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Dustin Putman

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Enter the Void  (2010)
4 Stars
Directed by Gaspar Noé.
Cast: Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta, Cyril Roy, Olly Alexander, Masato Tanno, Ed Spear, Emily Alyn Lind, Jesse Kuhn, Nobu Imai, Sakiko Fukuhara, Janice Beliveau-Sicotte, Sara Stockbridge, Stuart Miller.
2010 – 139 minutes
Not Rated (equivalent of NC-17 for graphic sexual content and violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 1, 2010.
The word, "masterpiece," is bandied around with a certain frivolousness when it comes to modern film criticism. There are plenty of great pictures, but how many truly deserve their place in the upper echelons of cinema history? "Enter the Void" indisputably earns this distinguished label, reinventing a whole new filmic language with a structure, style and subject matter that are thoroughly and without question unique. Remarkably innovative in form, unshakably haunting in tone, and nothing less than transcendentally devastating—and, ultimately, soothing—in plot and intention, writer-director Gaspar Noé's much-anticipated follow-up to 2003's rule-breaking, highly controversial "Irreversible" is an experience to be treasured, feared and never forgotten. So many movies these days rely on conventions and clichés to tell their stories that it's worth celebrating when one of them defiantly breaks free from the pack and carves out fresh, untrammeled territory. Done almost flawlessly, to boot, and the results are downright miraculous.

Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is an American living in Tokyo with his younger sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), a stripper at a club fittingly named Sex Money Power. In lieu of getting an honest job, he has begun selling drugs—a choice that confidante Alex (Cyril Roy) warns could get him in a lot of trouble one day. As Linda heads out to work for the night, she passingly calls Oscar a junkie. In his mind, he is adamant that he is not even as he starts to trip out after smoking hallucinogenics. Heading to seedy nearby bar The Void for one of his drug deals, he discovers too late that he has been set up by ex-pal Victor (Olly Alexander). Locking himself in the restroom, Oscar is shot dead. His life might be over, cut tragically short by a series of very bad decisions and circumstances, but his journey into the afterlife is only beginning.

Told solely from the point-of-view of Oscar, the film begins in the young man's skin, the camera seeing what he sees right down to his drug-fueled hallucinations and the blinking of his eyelids. A half-hour later, just as startling and unpredictable as death itself, Oscar is killed. Taking over the perspective of the camera lens, his disembodied spirit rises over his physical corpse and proceeds on a nonlinear, montage-like journey through the memories and snapshots of the troubled life he has led. While freely floating over Tokyo, Oscar's visions soon begin to blend with his eavesdropping on the people he knows and the ripple effect his premature death has had on them. Eventually, he will learn his ultimate fate—not only of his body, but also his soul.

"Enter the Void" is exquisitely crafted by director Gaspar Noé, never low on visual splendor, thematic resonance and emotional catharses. As much of a character as Oscar and Linda—indeed, it takes on the very otherworldly viewpoint of the lead character—is the stunning cinematography by Benoit Debie (2007's "Joshua"), painting Oscar's sight with equal parts kaleidoscopic wonder and nightmarish dread. Tokyo, meanwhile, is portrayed as a neon wonderland of beauty and hedonism, broken dreams and wanton desire. As the ghostly Oscar peers down upon the people he has left behind, he bears witness to beloved sister Linda's discovery that her soul mate and last surviving family member is dead and can do nothing but watch how she unravels in the weeks and months after. He also observes Alex, Victor, Victor's mom Suzy (Sara Stockbridge), and Linda's club boss Mario (Masato Tanno). From cityscape to personal homes and apartments to stripping joints to hotels to even an airplane passing overhead, Oscar has no choice but to see it all and go everywhere as he waits for his calling, a course of the afterlife described in detail within "The Tibetan Book of the Dead."

The heart of the story belongs to the close sibling relationship between Oscar and Linda. Viewed in flashes, Oscar's life happens before his eyes (these scenes are shot from over Oscar's shoulder during all stages of his development, from toddler to adult), helping to inform the person the viewer has already seen he becomes. Their tranquil childhood ripped apart by the deaths of their parents in an awful auto accident, Oscar and Linda survived the ordeal from the backseat but found their ensuing years marked by the trauma and consequences. Forced to live in separate foster homes, they make a promise to reunite and always be there for each other. By the time Oscar is now grown up and able to pay for Linda's airfare to Tokyo, he has already begun down a misbegotten road that tears their plans apart. The joy and heartache of all that life has to offer is mesmerizingly captured by director Gaspar Noé, key moments within Oscar's existence creating a breathtaking tapestry of the fleeting odyssey we as living creatures all must go on. A thrilling scene where brother and sister celebrate being together again and ride a roller-coaster through the nighttime skies of their glittering surroundings is juxtaposed with harsh moments—the car crash; the moment Linda was torn away from Oscar to live with an adoptive family; a young Linda asking her grandmother, now dead, what will happen when she dies—that blisteringly comment on how temporary everything is.

Newcomer Nathaniel Brown is rarely seen but often heard as unknowing tour guide Oscar, his thoughts verbalized alongside his speech during his living moments before being overtaken by the bleak silence of the afterlife. Fearless and uninhibited, Paz de la Huerta (2008's "Choke") turns Linda into a vivid, sad-eyed figure whose attempts at happiness are constantly being met by disappointments. The depression she finds herself in by the end, grieving for a loved one she will never see again while trapped in a foreign place, is shatteringly depicted by de la Huerta. Also worthy of ample praise is the superb work of Emily Alyn Lind (2008's "The Secret Life of Bees") as the child version of Linda, pushing herself to the exhaustive limit in difficult scenes where she is faced with the lifeless, bloodied bodies of her parents who just seconds before had no idea their lives were about to come to an abrupt end.

It takes a mighty ambitious film to explore topics as dauntingly colossal as the mysteries of the world and the possibilities of what happens after we die, but "Enter the Void" bravely goes there. Avoiding religion and focusing on the universality of the process of life, the picture horrifies and calms all at once with the personal knowledge that no one knows what happens on the other side until it is our time to go. Director Gaspar Noé does not shed a light on his own beliefs, but offers one version of what could happen. Bathed in drugs, sex and violence, "Enter the Void" avoids sugarcoating the carnality and excesses of humanity—Oscar is no saint, making mistake after mistake as he wanders into a fatal situation—while at the same time making it very clear of the goodness on earth and the complexities within people. In the hectic lives we all lead, we sometimes don't have time to stop and realize what we have until it's gone. Oscar finds this out the hard way, yet also learns by the resplendent last scene that there may be room for a second chance. "Enter the Void" is a big, gorgeous, sprawling, heartbreaking stroke of genius, a motion picture as seminal as it is sublime. You can rest assured that you haven't seen anything like it before.
© 2010 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman