A psy­che­delic trip through Noé’s eyes

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - Chris Lee

French filmmaker Gas­par Noé makes the kind of movies that re­quire warn­ings.

His bru­tal 2002 re­venge drama, “Ir­réversible,” ar­rived in the­aters in Eng­land and Canada with a writ­ten alert about the pos­si­ble side ef­fects of a strobe-like se­quence: “Some peo­ple may ex­pe­ri­ence loss of con­scious­ness or epilep­tic seizures when ex­posed to cer­tain light ef­fects or flashes of light.”

The writer-di­rec­tor’s 1998 de­but fea­ture, “I Stand Alone” — about a so­cio­pathic butcher with in­cest and murder on the brain — car­ries an even less sub­tle warn­ing. “At­ten­tion: You have 30 sec­onds to leave the theater,” a ti­tle card reads just be­fore the drama’s

[See Noé, D6]

shock­ing con­clu­sion.

But af­ter mak­ing his name by elec­tri­fy­ing and an­tag­o­niz­ing au­di­ences, Noé’s ex­per­i­men­tal third film, “En­ter the Void,” re­quires a dif­fer­ent kind of dis­claimer. A psy­che­delic odyssey of drugs and sex, it pre­miered to mixed re­views at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val last year. How­ever, un­like Noé’s pre­vi­ous fea­tures, no­body stormed out or fainted at screen­ings. So au­di­ences should con­sider them­selves fore­warned: “En­ter the Void” is less likely to shock or dis­gust than any­thing else he has filmed.

Not that the movie (which hits the­aters Fri­day in limited re­lease and is avail­able via video on de­mand) has en­tirely failed to pro­voke.

“The re­ac­tions have been pas­sion­ate,” Noé said in a tele­phone in­ter­view from Paris. “Peo­ple say, ‘This is your best movie by far.’ Or, ‘This is the best movie about be­ing on drugs.’ I’ve even heard peo­ple say, ‘This is the best movie I’ve seen in my life,’ which is some­thing no­body has said about my pre­vi­ous movies. But some peo­ple think it’s too much. That it’s too ex­per­i­men­tal. That there’s no nar­ra­tive. At the end, I got the very best re­views and the worst re­views of my life for the same movie.”

A hal­lu­ci­na­tory paean to mind-al­ter­ing sub­stances, “En­ter the Void” un­folds like a fever dream to tackle an ap­pro­pri­ately heady sub­ject: life af­ter death. The plot fol­lows Os­car — a small-time drug dealer in Tokyo — with Noé’s cam­era as­sum­ing his point of view. View­ers see what the face­less Os­car sees with the screen go­ing mo­men­tar­ily black when he blinks.

In the film’s first few min­utes, the char­ac­ter (por­trayed by Nathaniel Brown) is fa­tally shot by po­lice. For the rest of “En­ter the Void,” his soul trav­els Tokyo — de­picted as an Elec­tric Lady­land of flash­ing neon and per­pet­ual night — to fol­low his sis­ter Linda (Paz de la Huerta), who works as a strip­per. A se­ries of flash­backs chron­i­cles the sib­lings’ shat­tered child­hoods, their pact of eter­nal to­geth­er­ness forged as kids and the jumble of events that led to Os­car’s demise.

Noé, 46, said he first con­ceived of a “psy­che­delic melo­drama” while in film school. Trip­ping on mush­rooms one day, he hap­pened to catch the 1947 film adap­ta­tion of Ray­mond Chan­dler’s “Lady in the Lake” on TV and be­came cap­ti­vated by its un­usual fram­ing de­vice; the cam­er­a­work presents only the per­spec­tive of Phillip Mar­lowe. Around that time, Noé had also been read­ing one of Ray­mond Moody’s stud­ies about near-death ex­pe­ri­ences, “Life Af­ter Life,” as well as “The Ti­betan Book of the Dead,” a work that de­scribes a state of con­scious­ness ex­pe­ri­enced be­tween death and rein­car­na­tion. Con­nect­ing the im­prob­a­ble dots, the idea for a movie took hold.

“I thought that it would be good to mix the sto­ries of peo­ple who said they had ‘gone to­ward the light’ with ‘The Ti­betan Book of the Dead,’ ” Noé said. “I’ve been rewrit­ing it for 15 years.”

