The French Nouvelle Vague stands as a blazing historical vindication of the critical vocation. Every time an over-rated artist seeks to rebuff a negative review by calling into question the motives and talents of a critic, critics can respond simply by mentioning the names of great critics who became great film directors. Directors like Truffaut, Chabrol, Godard, Rohmer and Rivette. However, as brilliant as the Cahiers du Cinema directors undeniably were, there is an element of Year Zero about their fame. Was French cinema really in crisis in the late 1950s? Was Bazin correct to point to a tendency to the overly theatrical? Quite possibly but the Nouvelle Vague’s desire to relaunch French film was not without its casualties.
One of the most note-worthy casualties of the French Nouvelle Vague was Henri-Georges Clouzot. Clouzot was arguably the most talented of the French film directors who continued working throughout the German occupation. To this day, no film so perfectly captures the France’s deep and loathesome ambivalence towards the Nazis as his story of poison pen letters Le Corbeau (1943). Because of his association with the Nazi run film studio Continental Films, Clouzot was banned from directing by the French government and while he did return to direct such classics as Quai des Orfevres (1947), The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955), his reputation among French critics never completely recovered.
It is in this context that Clouzot secured an unlimited budget with which to make his film Inferno. Ostensibly a psychological thriller starring Romy Schneider, Inferno was a profoundly experimental film whose disastrously abandoned production process was littered with all kinds of new and experimental techniques designed to revitalise Clouzot’s reputation and place him at the very forefront of the newly revitalised French Cinema. As Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea revealed in their documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (2009), Clouzot used strange lenses, dyed entire lakes and daubed actresses with strange make-up in order to create a myriad of weird and wonderful visual effects. He also shot hour upon hour of bizarre objects and visual illusions dreamt up by a team of artists. However, what is most fascinating about Medrea and Bromberg’s documentary itself is that, while we know that Clouzot had a script and that this script was later made into one of Claude Chabrol’s more successful later films (1994’s Hell), we really get very little information as to what it was that Inferno was supposed to be about. Indeed, by focusing primarily upon the production process, Bromberg and Medrea manage to separate the technical aspects of Inferno from its more human and semantic aspects giving us images without context and effects without plot.
This filleted version of Clouzot’s unfinished film is eerily similar to the latest film by Irreversible director Gaspar Noe. Enter the Void is just as much a work of vulgar spectacle as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) or Avatar (2009). At times technically stunning, the film shows the hallmarks of a profoundly experimental production process hindered by an equally profound disregard for the human and semantic elements of the artistic process. Elements such as a compelling plot, believable characters, evocative themes and thought provoking sub-text. Elements almost entirely absent from Enter the Void.
Enter the Void begins in a tiny neon-lit Tokyo apartment. We are sitting behind the eyes of American teenager Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) as he looks out across the city from his balcony. Occasionally, the screen goes black or lurches around as Oscar blinks his eyes and turns his head. Oscar, says his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) is being turned into a junkie and, despite repeating to himself (and us) that she is wrong, Oscar then sets about proving her right by taking a big old hit of DMT and zoning out on his bed to look at the pretty fractal patterns firing through his visual cortex. We see all of these things because we see the world through Oscar’s eyes.
Dragged from his trip by a mobile phone, Oscar then hooks up with the louche Alex (Cyril Roy) who warns him about becoming a drug dealer before providing us, somewhat unexpectedly, with a potted overview of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The pair make their way through the streets of Tokyo to a club where Oscar is set up by a former friend and shot by local police. In a series of images reminiscent of those that accompanied the earlier DMT trip, Oscar’s viewpoint becomes detached from his body and begins floating about Tokyo, zipping between friends and relatives, past and present as we learn the disjointed facts that made up Oscar’s life and death.
