Gaspar Noé, the most formally challenging director working today, made his name previously less for the way in which he constructed his films than what those films ultimately depicted. His infamous Irréversible featured graphic rape and violence presented in such a way that audiences either called him a daring moralist or pond scum that made pornographers look presentable. With Enter the Void, he not only makes his previous cinematic experimentation look tame but ensures the focus remains on the film itself.
There are a few ideas in the film. Its characters, all located in Tokyo, are lonely and disconnected, engaging in drug use and promiscuous sex to feel something. The protagonist, an American named Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), lives in Tokyo and deals psychedelics to raise the money to reunite with his lost sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), whom he has not seen since they were split apart in foster care 20 years ago.
As flashbacks show throughout the film, Freudian tension abounds between the two and even existed between the child Oscar and his mother, who died in a car accident along with the kid's dad. The lustful thoughts Oscar feels for his sister are never kept at bay for long, and there are even moments shown where she teases him sexually.
But these themes seem to exist simply to give the narrative an excuse for existing. What drives the film is pure invention. For the first half-hour, Noé shoots in the most convincing first-person perspective I've ever seen. The camera even "blinks" regularly, speeding up when Oscar is nervous. After his sister leaves to go to her stripping job, Oscar and his friend Alex head out to sell drugs to a kid named Victor. When Oscar arrives, police jump out of nowhere to bust him. Oscar runs into the bathroom and flushes his stuff, but before he can leave, police shoot him through the door and he dies.
Well, not the most supportive anti-drug ad in the world, but that's that then, is it? Not quite. As the breath leaves Oscar's body, so too does his soul, and the camera begins to spiral upward until it can look down on its former vessel. Looking downward is where the camera remains for the rest of the time spent in the present. As it scans over the various club rooms and apartments to track the characters we've already met, colors become more distinct. They buzz even, like neon freed from tubes to swarm around buildings.
In death, everything weighing on Oscar's mind is freed to run riot. Often, he hovers over his sister engaging in sex, and the camera even enters the point of view of the men who screw her, thrusting over Oscar's sister in belated fulfillment. Flashbacks reveal why young Victor set his dealer up, and a constant blur between present and flashback compounds Oscar's sexual compunctions to the nth degree.
This is a masterpiece of editing, art design (under the supervision of director/cartoonist Marc Caro), cinematography and direction. The multitude of crane shots, disguised cuts and digital touch-ups are too numerous to count, and once you slip into the rhythm of the film, you stop wondering when the "substance" will kick in. Quite obviously, the film's animation owes to the Star Gate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Noé's favorite film, and if Kubrick's magnum opus was the ultimate trip, then Noé's film is a sign of how much drugs have advanced. Now, you don't even have to leave the solar system.
Noé credits the abundant use of overhead tracking shots in Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes as a profound influence on the film, and De Palma's pet theme of perception weighs heavily on Noé's tripped-out vision. In death, Oscar goes back over his life, and pieces of the puzzle fall together even if we never get a good reason to care. The switching between the siblings from their present and younger ages, the splicing Oscar's mom into flashbacks of him seducing older women, and all the other tricks take the facile Freudian evaluation and present it in a novel way. Even the fully animated segments carry a sexual weight, with seemingly random fragments and tendrils coalescing into imagery such as sperm and egg.
Some might consider it a meditation on death by way of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (referenced at several times in the film), but Enter the Void does not ultimately try to be anything other than an acid dream. In the process, it gives us a contentious director's boldest statement yet and spares us the more graphic side of his creative effrontery. Arguments over the film's length are valid, and even I checked my watch more than once, but I wouldn't hesitate to see it again. I might bring some aspirin with me, though.