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Enter the Void : review and interview with Gaspar Noé

By Matthieu Boisseau

My first reaction upon hearing that I was to attend the pre-junket screening of Gaspar Noé’s latest film, Enter the Void, was fear. I didn’t need to read the French reviews (“headache inducing” “unacceptably violent” “mind-numbingly long”, if you were wondering), to know that I was in for an interesting ride; I had seen his other films, I had gagged like the rest of the audience at the rape scene in Irreversible and suffered mild PTS after his short film Carné. I knew that this film ( a competitor in the main category at the 2009 Cannes Festival) would be no different, and, armed to the teeth, I was ready to face Noé's new cinematographic bomb.


Enter the Void is a psychedelic trip in which the spirit of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a deceased young, small-time drug-dealer, flies over the neon-lit city of Tokyo. From the afterlife, he still watches over his little sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), keeping his promise to never leave her. Memories, hallucinations, and scenes of daily life are the structure of a plot, in which visions of the past, present and future become entangled as our neurones get muddled. Spectators are in the frontline and are immersed in the gloomy and unhealthy side of the rugged capital of Japan. Sex, drugs, and parallel universes : welcome to Gaspar Noé's wonderful world.


In the style of Irreversible, Enter the Void is, above all, an example of Gaspar Noé's unique filming technique. Shot entirely through the eyes of the main character, we are successfully made lulled into a Oscar’s drug-induced stupor. Scenes constantly rest on violent binary oppositions, with drugs and sex fighting to be the driving force in all of life, while death simultaneously challenges it. The contrast between hollow dialogues and deafening sounds only helps to make the atmosphere all the more stressful.


But the thing that will fascinate you most – or, alternatively, permanently disgust you- is Gaspar Noé's unprecedented use of light. Despite the fact that Enter the Void's general atmosphere is intensely dark throughout the film (it is, after all, a film of death and drugs), Tokyo’s neon night-lights act as a violent contrast. The film, at times, is filled with such aggressive strobe lighting that a warning was even issued at the beginning of the film advising epileptics to avoid it.


As interesting as this is, however, doesn’t exactly make for a relaxing 2.30 hour experience, but then again, this is nothing new. This is what Gaspar Noé's films do: they stir-up controversy, divide the crowds by making them question the use of violence and explicit visuals. What is the point? Is it really necessary?


Admittedly, some of the scenes are unbearable: I would say I am pretty hard-core, but even I had to look away several times. I was actually speechless at watching Oscar and Linda’s parents’ car accident where the children see them being disfigured, and reduced to nervous school-boy giggles at the scene in which we are shown a penis directly ejaculating into a vagina- possible the most graphic and extreme thing I have seen. 

If you can pull yourself through these moments, however, there is also much to be reflected on. From the Oedipus complex to the attractive side of drugs’ parallel dimension, Gaspar Noé forces us to face our most repressed inhibitions and taboos. It turns out that we just can't resist the amount of aggressive images shown by this film: as much as I turned away, I inevitably came back for another dose.


So the question is, as much as he makes us stew in our own discomfort, is Noé not simply highlighting an essential and embarrassing human characteristic? From the shocking rise of “happy slapping” to the worryingly high number of hits Sadam Hussein’s execution received, it is quite clear that we are a culture fascinated by violence and gore. As Gaspar Noé said in the interview, the most shocking scenes in his film are drawn from life's daily events, so it seems the issue here is not so much that he is showing them to us, but that he is making us watch them for longer than we would normally like: these are not 2.5 min long Youtube clips, the control is out of our hands.


That said, as much as I can appreciate the message, Enter the Void is still a two and a half hours long film, which is a very long time to watch something quite so difficult. There is no break, no chance to catch your breath: the director, as previously mentioned, filmed it all from the protagonist’s point of view, which means that, even when the violence and the flashing lights stop, we are still subjected to the camera “blinking” every other second. In fact, at the end of the film, I was slowly loosing my mind and was about to suffer an epileptic fit. The main problem with this film, as with Noé’s others, is that, as much as he explores fascinating issues, they are all too often eclipsed by his cinematographic style. But, as Noé mentioned during our interview, some shocking films have gone on to reach mythical status: Kubrik's Clock Work Orange, Bertolucci's Last Tango... could it be that such a fate awaits Noé ? Will the next generation say that we misunderstood him ? 


In a nutshell: this is not a film to watch if you are after something pleasant and upbeat, but it does offer a revelatory vision of what torments and fascinates Gaspar Noé in equal measure: life and its dark side.