Narratively, Enter the Void reprises many of the defining characteristics of Gaspar Noe’s previous film Irreversible (2002):
In Irreversible… the film’s structure and ideas are derived from John William Dunne’s An Experiment With Time (1927). In Enter the Void, the film’s structure and ideas are derived from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. However, where Irreversible’s ideas about the inevitability and inescapability of death are communicated purely through the film’s structure and themes, Enter the Void communicates its ideas through an inelegant piece of expository dialogue that effectively explains the film’s themes and ideas before we actually encounter them. In Irreversible, Noe tips his hat to his inspiration by showing us the cover book, in Enter the Void the referential process is reduced to one of the characters providing us with a summary of the book in question.
In Irreversible… the film’s metaphysical themes are anchored in the very human reality of three very well-drawn characters with real relationships. Monica Belucci’s Alex loves Vincent Cassell’s Marcus despite the fact that Marcus cheats on her. Albert Dupontel’s Pierre is still in love with Alex and is jealous of Marcus but his desire to see Alex happy translates itself into an attempt to paternally steer Marcus in the right direction and, ultimately, the decision to take the fall for him by beating him to the vindictive punch. In Enter the Void, the book’s metaphysical themes seem abstract and pretentious because neither Oscar, Linda nor Alex are particularly well drawn characters and their relationships are simplistic and poorly articulated. It is only when we see Enter the Void that we come to realise quite how much of Irreversible’s appeal depended upon the chemistry between Cassell, Belucci and Dupontel. In contrast, Oscar’s Nathaniel Brown is lifeless, Linda’s Paz de la Huerta is cognitively impaired and Alex’s Cyril Roy reveals that he is a man who can — in the immortal words of Nick Lowe — shamble for Yuggoth. Indeed, in Irreversible, the inescapability of death matters because we care about the characters for all of their faults. In Enter the Void, death, rebirth and spiritual transcendence are made to seem like meaningless and woolly concepts because they are attached to characters that are nothing more than empty husks.
In Irreversible… the inverted but nonetheless linear structure of the narrative created a very strong impression of destiny and fate. We see the death of Alex, then her rape, then her happier moments. We see Marcus and Pierre being hauled off to prison, then their crime, then what caused them to commit the crime. The film’s cast iron structure and dove-tailed narrative strands worked together to drive home the film’s themes and ideas. In Enter the Void, death, life, birth, sex, misery, joy and birth are all jumbled up and returned to seemingly at random. There seems to be no logic or structure to the film’s movements through time and space and so the film inadvertently suggests that life, birth, death, joy and misery all occur at random. Something that is explicitly at odds with the film’s invocation of a well-known body of spiritual belief. I have not read the Tibetan Book of the Dead but, to paraphrase Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda (1988), the central tenet of Buddhism is not ‘Shit happens then you die’.
As we can see from these three aspects of Enter the Void’s narrative, the problem is not just that Noe re-visits ideas from his previous film, but that he revisits the same ideas in a much less sophisticated, intelligent and effective manner. Indeed, in terms of its writing, Enter the Void feels very much like a step backwards from Irreversible. Though undeniably a step-forward in technical terms, Enter the Void’s visual effects are similarly overshadowed by Noe’s far more successful previous film.
Aside from its infamous nine minute rape sequence, Irreversible is best known for its demented nausea-inducing camera work and a soundtrack designed to provoke feelings of anxiety in the audience through the use of certain low-frequency noises. These techniques are particularly evident in the film’s opening sequences in a gay S&M club in which the camera swings back and forth while the soundtrack sickeningly churns and grinds. Enter the Void re-uses these same techniques but rather than confining them to a short time-frame so as to maximise their impact and thematic relevance, Noe uses them continuously throughout the film’s 135 minute run time. From beginning to end, Enter the Void swings the camera back and forth through tiny rooms and neon-lit streets while jarring electronic noises are pumped from the cinema speakers. Initially, this effect (along with the same stroboscopic effects that featured in Irreversible) is quite arresting but after fifteen minutes one gets used to it.
After an hour one is bored of it.
After two and a quarter hours one is actively angered and disgusted by it.
As Enter the Void finally ended, I was struck only by a feeling of pity for the poor souls who sat through the three hour version of the film that got booed at Cannes. I suspect the three people who walked out of the screening I attended shared those negative feelings.
