sublime.
From Death and Taxes