While mainstream, mind-bending blockbusters such as "Inception" light Hollywood's fire, French art-house bad boy Gaspar Noé throws down his own gauntlet with the spectacular head trip "Enter the Void."
The Argentina-born Noé last divided filmgoers with the assaultive and gimmicky "Irréversible," notorious for a one-shot rape scene that lasted eight minutes. Where that movie's pummeling sensibility felt cheap, though, this one works you over in order to stretch you out. Probing the fuzzy, synaptic turbulence of drug culture and life-after-death — "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" is referenced early on, while Stanley Kubrick and Kenneth Anger get visual shout-outs — "Enter the Void" displays a dizzying virtuosity with the cinema of altered states.
Using three distinct point-of-view visual styles and a riot of color, effects and sound, Noé orchestrates the final mortal and metaphysical passage of an American dope dealer named Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), who lives in a seedy district of Tokyo. For the first half-hour, we see what Oscar sees (including the occasional image flicker to represent blinking eyes): the day-glo cityscape outside his dark, messy apartment; his sister (Paz de la Huerta) leaving for her degrading stripper job; and, most notably, the pulsating, phosphorescent shapes from a powerful hallucinogen Oscar takes.
When he is fatally shot in a nightclub restroom during a police raid, the camera becomes an out-of-body agent, hovering over the action before segueing into a tour of Oscar's life played like a slide show of tragedy, longing, corruption and drug-fueled descent. As we veer from idyllic beginnings to the decadent present, Noé keeps the camera behind his protagonist like a bodyguard, Oscar's silhouette a head-and-shoulders cipher in a maelstrom of incident.
In many ways, "Enter the Void" is classic movie psychedelia, updated to tamp down glib grooviness and ramp up modern neuroses. Noé's brain-searing technique rattles and sedates in equal measure, operating like an unreliable hypnotist. In the film's woozy final third, our perspective becomes Oscar's peripatetic bird's-eye view of his death's aftermath, soaring over Tokyo's rooftops, poking into scenes of grief, loneliness, fury, loss (including, unflinchingly, an abortion) and, in a splashy neon tower of carnality, graphic coupling (complete with puerilely witty smoke effects). It is at this point that "Enter the Void" achieves a kind of perversely inquisitive grace, with Noé's camera suggesting nothing less than a lost soul looking for a way to land or a portal through which to find deliverance. (And when his "you are there" ethos takes us anatomically inside an act of coitus, one could argue, "Why not?")
Suffice to say, unrelenting material like this isn't for everybody. That it is a gloriously filmic gesture — by turns jaw-dropping, elusive, silly, obnoxious, painful and beautiful — is celebration enough. But what sustains its restless brilliance is the feeling that Noé's well-established fearlessness is finally in the service of his formidable artistry rather than a childish urge to superficially disturb.