Between the familiar visuals, watered-down thematics and similar palette of sexual explicitness, seedy nightclubs and women who are both madonnas and whores, Enter the Void is stifled by a suffocating sense of deja vu; not only have we been here before, but we have been taken here before by the same director and it was loads more fun the first time around. However, even if one looks beyond Noe’s abject failure to find anything new or challenging to say in the seven or so years since Irreversible, Enter the Void is still something of a landmark film as its technical abundance chained to semantic poverty speaks to what seems to be a growing problem in the world of art house film.
In a recent issue of the London Review of Books, the author, academic and critic Elif Batuman (interviewed here by Bookworm’s wonderful Michael Silverblatt) uses a review of Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009) to issue a devastating critique of the kind of writing being encouraged by creative-writing focused degrees such as the Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) programmes that have sprung up across the English-speaking academic world. In her article, Batuman argues that writing programmes have a tendency to produce tricksy fiction that attempts to make up for its lack of wisdom and insight through what amount to technical and empathic circus tricks as middle class white people imagine themselves into the heads of all sorts of ethnic and cultural others. Batuman asks :
“The continual production of ‘more excellent fiction … than anyone has time to read’ is the essence of the problem. That’s the torture of walking into a bookshop these days: it’s not that you think the books will all be terrible; it’s that you know they’ll all have a certain degree of competent workmanship, that most will have about three genuinely beautiful or interesting sentences and no really bad ones, that many will have at least one convincing, well-observed character, and that nearly all will be bound up in a story that you can’t bring yourself to care about. All that great writing, trapped in mediocre books! Who, indeed, has time to read them?”
Enter the Void is a film that left me asking the exact same question. In this, it is not alone. As someone who systematically reviews between three and five new DVD releases a month, I have the distinct impression that, while the general quality of cinematography is constantly improving thanks to better technology and teaching methods, the quality of the writing underpinning much art house cinema seems to be stagnating badly. Consider the evidence:
- Lebanon by Samuel Maoz – Won the Golden Lion at the 66th Venice Film Festival, received a decent cinema release in the UK and did comparatively well on DVD.
- Valhalla Rising by Nicolas Winding Refn – Got a generally favourable critical response, a cinematic release in the UK and did quite well on DVD thanks to a hilariously misleading DVD cover.
- Soi Cowboy by Thomas Clay – Got nominated for a Bronze Horse award at the Stockholm film festival, got a UK cinematic release and trailed on BBC Radio 4’s Film Programme.
- The First day of the Rest of Your Life by Remi Bezancon – Received nine Cesar nominations and won three different awards.
All of these films contain arresting pieces of cinematography. All of them are beautifully made, feature memorable performances and touch upon big and important themes and yet none of them has anything in the least bit interesting to say.
One of the unfortunate legacies of the French Nouvelle Vague has been an almost religious faith in the role of director as author. This belief has created the expectation that a film director cannot be merely a jobbing artisan who perfects his or her craft while moving from job to job. Instead, the film director must be a fully-fledged artist who stamps their singular vision of the world on their subject matter. Unfortunately, while it is now quite possible even for inexperienced directors to have almost complete control over the creative process, relatively few directors actually have anything even approaching a coherent or interesting world view that is worth stamping onto the subject matter. Noe, for example, is clearly a man who is struggling with a broadly secular sense of spirituality. In both Irreversible and Enter the Void he considers our place in the cosmos and the meaning of life but he has no answers, only questions and the questions he asks are ultimately quite shallow and uninformed. the same is true of Samuel Maoz’s views on the Israeli body politic, Thomas Clay’s views on colonialism, Winding Refn’s views on the savagery inherrent in human nature and Bezancon’s views on human relationships. Somewhere along the line, art house cinema seems to have confused technical proficiency with vision and, in the process, forgotten why it was that the Cahiers Crowd championed those rare film directors who combined technical proficiency with artistic vision.
Enter the Void is a timely reminder that sadly not everyone is cut out to be an artist and that not everyone has something worth saying.