The opening credits of David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) were a revelation. The camera, the size of a dendrite, begins in the brain of our main character, the unreliable narrator played by Edward Norton. It pulls back through the frontal lobe, seemingly capable of going anywhere as it hastily makes its way through the skull casing, out a sweat gland, up a hair follicle, down his nose and up the barrel of a gun. Camera focuses in on Norton’s face, we see the gun in his mouth. Less than two minutes into the film, set to the dynamic score by the Dust Brothers, (relatively) mainstream audiences had just been introduced to a host of exciting new possibilities.
It didn’t stop with the opening credits. The camera in Fight Club goes everywhere, be it through the empty soda cans and used napkins of an office trash bin to the top floor of a high rise building and down to the basement floor garage in one swift take. This new visual grammar, one that took the advent of computer-generated imagery and used it to explore space in a way that was simply impossible up to that point, has inspired and continues to inspire other filmmakers to this day.
Hell, Fincher even made an entire movie basically about this very technology: in many ways, Panic Room, his 2002 follow-up to Fight Club, is purely a technical exercise. The film is mostly set in one location, a beautiful Manhattan apartment, and the exploratory CGI camera is used effectively to lay out the geography of the space, able to go through everything from walls to floors and even through keyholes. But in the end, the film seemed to value style over substance—quite the opposite of Fight Club.
The disappointing Matrix sequels used this technique to achieve a video game aesthetic. Peter Jackson successfully combined this new techie wizardry with old school miniature model techniques in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. You may remember in each Rings film a character falling, jumping, or being thrown off from a high tower as the camera followed them to their demise (Jackson went back to this again, nonsensically, in his awful Lovely Bones adaptation). South Korean auteurs Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and Kim Ji-woon played with the technology; Kim in this year’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and Park with his segment of Three Extremes. In the excellent Children of Men, the camera was really there, but digital techniques were used to stitch together certain scenes to give the effect of an unnaturally long take, which made for some of the most memorable, gritty action scenes of the decade. Even Steven Spielberg got in on the fun, employing the use of a CGI camera to shoot a long take in a moving minivan in War of the Worlds.
All of these films (and others not mentioned here) made possible the artistry and sheer technical genius of Enter the Void, opening today at St. Anthony Main Theatre for a weeklong run.
As far as big screen cinematic experiences go, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more exciting trip down the rabbit hole than Enter the Void. Minnesota Film Arts has labeled this mini-series (the companion film, Dogtooth, will open next Friday), a two-week special engagement, “The Provocateurs of Cinema,” and for good reason. Void is the third feature from French filmmaker Gaspar Noé, whose previous film, 2002’s Irreversible, starring Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci, is infamous for a 10-minute-long rape scene and a graphic scene of violence involving a man’s head and a fire extinguisher. It doesn’t end well for the guy in that scene.
But often lost in the conversation about Irreversible is the film’s power and brilliance, both technically and in its backwards-unfolding narrative. The story is told in reverse, a la Memento, which makes the shocks all the more effective and tragic when we see what’s at stake. It’s a difficult film, not one you’d call fun, but it’s a great piece of art nonetheless, and pushes the boundaries of cinema in exciting ways. Noé is known for long takes and an ever-floating camera. The camera in Irreversible is not bound by the normal rules of cinematography, or physics. Sometimes it spins around inexplicably, keeping the viewer confused as to what they’re seeing. As in Fight Club and Panic Room, the camera is not hindered by walls and floors—it can go through those spaces if need be. In many ways, Fight Club could be seen as a practice run for Enter the Void.
Remember that episode of The Simpsons where the family goes to Japan? They watch TV in their hotel, and are hilariously induced to seizures from the rapid rate of colorful images thrown onscreen. You may suffer a similar reaction to the opening credits for Enter the Void, which sear the eyeballs with the rapidity of text blinking on screen, colored in blacklight hues. Most in the audience will probably know if they’re going to like this film or not before the credits end.
From there we are immediately thrown in to the story and the film’s technical conceit. The camera is, literally, the main character, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), an American in Tokyo who’s turned to drug dealing as his means of income (“people with jobs are slaves,” he says at one point). Inspired by the 1947 noir Lady in the Lake, which employed a first-person point-of-view, the camera even blinks when Oscar blinks (also similar to what Spike Jonze did in Being John Malkovich). It’s subjective filmmaking at its purest. When Oscar takes a hit of DMT early on, we are privy to his hallucinations, and as far as drug scenes in the movies go, this one pretty much tops them all. It’s a dance of light and color not unlike the wormhole sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Oscar wakes up from his trip and goes on a drug deal, but not before some expositional chat with his buddy Alex about the Tibetan Book of the Dead, in a bit of too-on-the-nose foreshadowing. The deal goes bad, Oscar is shot and killed, which we experience first hand with the character, and his soul leaves his body. The camera now acts as his spirit, hovering around Tokyo, re-living his past and searching for the next plane of existence and reincarnation. It’s to Noé’s credit as a filmmaker that we immediately know what’s happening, because everything’s been set up prior to this scene, even if the movie is a bit clunky in the presentation of information.
What follows is the ultimate trip through the afterlife. Oscar re-lives important memories, which explain the near-incestuous relationship with his sister, Linda, played by Paz de la Huerta (Boardwalk Empire), among other things. As visually daring and inventive as the film is, it’s structured with a classical three-act storyline, and the plot and characters rely heavily on melodrama. What makes the film of interest is the way the story is told, actually in many ways similar to this summer’s Inception. Both films have the power to excite filmgoers, using special effects in a way to thrill and, most importantly, show us something new.
Stanley Kubrick has always been a strong influence on Gaspar Noé. It was obvious in Irreversible, where a poster of the Star Child hung on the wall of the main characters’ apartment. Enter the Void employees a Kubrickian style of acting, which many will find stilted and uninspired, but in context feels appropriate and adds to the film’s dreamy/nightmarish/trippy qualities. This is the director’s own version of 2001, where the experience and cinematic innovation is of utmost importance.
It would be wrong and unfair not to devote some space to director of photography Benoît Debie, who’s at the top of his game with Enter the Void. Debie collaborated with Noé on Irreversible as well as Belgian horror filmmaker Fabrice Du Welz’s two features, The Ordeal and Vinyan. I will hold off describing too much of the inventive camerawork in Void, for it’s the discovery of these firsthand that will provide the audience with the best experience possible. But I guarantee, you will ask, possibly many times, how did they do that? In Debie’s hands, Tokyo is a lifesize pinball machine come to life, all flashing neon lights awash in a drugged-out metropolis. The visuals often recall the aesthetics of current video games, specifically first-person shooters or games like God of War or Metal Gear Solid, where the camera is a slave to the character, following right behind wherever they may go.
Void takes what Fight Club, and the many other aforementioned films, popularized and in many ways pioneered, and achieves the next level of what’s possible to put on screen. It’s certainly not for everyone—Noé still likes to shock and provoke, as evidenced by the many seemingly real sex scenes and a couple gruesome sequences involving a car crash and an abortion—but I highly recommend Enter the Void to anyone interested in cinema and looking to see something new, which should be valued more than it is these days. If David Fincher proved that the camera could go anywhere, well, Gaspar Noé indeed takes the camera everywhere, and shows cinema’s now limitless possibilities.