Watching Gaspar Noé's Irréversible at the cinema in February 2003 set a new benchmark in my mind for the capabilities of cinema to viscerally affect its audience with scenes of graphic intensity and, in retrospect, probably kickstarted my love of ultraviolent extremist cinema. But it's taken over seven years for Enter the Void - the latest film from the same director - to come along and hit me with the same level of affect.
The film opens, like Irréversible, with too-fast-to-be-readable credits projected over intense flashing lights and banging noises. The narrative begins. Oscar, psychonaut and small time dealer, says goodbye to his sister Linda, who is leaving to go to work as a pole-dancer. Already high on ecstasy and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Oscar smokes DMT, meets one of his fellow western ex-pat friends and goes to sell a parcel of pills to another whose trust he has recently betrayed. The friend returns the favour, setting him up to be arrested, but Oscar's panic and bluster results in his being shot dead by the cops. His spirit leaves his body and we follow it for the next two hours as it spirals over, through and inside the film's surviving characters, the sleazy neon Tokyo nightlife and his own memories.
Noé makes most directors look like children playing with toys they don't really understand. The visuals in this are extraordinary: trippy, beautiful, erotic, gut-wrenching. A lot has been made (in reviews I've caught up with since seeing the film) of the hallucinatory visuals - it's said to mimic being on drugs. I think some of that may come from the fact that at times it's bathed in too-bright light which pours from pores, cracks and orifices. We see everything through Oscar's drug-widened pupils, the aperture too wide for the conditions. Swooping shots over the neon-drenched Tokyo streets are noticeably motion-blurred. Accompanying this is a soundtrack as encompassing and affecting as that in Irréversible: the same repeated sirens and banging techno drums with occasional diegetic noises joining in (heartbeats, screaming). Every so often a few bars from Air on a G String float into the mix, Noé teasing the audience with some light relief - like a club DJ tantalising the crowd by repeatedly playing a few bars from a dancefloor favourite every few minutes before it's finally played in its entirety.
To my mind, the story of Enter the Void is pretty much beside the point. There's no dramatic tension and little resolution (in the conventional sense). Some reviewers note that it has something to say about death, dualism, spirituality, or reincarnation. Ben Austwick at Quiet Earth says it "it explores an unscientific, druggy spirituality that goes against present day intellectual atheist consensus", whereas Rick McGrath on the same site interprets the entire film as taking place in the mind of the protagonist in the few moments before his death. That's how I read it, too, though perhaps because I unconsciously discounted the former interpretation which sits uncomfortably with my worldview. Anyway, Rick and Ben (both chums of mine, in the interests of full disclosure) both give the movie very high scores: a 9 and a perfect 10, conclusions with which I wholeheartedly concur.
Enter the Void demands a cinema viewing. It's such an immmersive, quasi-spiritual experience. Entirely sucked into the film as I was, I couldn't believe it when someone in an adjacent row started playing with their mobile phone half an hour from the end. Fortunately I was able to move position so I could see the screen but not the light from their phone. But I felt like dragging them out of the cinema and having them excommunicated for blasphemy. And if the cinema is a church, Gaspar Noé is its visionary godhead and Enter the Void is the second coming. It's absolutely phenomenal.