As I begin writing this review, I'm sitting outside my hotel in Toronto. It's brisk outside, and I've got a few hours to work before I leave for the airport. I'm so tired I feel like I'm floating through my day. Disconnected, like nothing's real at this point. I made it to the end of my 9:00 AM screening this morning by sheer force of will. I haven't slept in 25 hours at this point, and won't until I am on the plane.
As I finish writing this review, I'm sitting in my office, at my desk, fully rested, full of breakfast, and I can hear my wife and my sons playing in the next room. I'm enjoying the air conditioner in the office, and I'm enjoying my familiar office chair, and I'm happy to be back on my desktop computer, which is always easier to deal with than my laptop. I'm going to enjoy this week at home before I have to leave again, and rest as much as possible before jumping into almost two weeks of non-stop work. All I wanted all week was to be back in my wife's arms, to wake up next to her, to kiss my kids as they sleep. That comfort was my first priority, and now my priority shifts to preparing to leave that comfort once again.
I am in both of those moments at once, and as I prepare to write eleven more reviews, I'm in each of those moments again as well, trying to conjure up the feeling of each screening, the details that are worth noting, the ideas I feel I must impart. The ache in my calves brings to mind the 20 miles I walked during the festival. I'm here, but I'm writing about there, and there is still going on. Like most modern people, I am unattached to any sort of conventional sense of time, and that's just the way it works these days.
This dreamy disconnected approach to time is just one of the things Gaspar Noe addresses in his ravishing, remarkable new film "Enter The Void," and I'll be blunt: if you ask me what my favorite thing I saw at the festival was, and what would be the first thing I added to my shelves on BluRay would be given my choice, I'd answer "Enter The Void."
Beyond that, I'd add that "Enter The Void" is as great a pure cinema experience as "2001."
Take that, Cannes Festival audiences.
[more after the jump]
Gaspar Noe's much-debated latest movie is, make no mistake, a significant technical and artistic accomplishment. It's not particularly deep, though, at first glance, and there is an earnestness to it that is almost embarrassing. He's not trying to make a film that is buried in meaning. Instead, it's almost too direct. There is a lot of wallowing in the decadent, and he could make the same points without being so non-stop explicit.
Despite that, the way Noe does what he's doing this time out, and the way he explodes the actual language of film is pretty dazzling. I've been impressed by his work so far. "I Stand Alone" is oppressive and raw and terrifying, and "Irreversible" may well be the greatest movie I never want to see again, brilliant but nearly unwatchable by design. When his third film premiered at Cannes this summer, it picked up the same sort of bad buzz as Von Trier's "Anti-Christ," and I was quite taken with that one, as I wrote. I figured thre was a chance, then, that there was more to this film than I was hearing, and now that I've seen it, I'm puzzled by the reaction of much of the press.
When did ambition become a bad thing?
When did we decide our filmmakers are no longer allowed to reach?
I've read the reviews of the film that are out there, and not one of them even tries to examine the "why" of the film. All they review are the surfaces, and that seems to me to be no sort of criticism at all. Simply rejecting the form is not criticism. Simply calling the film unwatchable is not criticism. I spoke to one critic who didn't like the movie the other night, and she was at least articulate about why, but she also admitted that on a technical level, she couldn't fault Noe's use of cinema language... she just didn't care for what it was he had to say. Fair enough. But I'm deeply impressed by the way he lays out his intentions with almost laughable clarity at the start of the film, then delivers in a way I can't even fully describe.
Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is a low-level drug dealer living in Tokyo with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), who works as a stripper. The two of them were orphaned in a car accident as children, then split up by the foster care system, so they're just recently reuinited. Oscar's been heavily dealing in hallucinogens, and using them as well, and the film opens with a DMT trip as he sits at home alone, where he's working on reading Bardo Thodal, known to Westerners as The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, which was recommended by his friend Alex (Cyril Roy).
Everything you need to decode the movie is contained in the paragraph above. How deeply you choose to decode the film is, obviously, up to you as a viewer, but if you're going to call the film shallow or empty or if you're going to claim it simply wallows in images or that it makes no sense, all things I read about it this morning from other reviewers, you need to be able to back that up, and I don't think you can. Everything about the movie is incredibly controlled. I'd say 99% of the film is shot from either just behind Oscar's head, so that you're looking at things like they're inside a video game with Oscar as the character you're playing, or as POV from Oscar himself. The way Noe co-opts the language of video gaming, stealing back the notion of the avatar in a cultural sense, is more than just a tweak of "The Lady In The Lake," the POV detective film from 1947, a film Noe says was one of the inspirations for ths one. In that film, the POV really did feel like a gimmick, and it also led to some real dramatic issues because there's only so much the character could realistically observe within the context of that story. Here, though, Noe uses the POV to turn this into an experience, and not just a story. I think part of the flat, almost affectless performance by Brown is that he is our personage in the movie. The term "avatar" wasn't created by Nintendo or Second Life, and its meanings resonate through spiritual cultures worldwide. The idea that Noe manages to bridge the latest use of the word with the oldest through a simple visual decision he makes is heady stuff, but it's just one of the tricks he utilizes in the film, one more way his surface and his subtext are one.
