Do you believe in reincarnation? That's what Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) asks his younger sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta), early in Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void. The filmmaker himself is not a believer, which makes this psychedelic voyage through Oscar's afterlife somewhat perverse. But then perversity has always been an essential ingredient in Noe's movies.
Confrontational and hyperactive, Enter the Void is a difficult film to experience. That's not because Noe is somehow inept. The Argentina-born French writer-director knows exactly what he's doing and what effect his swirling camera, exuberant colors and strobe-like effects will have. It's no coincidence that Oscar, an American living in one of Tokyo's garish entertainment precincts, deals hallucinogenic drugs.
The movie's story is fairly simple, although fragmented for maximum perplexity. As children, Oscar and Linda were orphaned by a car crash that killed their parents, then were sent to separate foster homes. Roughly a decade later, Oscar has moved to Japan, a country with which he has a primal connection. To raise money to bring Linda to Tokyo, he turns to peddling drugs, a very hazardous trade in Japan. Among his guides into the underworld of ecstasy, acid and mushrooms is Alex (Cyril Roy), the sort of transcendental trekker who recommends The Tibetan Book of the Dead to his close pals.
Linda arrives, and finds work as a stripper. Oscar worries about her sex life; she worries about his profession. They're both right to fret, but Oscar pays a higher price for his trespasses: He's slain in a nightclub called The Void.
Oscar's body turns to ash at the crematorium, but some form of him stays. (This is what happens, apparently, when you expire soon after reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead.) While the first part of the movie is shown mostly from Oscar's viewpoint -- his face rarely appears -- the second part is shot from above, looking down on the action from a level that's clearly aerial, if not quite celestial.
Noe is no Buddhist, but he is fascinated by cycles of life -- and cinema. Enter the Void opens with same banging club music that closed his last film, Irreversible, a controversial saga of brutal rape and bloody revenge. This movie chases its own tale, both stylistically and narratively; abundant flashbacks link the various characters with their predecessors (and, possibly, their successors).
Many of the links are unapologetically corporeal: A mother nursing her baby yields to a dancer whose breasts are being pawed; copulating couples in a "love hotel" become nearly interchangeable; and various details of human reproduction are explicitly depicted.
The thematic connections, though, are rarely as effective as the visual ones. Oscar and Linda's story is not very involving, perhaps in part because of Noe's decision to tell it in English rather than a language he knows better. (He wanted to avoid adding subtitles to the visual riot, and has encouraged dubbed versions of the movie.)
But the pileup of dream, fantasy and the crazy-neon reality of Tokyo's party districts is extremely compelling. Noe mixes street-level docudrama with sequences that are entirely computer-generated and draws on such diverse inspirations as Stanley Kubrick, Kenneth Anger and Lady in the Lake, a 1946 noir shot from the protagonist's point of view.
The movie's goals are intense feeling and fresh ways of seeing, both of which it delivers. As for thinking, it comes in a poor third. But isn't that typical of mind-altering trips?