Even those who have not seen Gasper Noé's second film, Irreversible, know all about its long (nearly 10 minutes) and shocking rape scene. They also know about the terrible beating that happens in the gay nightclub (the Rectum). One man smashes the face of another man with a fire extinguisher—metal, bone, metal, bone, blood, metal, more blood, more bone. Eventually the man dies. Eventually we learn the reason why he was brutally murdered. Eventually we learn he was mistaken for a rapist. The film moves in the opposite direction of time's arrow. Because we're moving backward, we learn of the mistaken identity during the long rape scene. It's impossible to forget the face of the actual rapist (he has an ugly nose), which we see long before he commits the crime. While the innocent man is being killed by the rape victim's enraged boyfriend (fire extinguisher, flesh, fire extinguisher, bone), we see the criminal. He is watching the beating and laughing to himself. His ugly nose makes his self-satisfaction all the more monstrous. The only murder in the film happens in the Rectum.
Noé's first film is called I Stand Alone; Irreversible could have been called I Have One Big Message. The one thing the French/Argentine director wants you to understand is that human law is always social, always involves the public. Human law is not something that a single person (or a family) can take into his/her hands. No matter how brutal the crime, no matter how certain you are of being right, you must not be the judge. Only the public has the right and power to judge a suspect. The one big message in Irreversible is indeed the one big message we find in the ancient Greek plays by Aeschylus: the Oresteia trilogy.
There's always something classical at the core of Noé's fancy, flashy, super-trippy work—classic Greek drama or classical music. The central classical piece in Irreversible is Beethoven's epic Symphony no. 7 in A Major, op. 92. In Enter the Void, his latest (and least successful but most spectacular) film, it's Bach's beautiful ode to flying (it was written 200 years before the invention of flying machines) "Air on the G String" (my interpretation of the piece, an "ode to flying," might be completely wrong, but the piece has been used to advertise some airlines). The classical drama that's referenced in Enter the Void is, of course, Antigone. Now for some clarification—there are two popular readings of this play: One sees the confrontation between Antigone and King Creon as a confrontation between the laws of the family and the laws of the state. Antigone wants to bury Polynices, her brother (that is the law of the family); the state sees Polynices as a criminal and demands that his body rot in the sun as punishment (that is the law of the state).
The other reading of the play was made famous by the German philosopher Hegel. In Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), he sees the cause of the confrontation between An-tigone and King Creon as being the naturally deep love that a sister and brother have for each other. Antigone has to bury her brother because she has so much (too much) love for him. For Hegel, the highest love possible between two people is not between a husband and a wife or a mother and a child, but between a brother and a sister. This is the stuff of Enter the Void. The brother (Nathaniel Brown) is a drug dealer; the sister (Paz de la Huerta) is a stripper. They lost their parents as children; they lived in foster homes; they recently moved to Tokyo, which Noé imagines as the most urban city in the world. No trees, hills, or animals—it's a neon purity of human beings, streets, and buildings.
After having a long psychedelic trip (à la the end of Kubrick's 2001), the brother meets a client in a club called the Void, finds himself in a sting operation, runs to a bathroom to dump his pills, gets shot in the back, and slowly dies. The screen goes white for two whole minutes. Then we return to the world of things and people as his ghost. The ghost floats over the Void, over the streets, flies across town, and enters his sister's strip club. She is in a dressing room. She is with her boss. The boss pulls out his cock, and they begin fucking on a couch. After floating above the couch for a moment, the ghost passes through the back of the boss's head and enters his mind. The brother sees what the boss sees: his sister, her moaning mouth, her swirling nipples. The brother is fucking the sister. Enter the Void.
The film, which also travels through the drug dealer's past, comes very close to the feel and look of Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire. But there are no angels over Tokyo; it's just the ghost of a careless and rather daft drug dealer. The end of the film is very shocking. I will say nothing about it. Nothing. Rien, rien, rien!
Enter the Void plays Oct 7–14 at Northwest Film Forum.