Bright Lights, Big City: notes upon Entering the Void

Bright Lights, Big City

Notes upon Entering the Void
By Hugh Lilly

nziff ’10: Enter the Void
Dir. Gaspar Noé | France/Germany/Italy | 2009 | 156 mins.

Gaspar Noé’s new film is an audacious, visually extravagant phantasmagoria; a unique cinematic experience. Its French title, Soudain le vide—which can be translated as “the sudden vacuum”—loses some of its romanticism but gains a certain ferocity in the transition to English, where it becomes Enter the Void.

The story takes place in nocturnal Tokyo where an American ex-pat named Oscar is trying to save for a plane ticket so that his sister, Linda, can come and live with him. As kids, they were very close and had made a blood pact never to leave one another, but they subsequently became separated and went through adolescence apart. They reunite at the point where the film begins, when Oscar is 20 years old and Linda a few years younger. He lies about, stoned most of the time, and deals drugs when he feels like making a bit of cash. She, not having the energy to find a ‘real’ job, starts working in a strip club and begins a relationship with her boss.

Paz de la Huerta (The Limits of Control) plays Linda, and Oscar is portrayed—to the small extent to which the film requires any sort of acting—by Nathaniel Brown, a non-actor. Noé chose Brown apparently because of his resemblance to de la Huerta: even though Oscar’s face is barely seen, Noé wanted the two to look like they might actually be brother and sister. The film begins—after an amazing opening-and-closing title sequence* which introduces stroboscopic effects that Noé will use throughout the film—with Oscar smoking dmt, a naturally-occurring psychotropic hallucinogen.

After a brief sojourn into his headspace—illustrated through fractal patterns and other computer-generated imagery—he wakes up and gets a phone call from a guy named Victor who wants to buy some e. Oscar’s friend Alex—played by Cyril Roy, another non-actor Noé found in Tokyo—comes over and they talk for a bit, mostly about the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which Alex has recently lent Oscar. From the outset the film’s greatest achievement is displayed up front: we see everything from Oscar’s perspective as the camera literally takes on his point of view, complete with a few blacked-out frames every so often to simulate blinking. We see his (‘our’?) face only twice during the entire film, when it’s reflected in a mirror.

Oscar goes to a club called The Void to give the e to Victor and is fatally shot when the drug deal is stung by the police. The rest of the film plays out from Oscar’s omniscient afterlife perspective of the aftermath of his death. The camera no longer clings to his real-world point of view but instead wafts over the city like an apparition, dropping in on characters and situations at whim. There are occasional flashbacks to Oscar and Linda’s childhood, where the aforementioned blood pact—and the attached idea that they’ll never part, not even in death—is revealed along with a hint as to the reason for their separation. The theme of reincarnation discussed in the Tibetan Book of the Dead—about which Alex babbles almost uncontrollably en route to the club at the start of the film—takes on ever-increasing dimensions in the narrative as the film progresses.

From a bird’s-eye view that swoops down into buildings and occasionally enters other characters’ heads and, with a fish-eye lens, exits rooms through light bulbs, we see what happens to his sister and her boss at the strip club; what happens to Alex; what happens with Victor, the guy Oscar was dealing drugs to; and the outcomes for a couple of other side characters, including a particularly amoral drug-dealer and possible pederast named Bruno. One of the film’s only drawbacks is that it lingers a little too long on certain characters and sub-plots, and the repeated transition shots between buildings—particularly crossing over the strip club every single time we drift to another character or place—become a little tiresome after a while. The hastily-compiled cut that played at Cannes last year was reportedly shorter than the current 156-minute director’s cut; interestingly, the film—which was shot in English—screened here in the festival with entertainingly colloquial French subtitles. Whether it will be trimmed for (non-festival) US & international distribution remains to be seen, but there are certainly a number of points at which the narrative could happily end without disrupting the film overall.

While Enter the Void is certainly shocking at times, it’s far less assaultive (and therefore less contemptuous?) of its audience than Irréversible, Noé’s deliberately unsettling 2003 tour de force that became infamous for a nine-minute rape scene. (That film can and should actually be read as anti-rape; critics who think Noé is condoning violence against women are likely the same people who would brand Lars von Trier misogynist.) Where Irréversible was incredibly difficult to watch, Enter the Void is for the most part a hallucinatory delight: Tokyo is presented as a day-glo city of lights, a city that never sleeps—not even when it’s strung-out and exhausted.

Noé began work on the film more than 15 years ago, and used Irréversible as a “test-bed” for the kind of camerawork he wanted to employ. He was assured by watching Robert Montgomery’s 1947 film noir The Lady in the Lake—which is shot entirely from the perspective of its protagonist—on tv one night, that he could make a film with anti-classical camerawork and not have it seem goofy or gimmicky. This belief was cemented when he saw the first-person-perspective opening sequence of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 sci-fi film Strange Days, a camera position to which that director frequently defaults at the start of her films; such camerawork features prominently at the start of The Hurt Locker, for example, where the audience is effectively mounted atop a bomb-defusing robot. Julian Schnabel’s excellent 2007 film The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, which tells of a man who suffers from locked-in syndrome following a stroke, occasionally takes on his perspective. Perhaps the only prominent literary equivalent to this point-of-view camerawork—a piece of writing in which the author uses the second-person voice throughout—is Jay McInerney’s 1984 début novel, Bright Lights, Big City.

