REVIEW: Enter the Void

Film review by Jonathan Ciliberto
for Buddhist Art News, March 2011

Director Gaspar Noé’s 2010 release, Enter the Void, portrays the bardo — the intermediary state between death and re-birth which is described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol). This portrayal follows the death of the film’s protagonist, Oscar, a Canadian living in Japan.

No capsule review can effectively present the contents of the film, which is less about telling a story, and more about describing mental states. The film proceeds through three successive viewpoints: Oscar’s, shown on screen from his eyes, complete with eyeblinks; Oscar’s life prior to that (shown from the same in-head view and from a vantage point just behind his head), and finally a fully disembodied view, as Oscar’s spirit drifts between past, present, and future.

Oscar dies early in the film, shot in the back by Tokyo police in a bathroom stall while trying to flush his drug stash. Prior to this a friend (Alex) has loaned him a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In a movie without much compassion, Alex (and Oscar’s sister, Linda) strive to guide him away from bad choices, and one cannot help but hear Alex’s urging to read the Bardo Thodol as echoing the urgent pleas of Shakyamuni, that time is short and there is no time but the present to begin preparing for death.

In addition to the disorientations of multiple viewpoints and non-linear time, Oscar’s use of DMT and other hallucinengenic drugs are visualized on screen, from his viewpoint. Portrayals of drugged states through complex visuals, flashing lights, etc. tend to be a bit tiresome in films. In this case, the director attempts to draw clear parallels between the drugged state and the passage between lives, e.g., the feeling of a loss of willpower and control, fear combined with exhilerated freedom, the breakdown of the ‘reality’ of the physical world.

The film’s attention to the detail of consciousness is subtle. In the first section, when the action is shown through the eyes of Oscar, one notices how sound is  conveyed: rather than a steadily volumed stream, it rises and falls as in the real world in response to changes in environment. So, as Oscar walks along behind  Alex, the latter’s voice becomes clearer or more muffled as he turns his head, forward and backward — the common effect of walking along behind someone who is talking. It is a small detail, but one notices that this careful approach to sound and music, making the entire film a presentation of Oscar’s empirical frame is thorough.

Upon the death of the protagonist, the film’s plot turns aimless, and this is surely intentional, meant to describe an aspect of the bardo in which the soul casts about for its next incarnation, pulled by past desires and memories. Oscar, having made a promise to his sister after the violent death of their parents in a car crash, is drawn to follow her as she struggles to live on in Tokyo.

As another reviewer has noted, “adherence to the Bardo Thodol creates what may be the film’s two greatest flaws: length and repetitiveness.” Upon Oscar’s death the film protrays each of three states described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

O nobly-born, thou wilt experience three Bardos: the Bardo of the moment of death, the Bardo [during the experiencing] of Reality, and the Bardo while seeking rebirth.” (Bardo Thodol)

Some aspects of this phase of the movie will tire viewers who do not view it in terms of Tibetan Buddhism, since there is a great deal of repetition. Further, this is a long movie (150 minutes in the version I saw). For the most part, the length is justified by exposition of the three states of the bardo. However, other features seem merely gratuitous — e.g., as a disembodied spirit, Oscar floats from place to place in Tokyo. Thus, rather than employing traditional cuts from one locale to another, during the phase the film repeatedly shows Oscar’s view of one location (his sister on the telephone), then shows this viewpoint as it moves across the Tokyo cityscape, over buildings, through walls, until reaching the next locale — the friend of his sister on the other end of the phone. This visual conveyance across the urban landscape, intended to show the spirit’s unfettered, drifting aspect, became tiresome after five instances, and mind-numbing after the tenth or twentieth.

A Reuters review titled “virtually unwatchable” makes the same point: “This happens at least 20 or 30 times in the film, to the point that viewers will begin to long for the simple directness of a good old-fashioned cut.”

While not a technical or philosophical exposition of the bardo state, the film is very effective in expressing the sense of confusion, being tugged by unresolved karma, held by bodily things while lacking a body.

Not short on sex prior to Oscar’s death, the film lingers in a Love Hotel as his spirit flits from room to room, hovering over various slickly pornographic scenes of sexual activity, intended to illustrate the Bardo which: “features karmically impelled hallucinations which eventually result in rebirth. (Typically imagery of men and women passionately entwined.)” (Wikipedia)

The film is an immersive experience, owing to the exploration of internal states (living and dead), and while I felt disappointment at the conclusion, and occasional frustration with some seemingly gimmicky techniques, when I exited the theater, and found myself after passing through from a windowless building out onto an urban street, stunned to recognize the roaming mind of the protagonist, in a city with flashing lights, the sounds of traffic reflected off of concrete and reduced to a susurrus. All of it resounded with the experience of the spirit floating in bardo state, aimless yet pulled by previous aims. Despite its flaws and overlarge approach, I recommend the film.

Additional links and reviews: the fantastic opening credits IMDB IFC Films New York Times Review ReverseShot.com

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