Enter the nightmare

The film I had possibly most anticipated watching at this years NZFF was Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void.  A late addition to the festival programme, it was touted as “a vast, stupefying vision of life after death, a hallucinatory extravaganza that cries out for the biggest screens in the world”.  It sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime cinematic experience, and these are what make film festivals something special… the chance to see something that you won’t see anyplace else.

The film is relentless from the get-go, with the entire credits played out at the start of the film.  Rather than try to describe what they are like, I have embedded the video below for your viewing pleasure.  The credits are possibly the single most crowd pleasing portion of the entire film, generating spontaneous applause and cheering (of genuine enjoyment) from the audience at their conclusion.  I suggest you watch them full screen to gain some small degree of understanding as to the type of sensory experience this was…

The first twenty minutes of the film plays out through the eyes (à la the video for The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up) of the main character, Oscar, a small time American drug pusher-slash-junkie in Tokyo, which is shown here as a city of sin, overrun with drugs, sex and violence.  We are introduced to his sister who quickly leaves, and he commences to get thoroughly tripped out (or whatever DMT does to a person), leading to some of that hallucinatory stuff I mentioned earlier.  The film changes when Oscar is killed in a drug bust, and we are led through a series of flashbacks through his life, starting with him as a child, his sister, the death of their parents and their separation into different foster homes, then different more recent scenes explaining the lead-up to his death, which is played out once more.  This is all seen from a viewpoint directly behind Oscar’s shoulder.  The remainder of the film sees a return to Oscar’s own viewpoint as he watches from a sort of “afterlife” the after-effects of his death on his immediate friends and acquaintances.  This is no Lovely Bones however, but it did in some small ways remind me of Ghost.  The film contains little plot, and instead plays out as short scenes as Oscar flies between the different characters watching them as events unfold, intercut with memory flashbacks and his spirit being sucked into the light in virtually every scene.

There is little to love about any of the characters, including Oscar himself.  Everyone is self-involved, emotionally devoid/incontinent, and/or just really, incredibly screwed up.  Also there are unlikely to be many awards given out for the acting (not terrible, but not stellar).   The wonder of it all is in the exquisite cinematography and camerawork.  Between the neon colours, the textures, the play of the visual between those hallucinatory effects, almost abstracted cityscapes and the “action” sequences, I remained riveted to the screen throughout.  The constant motion of the camera, especially in the beginning, turned this into one of the most nausea-tinged cinema experiences I have had (along with The Hurt Locker and Cloverfield), but those visuals make the whole thing worthwhile.

The main ideas of the film include a dose of Freud and a good hit of Buddhist thinking about life after death.  Mixed up with this are several sharp, adrenaline-inducing shocks, one of which is repeated multiple times throughout the film at unexpected moments, some raw and grating emotion (cue screaming/crying, mostly from Oscar’s sister, both in the present and in the past) and some fairly graphic sex, albeit overlaid by a soundtrack seething with unease, so it could never be said to be a pleasurable experience.  It is the type of film where you come out at the end wondering what exactly you just made your brain endure (I would almost say it is one of the most disturbing things I have been witness to without it being torture porn), while also being glad that you did have the experience.  I believe that once will be more than enough for many in the audience, myself included.

I will leave you with a quote from Manohla Dargis of the NY Times which was included in the updated festival programme.

“The grungy milieu and calculated shocks might have been designed to make you flee—even while your attention is tethered to the camera— but, really, these aren’t the point.  The point is the filmmaking.”

And this is exactly right.

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