The screenplay was co-written with Noé’s wife and long-time collaborator Lucile Hadzihalilovic, who edited Noé’s 1991 film Carne (“meat” or “swine”; also a pejorative used against women) and its sequel, Seul contre tous—“I Stand Alone”. (Both films are far more monstrously bloody than the majority of Enter the Void; in fact, Void stands as one of Noé’s least grotesque films to date, though it makes up for its bloodlust with a variety of other bodily fluids and plenty of sex scenes.) Hadzihalilovic’s own film, 2004’s Innocence, is based on a novella by the German playwright Frank Wedekind, who wrote Die Büsche der Pandora, the play which formed the basis for G. W. Pabst’s famous 1929 film of the same name. Innocence is an absorbing tale of an unconventional girls-only French boarding school, and Hadzihalilovic’s rendering of the story—perhaps in anticipation of Noé’s film—makes it seem as if we’re infiltrating the characters’ world against their wishes, seeing thing we aren’t meant to see, almost from the perspective of a ghost.

Noé was also influenced by the work of experimental filmmakers Peter Tscherassky and Kenneth Anger—particularly Anger’s 1966 film The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome—and by the ‘star-gate’ portions of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He told his visual effects supervisor Pierre Bouffin—who, with his company buf, has worked on effects for a number of films including Avatar, Speed Racer, Fight Club, The Matrix and, most recently, Vincenzo Natali’s mad-scientist flick Splice—that he wanted the Tokyo of the film to resemble Tron, the landmark 1982 Disney film which introduced large-scale roto-scoping to a mixture of live-action footage and computer animation to create a neon-glow universe not dissimilar to the Tokyo of Enter the Void.

As well as computer animation, Noé incorporates model-work and tilt-shift photography, particularly when Oscar’s visions blur the lines between the reality he knew and the nightmarish maelström that threatens to envelop him. In this respect, Noé achieved everything he set out to do: the film is a visual marvel, and what it lacks complex narrative or nuanced characterisation is made up for in abundance by assortment of various kinds of eye-candy. The entire effects budget was only about €13m; compared to Avatar’s US$237m-plus budget, Noé was able to push cinema to far greater heights with a lot less money. Whereas James Cameron tried to make his blue space monkeys jump out at you, Enter the Void invites you into the screen; it’s one of the most visceral films ever made.

Thomas Bangalter, better known as half of the French House-music robot duo Daft Punk, created the soundscape, continuing his collaboration with Noé which began with his designing a nausea-inducing 28Hz frequency that played throughout the first 30 minutes of Irréversible. (No such technique is used in Enter the Void, although there’s the near-constant thump of a subwoofer pumping out house music—as if heard through a concrete wall outside a club—and some of the camerawork is similar to what was used in Irréversible.) Aside from the frenetic opening titles—which are accompanied by a track called “Freak” by the British techno d.j. Mark Bell, a.k.a. LFO—many of the musical selections in the film are heard only in passing and at an almost ambient level, the effects of which are twofold.

One, the impact of certain unexpected (temporal) cuts and deliberately shocking moments is heightened, and two, the repeated use of two classical pieces—a deliberately listless interpretation of Bach’s “Air on the G String” arranged for glass bottles, and an instrumental version, on glockenspiel, of the lullaby “Rock-a-bye Baby”—don’t seem out of place in the film’s aural landscape. In fact, the relatively quiet atmosphere—along with some of the best sound design and mixing ever—actually serves to heighten the oneiric state Noé aims for. Both “Air” and the lullaby are ubiquitous in other films: the former was used on the soundtracks of Yellow Submarine and, memorably, in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, as well as being reincarnated by the British band Procol Harum as “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and the lullaby is one of those nursery-rhyme tunes that you hear literally everywhere. Despite their almost profligate use and consumption elsewhere, the pieces work here partly because they’re repeated and become background music, and because they sound so dream-like, especially “Air” with its dulcet glass-bottle tones.

The film’s life-and-death/reincarnation motif comes full-circle at the end of the film through what friends and I labelled ‘gash-cam’: a cum-shot as seen from inside Paz de la Huerta’s (cgi’d) vagina. When it comes out later in the year in the States, the film will almost certainly be critically divisive. It will be probably be labelled perverse, disgusting and repugnant by conservative critics. The late Peter Brunette took a disliking to it in his Cannes dispatch, calling the film “virtually unwatchable” due to its “obsessive emphasis on sex and drugs,” and commenting that the non-traditional editing and repeated transition scenes that traverse the city will make some viewers “long for the simple directness of a good old-fashioned cut.” Brunette must’ve forgotten to also label those viewers “old-fashioned”—while those scenes are repeated too often in the film’s current edit, it’s not the filmmaking that’s annoying, but rather the frequency of the scenes’ recurrence. The majority of critics will, however, probably applaud Enter the Void as the masterpiece it so obviously is.

Noé has called the film a “psychedelic melodrama,” but it’s really more than that: it introduces a new way of telling stories on film. Enter the Void is an hallucinatory extravaganza which showcases a new type of cinematic world, a one-of-a-kind awe-inspiring blend of the cinematic and the metaphysical.

After playing Cannes in 2009, Enter the Void opened in France on May 5 this year, where it received the equivalent of our R16 rating. The film premières in New York and Los Angeles on September 24; it has yet to clear local censorship or be given a New Zealand release date.

*The full end titles are presented at the head of the film in the same manner as many films made before the 1960s. This allows the film to close with two simple (strobing) cards: “The” and “Void.” You can see the extraordinary opening title sequence on YouTube, and there are a number of trailers and teasers that are worth checking out at enterthevoid-lefilm.com

nb: As Rebecca Barry wrote in the New Zealand Herald, the film truly is an “assault on the senses” which, brilliantly, “[transforms] viewers into participants.” The film is extremely graphic at certain points and contains a number of scenes that are designed to be temporarily disorienting. It continually incorporates stroboscopic effects (flashing lights) throughout its two-and-a-half-hour run time. If you have a medical condition such as epilepsy it would be advisable to avoid the film entirely as it may have you on the floor with your head in your hands, convulsing.

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