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Enter the Void (2009)

Youth is Wasted on the Wasted

You should understand this about me:  I'm a square.  I've been drunk exactly twice, and the closest I ever came to getting high was eating a sixteenth of a pot brownie four years ago.  This may explain my fascination with movies about drugs.

Stoner comedies never did much for me.  Better put, I don't appreciate the ease with which some filmmakers seem to make movies aimed at the stoner demographic.  Films like Paul and the first half of Knocked Up rely heavily on showing people (or aliens) getting high as a substitute for actual humor or insight.  It's the comedy of recognition instead of the comedy of comedy.

But give me a solid acid-trip or hard-core-drug-abuse movie and I'm all yours.  Two of my favorite, most uplifting movies are Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream (in 2000, I left the Evanston Century theatre with a huge smile on my face after having experienced Darren Aronofsky's first and last great film).  I don't revel in real-life misery, but the experience of an artist capturing the soul-mutilating, bleak freedom of entropy gives me greater joy than watching the most uplifting Pixar film.  Perhaps it's because 85% of all movies are easy garbage (even the great ones, to an extent), that I'm drawn to the rush of seeing Scottish junkies and New Jersey street hustlers pimp out their friends for smack.  You may call basking in the dregs of humanity a sickness, but I call it a deep-sea dive into the superficial--a treasure hunt for something real.

Which brings me to Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void, a drug movie that makes both Trainspotting and Requiem look like Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  At nearly two-and-a-half hours, it's a seriously dark test of patience and nerves that I absolutely love.  With this movie, Noe makes a laughing-stock of all those unimaginative Americans who believe Christopher Nolan is the rightful heir to Stanley Kubrick's legacy because he directed a mediocre Batman sequel and a summer blockbuster that was about as challenging as the maze on a box of Dots.  Enter the Void is 2001: A Space Odyssey for a generation whose final frontier is the mind, and whose vessel of choice is a charred glass pipe.

The film is shot completely from the perspective of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a young low-level American drug dealer living in Tokyo.  We open on he and his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) looking up at the night sky from Oscar's balcony.  They chit-chat for a few minutes. Then Linda leaves to go dance at a local strip club, and Oscar settles into a chair and fires up a pipe of the mind-altering drug DMT.  He leaves his body and ascends into a beautiful world that I can best describe as an organic kaleidoscope of exploding stars.  In the middle of his trip, he gets a phone call from Victor (Olly Alexander), his partner in small-time narcotics. Victor needs Oscar to meet him at a club called The Void with a sizable stash.

Oscar's friend Alex (Cyril Roy) walks with him to the club.  On the way, Alex explains the finer points of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which posits that when a person dies, their spirit re-lives the most significant parts of its life before being re-incarnated.  Oscar doesn't take much stock in this theory--or any theory for that matter, because he's blitzed out of his skull.

It's important to note that when Gaspar Noe does first-person perspective, he fully commits to it--sometimes detracting from his audience's enjoyment of the film.  We are in Oscar's head and can hear his muffled, boozy half-thoughts.  Noe's camera shutters every few seconds as Oscar blinks; sometimes imperceptibly, but often with such obviousness that we become self-conscious of our own eye movements.  The first twenty minutes of Enter the Void are literally hard to watch--and this is before the nasty stuff gets under way.

Alex waits outside the club while Oscar goes in to find his friend.  Before Oscar can sit down, Victor yells, "I'm sorry", and a team of Japanese cops bursts onto the floor.  Oscar runs to the men's room and locks himself in a stall.  His attempts to flush his pills down the toilet fail, so he resorts to yelling that he has a gun.  The commotion outside goes quiet for a moment.  Then Oscar's chest explodes, and he falls to the filthy floor dead.

Oscar's mind once again leaves is body, this time as an omniscient, hovering set of unblinking eyes. From here, the movie becomes a sort of Junkie Christmas Carol, as he floats from one reality to the next; sometimes dropping in on Victor's troubled home life; sometimes visiting and re-visiting the horrific childhood car accident that killed his parents and forced he and Linda to grow up in separate foster homes; consistent on his journey, though, are the lovely, bizarre portals of transition where his mind becomes one with sink drains and stove burners.  It sounds corny, but by giving the same weight to wallpaper texture as to a consciousness-transfer whereby Oscar briefly inhabits the mind of Linda's boss as he fucks her in the back room of his club, Noe drives home his point about the arbitrary significance we assign everything in our universe:  There's just as much electricity and life happening in a light bulb as in coitus.

Oscar's death trip unravels his life story.  We learn more about he and Linda, and even Alex, to an extent.  There's no great message about childhood trauma being an excuse for a depraved adult lifestyle; in fact, Enter the Void is free of judgment.  Death silences Oscar's inner monologue.  He has no thoughts or thoughts about his thoughts.  He is a spectator in a jumbled cosmic slide show of his life, and it's entirely up to us to comment on the tragedy of what happened to him and his family; to judge the wisdom of some crucial decisions; and, ultimately, to find the sweet origins of a life gone completely wrong.

Enter the Void is an expression of man's full potential, from greatest love to lowest hatred.  And Noe wraps this Valentine to the spirit in a big, crazy, red ribbon of tenderness, shocking violence, heartbreak and transcendent joy.  You probably won't believe me when I say that a film that showcases a clinical, squirm-enducing abortion ends with an uplifting, life-affirming message of hope, but it's true. And I wouldn't be surprised is Noe unleashed this movie as a dare to his audience to tough it out.

I should mention that as cinematic dares go, things don't get much prettier than Enter the Void. Benoit Debie's camerawork will keep you guessing from frame one, and the CG effects Noe's team uses are (sneaking out on a limb here) the best I've ever seen.  There's a terrific Fincher-esque quality to the movie where the POV snakes along glowing buildings and through light fixtures, up into the sky and into the cabin of an airplane with the fluid, seamless motion of a documentary.  The frequent trips to the aforementioned kaleidoscope realities are so convincing that my logical brain knew the effects were probably accomplished on a Mac, but my heart wanted to believe that Noe had discovered other worlds under a super-microscope that he edited into his crazy movie.

Not everyone will see Enter the Void, but everyone should.  It's a great discussion piece.  It's also a revolution in filmmaking and proof that mainstream American directors lack the imagination and conviction of their European counterparts.  And if you're a big ol' chicken like me, it's also the safest way to get high.  Best yet, the euphoria lasts for days.

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