I've read criticism of the dialogue, just as I've read dismissal of the performances. I think Noe is aiming for a very casual realism here, though, and I think most of the dialogue sounds like the way people really talk, as opposed to being polished or poetic or "movie-like" in any way. Same thing with the performances... no one has any big moments or any speeches, and they don't feel like performers... they're just people. These aren't negatives if that's the way Noe intended for them to be, and there's no indicator that anything in this film is accidental in any way.
About twenty minutes into the film, Oscar is at a club called The Void, delivering some drugs to a regular customer of his named Victor (Olly Alexander). As they're talking, police bust in, and Oscar runs for the bathroom. He tries to flush all his drugs, yelling anything he can to keep the police out. When he warns them, "I've got a gun! I'll shoot!", their response is swift and final. Shots are fired through the door, and Oscar drops to the dirty floor of the bathroom, dead.
The remainder of the movie takes us through the stages of the afterlife that are suggested by the Bardo Thodal, in the most literal possible sense. If you aren't familiar with what the book lays out as the afterlife, Noe makes a cursory explanation of it early on, but it's fairly self-explanatory as you watch. First, there's a passage through light, followed by a review of one's life. This is where we learn about the accident that orphaned both Oscar and Linda as kids, and we see them being separated. We see everything that led to Linda rejoining Oscar in Tokyo, and we see how their initial joy at being together again gave way to a sort of emotional malaise. These two are both so broken, so rattled by their childhood tragedy, that neither one of them is any good at self-soothing or at being an adult. Reuniting doesn't help them... it only amplifies the pain, and they both start pushing further into vice looking for some solace. Linda takes up with Mario (Masato Tanno), a club owner who is the one who puts her to work onstage as a dancer. We also see what led Victor to betray Oscar in the first place, and we see the build-up to the fateful moment in the club where Victor set him up to be arrested as revenge for having sex with Victor's mother.
From the past, we move to the present, as Oscar visits the people in his life, watching the ripple effect that his death has on all of them. This is the longest segment of the film, and it contains some harrowing ideas and imagery, including one of the most graphic depictions of abortion I've ever seen outside of Tony Kaye's "Lake Of Fire." It's obvious that Oscar, as small as he felt himself to be, was the center of gravity for this particular cast of characters, and his death sends them all spinning dangerously out of orbit.
It's only after taking an unflinching look at the damage he did to the people around him that Oscar is ready to move forward, and the final act of the film is the most visually audacious, especially as Noe plunges us into the Love Hotel, a bizarre set in which every character in the film is seen coupling in all manner of combinations. This isn't literal in any way, though, but is simply Oscar's wish for all of them to find connection, find peace, find joy. And once he's made that wish and released all of the negative feelings and guilt, Oscar is granted the final step of his journey, a rebirth, a chance to start again.
Noe has obviously done his fair share of reading on subjects like consciousness, the connections between hallucinogenic trips and afterlife experience, the chemistry of the brain, soothing mechanisms as they relate to our experience in infancy, and more. There are more ideas hiding just beneath the surface of this film than in the entire typical summer slate of most studios. Is it an easy film to sit through? No. As always, Noe is drawn to the darker side of things, but I also believe that he wants to work from that darkness towards the light. I think he wants to live in a beautiful world, and his films are about purging all of this darkness, working through it, seeing if there is anything on the other side. Pain and sorrow are part of life, he seems to say, but so are beauty and joy, and negotiating the path from one to the other is the job of each and every person. Some of us are better equipped for this than others, but we all stumble towards grace in our own ways.
I genuinely feel that I am more articulate about my own journey for having shared Noe's thoughts on the subject with him. And for the first time ever, I look forward to revisiting one of his films. As much as I've enjoyed his previous work, it's not the sort of thing you can just put in and watch anytime. Here, the rewards are so great that I'm willing to put up with the hardships that are attached.
On a technical level, "Enter The Void" is pretty much without equal so far in 2009. The use of CGI, models, and live-action is so sophisticated, so seamless, that the entire film feels like one long push through an endless loop of images, all of perfectly equal dream-like weight. What is "real" and what is "fake" in "Enter The Void" is so liquid, so up-for-grabs, that it's one of the first times I can honestly say that a film about an internal experience feels to me like it's 100% successful at evoking that at times. It's creepy how much Noe puts you into Oscar's place, into his perception. I've obviously been part of the discussion about how "Avatar" might play out, but let's set that aside until December. For now, if you want to see the bleeding-edge state of the art of how you can use the tools, Gaspar Noe's "Enter The Void" is it. And for it to be used on a film like this... well, color me thrilled. It's important that someone make a film as resolutely uncommercial ast this and done it with the most sophisticated toolbox available right now. Buf, the primary FX house on the film, is actually a co-producer. Makes sense, because it shows that they can do pretty much anything right now. Hats off.
To close, keep in mind...
"Enter The Void" has no U.S. distributor right now.
"Love Happens" opens on 2000-plus screens on Friday.
I'm getting a late start on Friday, but I'll have more Toronto reviews all weekend long, including "The Road," "Youth In Revolt," and new films from Jeunet, Amenabar, as well as my early pick for performance of the year. In? You'll know by Monday.
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