“I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear … I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state.” — Roger Ebert
Inaccessible as mortality itself and as jolting as a bullet to the back, Gaspar Noé’s “Enter the Void,” which made its Cannes debut ten years ago this month, is a science fiction movie, but it isn’t worried about what exists outside our world. It isn’t concerned with aliens or spaceships. It’s about what we’re all obsessed with—pretending to live, refusing to die, and latching onto any ersatz empathy just for the sake of hope. It isn’t an optimistic film in its depiction of the afterlife, but that’s entirely the point—and that’s what makes it sort of beautiful.
Writer/director Gaspar Noé has been a staple of the New French Extremity movement since the turn of the millennium. His debut feature, “I Stand Alone” (1998), was a cauldron of rage centered on a man so seething the audience had to strain to see his humanity. “Irreversible” (2002) existed in the same narrative universe but was thematically adjacent more than anything else. They were neck-deep in social nihilism, drowning in the worst of human nature. But while they were each an hour-and-a-half of vitriol, “Enter the Void” acts as the answer to that: a nearly three-hour dissociation of living, dying, and repeating, all from an atheistic view.
Noé has regularly disagreed with the concept of a higher power and life after death. This isn’t too surprising given how antitheist his films are, and while “Enter the Void” is much more spiritual than his other films, it’s also much more accepting of death. That may sound depressing in theory, but Noé is so comfortable in his beliefs that there’s little room for depression. Here, death is not sad. It’s nothing to fear, or hate, or cry about. It simply is.
“Death is an extraordinary experience,” Noé told the Irish Times. “I believe that. No one can really tell you what it is like because once you’ve experienced death, you are done. But it only happens just once in your life. By its nature it is extraordinary. If you are suffering or in pain, death is the best thing that can happen. I’m annoyed by a culture in which death is always considered something bad.”
“Enter the Void” revels in death right away by treating it like a breath of fresh air in a world hogtied by plastic. First, the film dives into its opening credits, an assault of flashing words and staccato techno music. It’s hypnotic, sure, but it also feels like a game of chicken between the viewer and a case of epilepsy. Just as we adjust to the anarchy, it dies. Cut to black.
Now we’re in a first-person point of view. We are Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), an American drug dealer and addict living in Tokyo. We talk with our sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) on a balcony overlooking a world of neon and, after she leaves, smoke some DMT. Then a phone call interrupts the trip: it’s Victor (Olly Alexander), an acquaintance asking for some more drugs. But he can’t pick them up, so we need to bring them to him.
We oblige just as there’s a knock on the door—is it the police? No, it’s just Alex (Cyril Roy), a friend who’s lent us his copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. We head over to Victor and discuss the afterlife and reincarnation, and despite being in one of the most populous cities in the world, it never feels like we’re in more than a bubble. We’re itching to pop out of it.
We part ways with Alex and eventually find Victor in a bar. He’s crying. “I’m so sorry,” he says—and then the police swarm in. We run into the bathroom, try to flush the drugs, and pop!—the police shoot us through the door. We keel over. We die. Slowly, oh so slowly. And as we finally leave our body, we take the perspective of our spirit as it floats around the city, reliving our past memories and seeing our death’s aftermath. The first-person perspective becomes third person when replaying memories, and an over-the-shoulder framing motif carries an uncanny degree of separation from our own body. It’s a piggyback ride with our eyes on our back, right by the angel wings that never come to be.
Over the course of the journey, we remember that Linda’s and our parents died in a car crash while we were small kids. Foster care put her in a different home and, in accordance with a childhood pact we made to never leave each other, we started selling drugs to help Linda to move to Tokyo. But we got more and more into drugs. We needed more and more until more was never enough. Just maybe if we can find a second life, we can get just that: more.
Noé may find death to be happy if anything, but that’s something Oscar can’t bring himself to believe. His fatal flaw is what keeps him from passing on.
Truthfully, “Enter the Void”’s climax is Oscar’s death, only 25 minutes into the 161-minute film. It would be the inciting incident in most films, but here it caps off the part that’s grounded to reality. The film then dives into science fiction and becomes unstuck in time for its remaining 136 minutes, and as our protagonist searches for reincarnation, Noé approaches his arc with the detachment often seen in the sci-fi work of Tarkovsky and Kubrick. The idea of living, dying, and repeating until breaking the cycle is fundamentally spiritual (and specifically Buddhist), but it’s also a genre staple. From “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Solaris” to “Under the Skin,” the concept is divorced from theism. It’s a form of atheistic spiritualism that Noé treats as sci-fi, like a drug-fueled melodrama as told by "2001"’s star child.
In a September 2010 interview with Den of Geek, Noé said that he partly based the film’s premise on a theory that our brains contain limited amounts of DMT, which are unleashed during death. This was later echoed in a September 2018 article from the BBC that documented the reported similarities between DMT trips and near-death experiences. Combined with the languid pacing and psychedelic aesthetics, “Enter the Void”’s internalized sense of humanity feels just as elusive as the unknown encounters of “2001” or the personified dreams of “Solaris.”
As we do stumble out of the film, it ends with a rebirth. Could it be Oscar’s eventual reincarnation or could it just be a stoner’s dream that he had while dying? Was he trying to assign some sort of meaning to his life or was it actually there? If there was no latent purpose, is it better or worse for his life to reset? What if there is a latent purpose? Would the real damnation be an end to all emotions and the end of all life?
Whether Oscar’s life had meaning doesn’t matter because he couldn’t give himself to the possibility of it not. In the world of “Enter the Void,” it’s as good to cease to exist than it is to live and suffer.