One of the must-see films of the season opened over the weekend, and for those of you not living in major cities, Gaspar Noé’s “Enter the Void” is fortunately also available in your home, via IFC’s video-on-demand service. Although I recommend viewing it on the big screen if at all possible, I mostly just hope you’ll see it. You might hate it, but you just won’t know and you won’t be able to discuss why without seeing it. Noé’s first feature since 2002’s “Irreversible,” “Enter the Void” is a psychedelic odyssey inspired by drugs, Stanley Kubrick, “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” and “The Champ,” among other things, and since its Cannes premiere more than a year ago, it’s had a reputation for being “hard to watch.” If only it had a t-shirt-friendly catch phrase, it could now be this year’s “Antichrist.”
But while most parts of “Enter the Void” are a challenge to your senses, every second of the film is also a bounty for them. Imagine one of Richard Linklater’s animated films turned live-action or a Charlie Kaufman-scripted porno. Imagine a truer dream movie than “Inception.” Also, if you’re at all familiar with Robert Montgomery’s “Lady in the Lake,” it’s like that first-person-POV noir on acid. Which is sort of how “Enter the Void” was conceived, only Noé was on mushrooms instead of LSD when he got the idea while watching the gimmicky 1947 classic. And more than any of the other “hard to watch” bits (the strobe-lit credits, the car crash, the extremely intimate hardcore sex sequence that really confirms why Noé should have shot this film in 3-D), it’s the camera-as-character perspective that was most trying on my eyes.
This POV concept was silly and distracting enough 63 years ago, but Noé has added a level of annoyance: blinking. In theory, the flicker of the shots signifying the character’s eye movement is appropriate, but in practice the experience of watching the blinking is frustrating. It clashes with our own blinking. Besides, our own eye movement is not as noticeable and so we should only be slightly aware of the character’s. If Noé really wanted to represent blinking, I think it should have been more subliminal. Also a strain is the blurring of shots to represent the character’s blurred vision. We saw enough of that in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” yet I grew more impatient with the technique here.
Perhaps there is just too much employment of the perspective here (I also must point out that I watched the extended version). It’s typically fine in small amounts in films like “Being John Malkovich,” but even at a time when first-person shooter games have been around for decades, and we’re plenty familiar if not totally accustomed to the concept. It certainly helps that the protagonist of “Enter the Void” is a sort of spirit. There are few fourth-wall-breaking interactions with other characters, the most awkward parts of first-person perspective, and there’s not a whole lot of plot. We’re basically just floating around watching scenes unfold before the character’s eyes.
Also, at some parts the perspective is changed slightly so we’re viewing everything from directly behind the character, Gus Van Sant-style. Just as I prefer this type of back-to-the-camera third-person perspective to first-person POV in video games, I also prefer it in film. “Enter the Void” isn’t meant to be easy on the eyes or brain, though. Despite it superficially seeming to involve a very passive and casual flow of spectacle, not unlike most effects-heavy blockbusters, it’s constantly putting your senses and your brain to work with changes in style and tone and playing a lot with chronology and memory. I did grow bored during some of the psychedelic sex show that occurs late in the film, but otherwise I was more attentive and involved with the film than anything else I’ve seen in a long time.
As with most things in life, it’s the hard stuff we appreciate best.