Over that time, Noé made it his mis­sion to make a movie that would achieve what few drug films had been able to ren­der con­vinc­ingly: the hal­lu­ci­na­tory state of a psy­che­delic drug trip. Over the years, he switched its set­ting from New York to London and then to Ja­pan in or­der to vis­ually ref­er­ence such films as “Tron” and “Blade Run­ner.”

Un­able to fund “En­ter the Void,” how­ever, he in­stead filmed “Ir­réversible,” star­ring real-life mar­ried cou­ple Vin­cent Cas­sel and Mon­ica Bel­lucci, which turned into a sur­prise box-of­fice hit. That film also served as a case study for the com­puter-gen­er­ated ma­nip­u­la­tions and chrono­log­i­cal back-ped­al­ing promi­nently fea­tured in “En­ter the Void.” But thanks to “Ir­réversible’s” in­fa­mous eight-minute rape scene, which left many view­ers feel­ing like they had been vi­o­lated, Noé’s gained a rep­u­ta­tion as French cin­ema’s reign­ing en­fant ter­ri­ble.

Noé even­tu­ally re­ceived around $16 mil­lion in fi­nanc­ing for “En­ter the Void,” and pro­duc­tion com­menced in late 2007 in Tokyo and Mon­treal.

Ac­cord­ing to the di­rec­tor, 95% of the cast had never acted be­fore. Chief among them: the movie’s lead, Brown. A model and for­mer BMX rider, he had no idea who Gas­par Noé was be­fore be­ing cast. But on set, he quickly grasped that the di­rec­tor’s meth­ods were un­ortho­dox. There was, for in­stance, Noé’s ac­tive re­fusal to give Brown or De la Huerta any di­rec­tion. Or in­sist­ing the cast be­have “like it’s a big party on set.” Or film­ing scenes as many as 75 times in a row, un­til the ac­tors reached their psy­cho­log­i­cal break­ing points.

“I don’t think he ever did less than 50 takes,” Brown, 22, re­called. “Paz was go­ing crazy the en­tire time. As a pro­fes­sional ac­tress, she was tak­ing it re­ally per­son­ally. You see it in the per­for­mance, in that scene where she’s freak­ing out and break­ing [stuff]? She’s re­ally mad at Gas­par. It’s like Stan­ley Kubrick or Al­fred Hitch­cock. Just rap­ing his ac­tors.”

But Noé’s mav­er­ick style also re­sulted in no small amount of hyp­notic, gen­uinely tripped-out im­agery. Ex­hibit A: Os­car’s six-minute, hal­lu­cino­genic jour­ney af­ter smok­ing the drug DMT — re­puted to be the strong­est psy­che­delic sub­stance in the world — a Day-Glo vis­ual so­journ through mind fields fea­tur­ing alien ten­ta­cles and swirling shapes rem­i­nis­cent of Bud­dhist man­dalas.

IFC Films is dis­tribut­ing the movie in the U.S. The com­pany’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent of mar­ket­ing, Ryan Werner, said Noé’s rep­u­ta­tion is “En­ter the Void’s” pri­mary com­mer­cial as­set. “Gas­par is the main sell­ing point,” Werner said. “He ob­vi­ously has a huge cult fol­low­ing from ‘Ir­réversible’ and ‘I Stand Alone.’ He’s some­one who’s con­tro­ver­sial and at the same time di­vi­sive. But at the end of the day, though, the film speaks for it­self. There’s noth­ing like this movie.”

Noé him­self is con­tent to re­main a cul­tural light­ning rod — even if that re­quires him to suf­fer the slings and ar­rows of an­gry cinephiles.

“Peo­ple get an­gry and want to punch my face, that has hap­pened a few times,” he said. “Peo­ple come to me in a bar and say, ‘I hate your movies!’ OK, thank you. ‘And I hate you!’ You hate me? I tip my hat to you. I feel good.”

IFC Films

POINT OF VIEW: Nathaniel Brown is Os­car in Gas­par Noé’s “En­ter the Void.”

Dario Cantatore

NOÉ: His new­est film con­sid­ers life af­ter death.

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