Gaspar Noé must be a fan of “Little Fluffy Clouds.” The Orb’s ambient house classic is a hypnotizing mind-melt of beats borrowed and new, most notable for its batty incorporation of a Rickie Lee Jones interview into its liquid-like sonic brew. Throughout Noé’s latest provocation, the bold and punishing Enter the Void, Paz de la Huerta sounds freakishly like Jones, and when paired with Noé’s sharp-as-knives images, her hollow, inexpressive voice comes to resemble the moans of a ghost trying to find her way out of the echoing chambers of a ginormous machine. Ever-roving, pyrotechnic, and catatonically beatific, the film’s images may be trying to work out a spiritual thesis, but they function most successfully—and, ultimately, with great uselessness—as a Stanley Kubrick-loving druggie’s epic screensaver set to a middling DJ set.
It’s no insult to say that the 46-year-old Noé’s imagination is an inane one, because, since I Stand Alone, it hasn’t transcended clubland, where it bombastically and pruriently thrives. The filmmaker conceived of Enter the Void while tripping out to a screening of Robert Montgomery’s 1947 noir Lady in the Lake, in which the entirety of the story is told through the point of view of Montgomery’s Phillip Marlowe. Noé takes the earlier film’s stylistic gimmick and applies it to the frivolous story of an American, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), living and working as a drug dealer in neon-suffocated Tokyo. After smoking DMT, Oscar and his friend Alex (Cyril Roy) travel to a nearby club, The Void, where Oscar is shot and killed by police while trying to flush a stash of ecstasy down a stubborn urinal, after which he spends his immediate afterlife traveling over, under, and through the corridors of the psychical present and psychic past, reliving emotional traumas as he, um, tries to find a vessel for reincarnation.
Even though Enter the Void is stylistically wearying, and stupefyingly transparent as a disquisition, you can’t doubt that Noé is a dazzling synthesizer of image and sound. For nearly three hours, he uses the shape of things to convey the sensation of an out-of-body experience—a kaleidoscopic drug trip that warps into a feverish sojourn through limbo. The film coasts, flies, wafts, and soars through, under, and below the windows, walls, and doors of apartments, clubs, hotels, taxis, and memory itself, revealing the horrors that brought Oscar and his sister, Linda (de la Herta), who works as a stripper at a local club, to this moment in their lives. From past to present, theirs is a story of epic, cataclysmic separations, and Noé’s fabulous collision of pleasure and pain reveals that he understands how the addled, sometimes altered, mind processes thoughts (his most brilliant move: cutting dramatically, viciously between Oscar and Linda, as adults, riding a roller coaster and them, as children, surviving the horrifying car crash that killed their parents).
Even at its most vulgar, as when Oscar’s essence infiltrates the body of the man that fucks Linda, or Oscar watches as she aborts a child, Enter the Void makes sense as a requiem to a dream and an expression of unspoken desires. But had the film been told entirely from the point of view of Oscar dreaming, or tripping inside the cluttered, claustrophobic apartment he shares with his sister, or simply dying inside The Void’s bathroom stall, mulling over the alternately wonderful, horrible events of his life, it would have felt less hackneyed and presumptuous than what Noé ultimately gives us. In being told from a dead man’s point of view, Enter the Void almost insists on being understood as a spiritual odyssey, but Noé’s portrait of the soul in crisis is scarcely sincere.
In the end, Noé’s peppering his script with references to The Tibetan Book of the Dead feels less like a jumping-off point for a thoughtful consideration of reincarnation as either rebirth or learning experience and more like an excuse to rationalize the story’s plot-dumping—and indulge his obvious obsession with 2001: A Space Odyssey. At its most kinetic and mind-melting, Oscar’s trip accommodates very non-organic visions—rushing, rising, engorged-by-light, rivulet-like shapes that might appear only in space, or on a computer screen after it goes into sleep mode, and in the midst of this mess, HAL’s eye is evoked, and in a few physical spaces, like Linda’s abortion warzone, we recall 2001’s bedroom waiting room. But while Oscar’s story is a feverishly dopey soap opera that elegantly and obnoxiously spans time and space, the real and the fake, Noé, unlike Kubrick, isn’t in awe of the mysteries that await us in the afterlife. He arrogantly presumes to know what it’s already about—and so he treats it just like real life: a dancehall of flashing lights.