‘Enter the Void’

On film, Tokyo is having one helluva bad trip

If “Lost in Translation” is the film you’d make when all you know about Japan are the pampered press junkets at Shinjuku 5-star hotels, then “Enter the Void” is what you would make if you never got beyond the Roppongi pub-crawl. Full of strip clubs, drug deals and loveless love-hotel sex, the latest provocation from France’s enfant terrible Gaspar Noe follows the lives of several expats lost in Tokyo’s seedier side.

Where Sofia Coppola’s film was hit by charges that it perpetuated silly stereotypes of the Japanese (like the “lip my stockings” scene), one can say the exact opposite about Noe’s; “Enter The Void” reinforces all the worst stereotypes that the locals hold about “bad gaijin.”

Just take the film’s lead characters: Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is a near catatonic twenty-something drug dealer who slumps around Tokyo’s nightclubs, turning clueless young Japanese women onto MDMA and other vices. (Japanese girl: “I like alcohol.” Oscar: “If you like alcohol, you’ll like drugs. It’s the next step.”) Oscar is the type of guy who will top off his LSD tab with a hit of DMT — a drug Hunter S. Thompson once described as being “like acid, but like you’ve been shot out of a cannon” — and then wonder whether his dealer has “anything stronger.”

Enter the Void
Director Gaspar Noe
Run Time 143 minutes
Language English and Japanese

Oscar’s sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta, “The Limits of Control”) works as a stripper in a seedy Kabukicho establishment where owner Mario (Tanno Masato) bangs his dancers in the dressing room. Oscar’s best friends are Victor (Olly Alexander), a drug-gobbling teen who has “issues” because his mother was also stripper, and Alex (Cyril Roy), a psychedelic artist who even Linda describes as “a junkie.”

The film’s story involves Oscar getting himself shot dead by the Tokyo police — no mean feat — and then hovering around in the netherworld, fading in and out of past memories and the lives of his sister and friends in the wake of his death. It’s an absolutely bold premise for a film, and Noe executes the visual side with flair, his camera floating above the city, dropping down into cluttered apartments or strobing smoky dance floors.

Inspired by the “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” Noe’s film follows Oscar’s spirit as it’s torn between entering the light and moving beyond or remaining tied to this world, a ghost devoted to the sister he’d promised to never leave.

Yet the film fails to connect in any meaningful way because Noe is so focused on the psychedelic bardo visuals — and his usual shock tactics, which include closeups of an aborted fetus and a massive engorged phallus — that his characters seem like afterthoughts, and their tragedy never involves the viewer emotionally. (It’s a long way from Peter Jackson’s similarly themed “The Lovely Bones”.)

Part of the problem is the absolutely flat performance given by first-timer Brown, but it’s also due to Noe’s overuse of the dreaded back-of-head shot — the worst affectation of contemporary Euro-art cinema (see also Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” or the Dardennes Brothers’ “The Son”). Noe starts the film with the camera giving us Oscar’s first-person perspective, but by mid-film he’s shooting all the flashback scenes from a point about half a meter behind Oscar’s shaved dome. Aside from the fact that Noe is wasting about a third of his visual composition space with the side of the actor’s head that can’t show any expression, there’s no logic behind the move: Memories are registered by your eyes, and the back of your head would obviously not be a part of that picture. (Or maybe Oscar just has some really good drugs.)

Another problem is one of empathy: It’s pretty hard to sympathize with a guy who, while high as kite, agreed to deliver a large quantity of drugs to a person with a known grudge against him and gets himself shot by yelling at the police “Go away, I have a gun!” (Clearly a Darwin Award nominee.)

Noe is to be applauded for daring to make a film on such amorphous states of consciousness — drug highs and death, dissolving of the ego — and for diving into the shady, underground side of Tokyo’s nightlife. Visually, much of the film is stunning. There’s a tracking shot that seems to float down the pole as Linda writhes on her strip club stage below, and the art design by Marc Caro (“Delicatessen”) takes Tokyo’s love of neon gaudiness to a surreal extreme, fashioning a fluoro love hotel that would make even Kabukicho rabu-ho seem restrained.

Yet for someone clearly attracted to the edgy sex and drugs lifestyle, Noe has made one helluva bad trip of a film, seeing only the sordid excess, exploitation and misery that comes with that territory and none of the good times or pleasure. Noe always has been a miserabilist, and his films, however well composed, are massive misanthropic and nihilistic bummers. When Linda loses it near the end and screams, “I don’t want to be here with these evil f–king people!” you’ll be inclined to agree.