At its heart, Enter The Void is incredibly stupid. Relentless flashing lights, glaring screens, and psychedelic Tokyo cliches abound. The protagonist Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) never reveals his face and often seems to be bordering on braindead, most of the time boringly obsessing over his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta). At least she’s interesting in that trainwreck, ECT-addled Edie Sedgwick way. She’s a curious kind of girl they don’t make a lot of these days – but the immediate fascination is short-spanned. The plot, based on the spiritual progression outlined in the Bardo Thotol, is just Pink-Floyd-laser-light-show level obvious. It’s amateur hour, the narrative equivalent of an after-school-special scared straight TV movie. Scooby Doo.
But it’s not so easily wrapped up. Enter the Void swaddles the viewer in astonishing technical and aesthetic feats. The electrically impactful title sequence is literally just the beginning. Inspired by Ernst Haeckel’s illustrations of microorganisms among other things, the hallucination sequences are a refreshing reinvention of psychedelic imagery appropriate for the technologically overstimulated drug-taker. Though there are surprisingly few lighting effects brought in (cinematographer Benoît Debie only augmented the natural neon intensity of Tokyo with a few strobe and colored disco lights), every shot has been touched with visual effects, combining aerial photography, CGI, and studio footage to create the woozy world of Oscar as he journeys from life, to death, to rebirth, mostly delivered in seamless first person point of view. With cameras gliding over the city, through walls, into minds, and out of time without ever losing a beat, Oscar’s experience mainlined straight into our perceptive field. In a particular stand-out sequence near the end of the film, Noé flies his camera through the neon-outlined streets of night-time Tokyo. It’s unclear where the camera switches between real aerial shots and shots of an impeccably constructed city model, submerging the viewer into the uncanny valley. This scene speaks to a larger rule of thumb – in Enter the Void, if it’s real, it seems fake – if it’s fake, then it’s almost too real. There’s a constant grasping for boundaries that dissolve as soon as you’ve touched them, but you’re never quite in the clear as obstacles crop up around every corner.
It’s the sound design that truly completes Noé’s vision, spreading chaos across the full range of perceptible frequencies. Noise pervades and is constantly something to negotiate; there’s always a multi-layered hum of music in the form of fuzzy clips of songs, undercurrents of sirens and alarms, overcurrents of electric frequencies, and sub-sonic bass rumblings, all in competition with one another. It makes for an alternately shifty, paranoid, and subsumingly deep experience, pushing the viewer along on the wave of the trip.
It is impossible to exaggerate the level of spectacular sensory articulation Noé achieves here. This precision is at first hard to reconcile with the lazy disregard for character and plot development. It’s not like Noé lacks the diligence or intelligence to work it out, so the question of motivation arises, and the answer is..?
Argument A: Enter the Void is making a statement about the self-involved nature of drug addiction. Oscar’s perambulations are so full of oblivion to the outside world. Alive, he’s either dropping out entirely in the squalid box of an apartment he shares with Linda or he bops through Tokyo stoned, pupils dilated so wide they can only just take in the rainbow of neon pulsing around him. Oscar’s existence in the present of the film is purely sensory, and his past, revealed in flashbacks is a curated series of undeniably tragic events that to help him justify being a useless dummy with a skin-crawling sexual obsession with his sister. This chemically induced world is so beautiful, but our portal into it is stupidly and unidentifiably boring. Noé’s pristine execution suggests that the psychedelic experience has value, but that this value is lost when the user is driven only by the promise of sensory overload and oblivion. As trip fades out and the come-down, Enter the Void becomes more obvious and tiresome as our relationship with the characters becomes increasingly unbearable. By the end of the film, we’ve been trapped in a room with boring, self-obsessed junkies for hours, and they just get stupider as the high wears off.
Argument B: Enter the Void is just a huge joke. A pastiche of cliches about psychedelic experience and technical prowess combining to make the “ultimate drug movie” by playing all of the cards at exactly the right time. There are the introductory iTunes visualization freak-outs, loosey goosey interpretations of a “mysterious” spiritual text, “exotic” setting, and grindhouse-y sexual overdrive. The serious moments of the film (i.e. when Oscar is shot dead in a bathroom) have an instant heart-stopping impact on arrival, but they’re quickly swept away into the current as his goofy ghost floats through a black-light poster. There’s no emotional weight or moral judgment at hand here, just an acknowledgment that people like to get stoned and watch movies with trippy shit going on. There’s not even any real reason to watch the whole thing, just stop when boredom or distraction sets in and don’t think too much about it.
Given Noé’s other work, the more pointed dystopia embodied in Argument A is probably closer to his intention. But this is immaterial. With Enter the Void, Noé has achieved a feat of sensory aesthetics so singular that it begs to be remembered. Unlike special-effects laden blockbusters, where the point of the CGI overload is to best imitate authenticity, Enter the Void uses the visual, atmospheric, and aural potential of the medium to break away from concrete realities and delve into the subconscious flow. It’s not often that a part can be judged as more important than the whole experience of a film, but there’s no getting around it here. The trip is all important.