Interview with Gaspar Noé

How is Enter the Void in line with your other films, I Stand Alone and Irréversible ?

I think that Carne (one of his short films) and I Stand Alone are very different from Irréversible and Enter the Void. With regards to the first two films, the camera is fixed, whereas in the other ones it is permanently flying, moving, and floating. With this in mind, I would like say that Irréversible was released because Enter the Void could not be produced on time. It was a sort of training film for Enter the Void, in which I could test some settings and special effects. Actually, Enter the Void is the realisation of a childhood dream: I have always wanted to make a film about the final drug trip of a dying junky, whose spirit could leave his body.


In Enter the Void, a lot of psychedelic transitions begin by dipping your camera into material objects, for example a gas cooker. Why do you use them to explore abstract parallel dimensions ?

Oscar's dream as he's dying is structured in accordance with The Tibetan Book of the Dead's depiction of life after death.. How could I describe a parallel universe which would attract the main character toward a frightening and abstract world ? It was risky to depict a psychedelic DMT trip. I could have failed as most psychedelic films do. Finally, we intended to create a magical point of view, as described in one of Borges's novels, from which it could be possible to observe the whole world.


To what extent did your search for a neon-lighted atmosphere influence your choice of Tokyo ?

When I tried Ayahuasca in Peru, a drink containing some DMT, I had a sharp mind-expansion in which I saw neon tubes. And those of Tokyo perfectly correspond to this hallucinatory vision. I even wondered if I could direct Enter the Void only with these kinds of tubes and three-dimensional images. But that was too expensive and I was pressed for time.


You have directed some music videos. How do you use music and sound in your films and in Enter the Void particularly ?

In Enter the Void, the soundtrack represents that which you hear and feel on a come-down. All sounds are mixed and you cannot hear one better than the other. A sort of maelstrom of sound begins when Oscar collapses because of drugs.


Another part of your films’ attraction lies with the spectators' reactions to your works and the controversy that surrounds them: do you anticipate and provoke them ?

I'm not looking for a return on investment. I only care about the reactions of my family, my friends, and the directors I am a fan of. Most of the films I love have been Box-office fails because they were ahead of their time. I know what I want to do, no matter if I go overboard.

The most violent scenes give the impression that you want the spectator to look away, as if he had to understand that the images are stronger than him. How do you create a relationship with the audience ?

If I watched my film, I would not look away, because I love strobe and neon lights in night clubs. Moreover, when I freak out with recreational drugs or when I get drunk, I love entering a parallel universe. This is why I love films that shake up my mind. I did not think that I would enjoy Avatar, but I found it awesome! I even cried when they entered the luminescent forest. In fact, all of us want to discover new worlds, but it must be done safely.


How do your actors accept to play the most controversial scenes ? For example how did Monica Bellucci react to the rape in Irréversible ?

As a cinema enthusiast and an actress, that was a challenge for Monica to play a scene that would be even more violent than in Deliverance. I know a lot of people who have been victims of rape, but it has never been represented genuinely in films. Some gruesome things which happen in everyday life are often overlooked. It is easier to make a pornographic film, in which actors replace sportsmen! In my opinion, rapes are as frequent as murders, and although rapes are never represented, murders are screened in half of all films! Monica and her husband Vincent Cassel benefited from playing this film, and so did I by giving a more accurate depiction of rape, even if it is undoubtedly very extreme. In Enter the Void, the only violent scene is the car accident. Again, even if it is tragic, that is a part of life. My goal is not to shock people. However, despite the fact that everybody knows a film is a trick in which all is fake, I try to make spectators enter in a dream, as if it was real life. As a result, sometimes I give excessive messages, so that I can be sure that they are well received by the audience.


You say you only show facts from everyday life. In spite of that, do you have limits ?

There are legal limits not to override. My films always stay within the law. On top of which, there is some censorship from filmmakers and distributors, who are often reluctant to release such films.


Your films stir up a huge controversy, and a lot of criticisms. Do you take them into account for your upcoming films ?

Controversy sometimes makes your film popular ! Anyway, I don't worry about it. I don't care.


You have directed some short films in favour of the fight against AIDS. How are your films involved in the struggle ?

I don't fight AIDS more than any other burden. But, in my opinion, sex is a driving force in life - everybody needs sexual affection - and it's terrifying that it could be threatened by such a viral danger. As a consequence, I was proud to direct short films against AIDS. Sex is one of the few things that can make life and people better....


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