"A collective dream that deserved to be portrayed..." In his latest feature, the transgressive French filmmaker posits that death is the ultimate drug trip.
“I view myself as transgressive compared to some other filmmakers, sure,” says Gaspar Noé, seated in a chair in the art gallery off of the lobby in Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. “But compared to other directors from the past—Buñuel, Pasolini, Fassbinder—no. I'm just one among many.” Noé’s speech is very quick, animated, like a movie playing at double-speed. The cadence of his delivery sounds more like a 12-year-old with ADHD than an internationally recognized French auteur. “You want to surprise yourself,” he says. “You want to play games you've never played before.”
Bunuel, Pasolini and Fassbinder are not exactly lightweights in the cinematic canon, and while Noé may not be winning awards for modesty anytime soon, he has good reason to feel confident. Enter The Void, his latest feature, is a formalist achievement that stands head and shoulders above most contemporary cinema. Like last year’s formalist masterpiece, Steve McQueen's Hunger, Enter The Void is a film that advances the cinematic language by conceiving of its form not as a support system for advancing a story, but as something which itself is the story.
Susan Sontag once wrote, of the cinema’s greatest formalist achievement, “What matters in Last Year at Marienbad is the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and its rigorous if narrow solutions to certain problems of cinematic form.” The same could be said of Enter The Void, which owes no small debt to Alain Resnais, both for Marienbad and his little-seen Je T’aime, Je T’aime, which displays a cutting-through-random-moments-in-time structure that is invoked for much of Enter The Void. (It was also blatantly ripped off in a film you may have heard of: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.) Void’s formally rigorous structure—which includes 30 straight minutes (in real time) from the point of view of one character’s eyes (and which includes drug-induced hallucinations); sequences from the same character’s point of view, floating from one location to another (always shot in the same fashion); and an enormous number of sequences which cut through that character’s memories (always shot from behind his head, in exactly the same fashion), seemingly at random—is a triumph of conceptual filmmaking that exploits the innate abilities of the cinematic medium.
One such capability is cinema’s unparalleled strength at evoking the sensation of memory. Noé has used the tools of composition and cutting to create a series of memories that, due to all being shot in the same fashion, become quite resonant. “The fact that his memories are seen from the back of his neck—that makes it feel like a memory to me,” Noe explained. “When I think of memories, I don't see them from my point of view, I see them as if I was a half-meter behind myself. I guess that comes to a kind of mental language that is not only mine but of most people. So that helps, to create the feeling you are watching a memory.”
However, Enter The Void—which follows Oscar, a drug-dealer in Tokyo (Nathaniel Brown) whose ghost watches over his stripper sister (Paz de la Huerta) after he dies, while also flashing back through his life—is not merely content to present us with a random stream of Oscar’s memories. As in Marienbad, certain moments from the past return to the screen again and again, replayed from different angles, at different speeds, with different sounds and perhaps even occurring slightly differently; cinema, the film is saying, is a mechanism by which the malleability of memory can be complexly evoked. “Traumatic moments have a bigger imprint in your mind because adrenaline fixes memory more than serotonin, joyful moments,” explained Noé. “Joyful moments leave you with a sort of feeling, but traumatic moments leave strong images. Some people complain, ‘Why do you show the car crash so many times?’ Well, it's the trauma of his life. If you're traumatized by something, you cannot get rid of that image.”
Interviewing Gaspar Noé is an amusing experience. Filmmakers, when interviewed, tend to fall into two camps: they typically either answer your question and then “go off,” riffing on what the question calls to mind and expanding for a few minutes, providing a more detailed answer than you even hoped for—or they are guarded, slightly taciturn; they’ll answer your question, but if the question only requires a one-sentence answer, that’s all they’re going to give. Noé falls into neither of these categories. He will talk readily, happily, and expand his answers, but those answers usually just brush the question ever so slightly—he’s in his own world. Take this exchange, for example:
Tribeca Film: Your film left me feeling physically violated, like I’d been on a bad drug trip, at certain moments. What is it about affecting the audience, physically, that you enjoy so much?
Gaspar Noé: Point-of-view shots, if they’re done properly, can make you identify with the main character. It's good to have the audience involved in the story because it's all fake; you have actors pretending to do scenes on a flat screen. How do you convince people that it's worth playing the game, believing what's on the screen? I had read an article on a website called Senses of Cinema saying that my movies are like roller coasters. I thought, yes, they're not entertaining movies, they're not serious dramas, they're somewhere in between. They're like a roller coaster for a serious audience. I've done some mushrooms, I've done some hallucinogenics. Not much because I always played it safe. When we got into pre-production on the film I absolutely stopped everything. But it's true that when you have to explain to the people at the visual effects company how it is, you have many ideas when you're stoned that disappear. And what ends up onscreen is like ten percent of what you originally had. But I tried to get as close as possible to those altered states of consciousness. If I could keep working on the movie, I would add many layers to the sound and visuals to make it even trippier. I was thinking of 2001, of Altered States, but mostly Un Chien Andalou or Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, movies that really put you in some other world. Films that make you feel like you're dreaming the movie. If I had one regret on this film, it's that there's too much dialogue. It kills the dream state.
At times, Noé sounds like that really articulate 14-year-old stoner whom you totally want to be friends with once high school starts, because not only does he have the best weed, but he also is going to provide you with the most entertaining stoned monologues you’ve ever heard. When asked about a sequence toward the end of the film featuring many different sex scenes in the same hotel, Noé explained, “I followed the structure of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It says at the end that if you did not dissolve into the different lights that are proposed to your soul after your death, after a while, the only way out is to reincarnate, and when you decide to reincarnate, you are attracted by images of couples having sex, and the yellow light coming from their beds while they are having sex, so that's why there's many different rooms with people having sex, it's the ghost trying to find somevwhere. But at the end the soul reincarnates in its most natural desire, so your soul goes where it wants to go.”
Whatever adjective you want to consider the idea that Noé structured the film on the Tibetan Book of the Dead—fanciful, outlandish, wildly ambitious—one cannot deny that onscreen, his gamble pays off. Enter The Void is a film that swings for the fences at every turn, never compromising its internal logic. The way the camerawork and editing follows a specific set of rules and order; the complete lack of trying to explain itself; the stubborn manner in which it pushes its own boundaries in the final act; it’s no surprise that Enter The Void is garnering comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rightfully so. Like that film, Enter The Void charts its own course through consciousness, using cinema in a fashion that is unique to its filmmaker, and mind-expanding to its audience.
I asked Noé if he would have gone even further with the film, if he could make it a second time—if he would have provided even less narrative, as he had remarked that he felt like the film has “too much dialogue.”
“The problem with reducing the narrative [is] I would have had more trouble getting the financing for the film,” he explained. “At a point, it was sold like Trainspotting, or a new Mulholland Drive, Jacob's Ladder... which are very narrative movies. If I could make it trippier and even more shaky, even more mental—but then I would have had more problems with the guys who were putting the money up.”
He paused. “You're not reinventing cinema. You're trying to have fun with the language. Godard had a lot of fun with the language. I came up with the idea—the first draft of this script was written maybe almost 20 years ago. And the idea came from taking drugs, watching all those films, but also reading this book about life after death, which I didn't really believe in, but which I felt was a collective dream that deserved to be portrayed on the screen.”