columnist, critic; USA (@suddenlyquiet)
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All right, now for a few opening/closing remarks regarding Enter the Void. 

"Opening" because the moment is now at hand when Gaspar Noë's newest gets its well-deserved theatrical release--and make no mistake, this is a film you'll want to be enveloped by in the darkest, most cavernous space you can find. After all, that's got to be the best way to experience its fireworks cascading over you, maybe inside you, in all their phantasmagorical glory.   

"Closing" because so much ink has already been spilled over Enter the Void, so galvanizing has it been for cineastes and fest-heads, that there's probably very little that's fresh that can be added to the conversation.    

If you're looking, then, for the standard-issue review that tells readers whether to catch any given title, well, let's get that out of the way right now: if you've found Noë's previous work worthwhile, or if you're interested in the places where narrative film pushes against its formal boundaries, or just feel the need to see any arthouse movie that's also branded as "trangsressive," then, yes, clear your schedule... and maybe allow for some time to clear your head, too, afterward. 

So certainly I'm glad that I saw Enter the Void, but I also can't help feeling somewhat disappointed as well. Had no problem with the "loser"-as-protagonist storyline, the outré sexual and psychosexual elements, or the lengthy running time that can make audiences feel like they've been on a eye-candy bender. And before I move on to the reasons for my disappointment, let's be clear about one thing: it's hard not to be impressed, and often quite thrilled, by what Noë has achieved here. From the too-fast-to-read title sequence and the ultra-long subjective takes broken only by eye-blinks, to the overall boldness of design, both visually and aurally, Enter the Void is like a high-season boardwalk full of cinematic pleasures. What's more, the story, an allegorical dramatization of The Tibetan Book of the Dead featuring characters who are low-lifes or are damaged/traumatized (or both), is inherently engaging--or at the very least "workable." When you're dealing with this much filmic embellishment and creativity, it's nice to have a narrative to hang it on that's both simple in construction and mythic in aspiration. 

But after the heady premise and the technical virtuosity become a kind of status quo or foundation for the viewing experience, maybe 60 or 90 minutes in, there's not much left, no real new territory for ETV to explore--which is a real shame given that it trades in the business of surprising, or at least jolting, its audience. Which is why it ultimately disappoints:  the would-be shocks become progressively less shocking and the aesthetic innovations start to wear thin once it becomes apparent that the thematic material is itself so threadbare. To put it blunty, if ETV really is a transgressive film, it's one of the nicest, most viewer-friendly ones I've seen in a long, long time.  

To be fair, Noë is not necessarily out to shock for its own sake, despite his reputation. He's an artist, not a schlockmeister (although, hey, a lot of my best friends are schlockmeisters, so no offense). I think instead that he sees himself as being brutally honest, as not shying away from putting a spotlight on the aspects of the human condition that commercial film usually relegates to an off-screen handling that's ostensibly done in the name of good taste. In other words, if there's an abortion in the story, show it, don't just recount it through dialogue or obliquely reference it by leading us up to the clinic's front door, then demurely dollying away and "leaving things to our imagination." Noë can't abide hypocrisy and empty moralism, and I think that's why he's so respected by so many fans of outlaw cinema. 

The problem with ETV, however, is that while the mode of presentation is, at worst, pretty entertaining, and, at best, courageous, well, what exactly are the mighty, disturbing truths that are being revealed? That is, what is Noë being honest so about? The careful and oh-so-convenient expository summary of The Tibetan Book of The Dead near the outset pretty much lays out the path the film will take--so though we may be intensely curious about how Noë will get us there, there's never any doubt about where we're going. And at the risk of being condescending, let me venture that although the Freudian ideas on display, and even the Lacanian ones (e.g., the movie screen as the expansive breast that feeds us), might come across as radical to those who aren't familiar with them (or not used to seeing them literalized)... they kinda struck me as being rather old hat. And I guess that really is shocking.    

I've read thoughtful reviews that have argued that Noë has, in essence, matured, that his earlier films made simplistic points whereas now he's dealing with a "bigger picture" on a wider canvas and with more realistic characters. Point taken... maybe. Yet his characters being more dimensional, grown-up, and real-worldish doesn't necessarily mean they're more compelling. In this sense, ETV represents an uneasy compromise since Noë ostensibly grounds his symbolic narrative in an actual, closely-observed milieu... but then eventually reduces the characters (especially the secondary ones) to types and ideas. The bottom line is they don't resonate as either archetypes or as actual people, but end up residing in a kind of neither-here-nor-there place in the audience's heart.  

Oddly, then, the films of the "immature" Noë might have been less ambitious, but also more satisfying. Whether one likes it o not, the power of Irreversible is in its single-mindedness. Similarly, I Stand Alone drills down into a disturbed psyche in an unforgettable way. Do these films present themes, settings, situations, and characters with which we can easily identify? Maybe, but mostly not. And that's precisely where their value lies in terms of transgressive cinema--the more closely we relate to story elements in an obvious, superficial, way, then where is the avenue by which we can step outside of ourselves? ETV simply wants us to like its characters too much (despite their grotesque aspects), and in the process loses some of its edge.


These are some of the reasons why the film's supposed outlandishness didn't impact me in the same way as, say, Taxidermia, to name but one trangressive classic that's released since Noë's previous efforts. The main virtue of a film such as Pálfi's is that while the visuals are stunning and audacious, like Noë's, they occur in the service of social/political/historical themes that make one think even as one recoils in disgust. That's not to say that ETV doesn't contain such lofty themes. They're there all right (e.g., the mixed blessing that is liberation from one's parents/the superego/society's laws), but one can't be blamed for missing them given the way that Noë so heavily foregrounds the painfully obvious psychoanalytic components (match cuts on mammaries, anyone?). So maybe it's just me, but I find the Oedipal content in Back to the Future far more daring--plus, of course, it has a sense of humor.

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rendermanSeptember 24, 2010 10:30 AM

I missed this at TIFF last year and I can see it just got a limited release. Is it gonna play in Toronto anywhere anytime soon?