Trepidation is not the ideal frame of mind in which to approach a film, even around Halloween. But after I Stand Alone and Irreversible, the French enfant terrible Gaspar Noé merits nothing less and nothing else. That is the only frame of mind in which to enter Enter the Void. What’s in store for us this time? Well, in chronological order....
Ridiculously, unreadably rapid credits in flashing eye-straining pop color. Then a long-drawn hand-held wide-angle single take that appears at first to be a home video in a Tokyo apartment and on its balcony, but is actually, once we notice both hands simultaneously in front of the camera lens and an intermittent “blink” of black screen, intended to be a first-person point of view, straight through the eyes (and eyelids) of the protagonist, much like Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake. Then a psychedelic drug trip, really going to town with the garish neon palette of Tokyo, and taking off on an out-of-body experience that allows us at last to get a look at the protagonist (Nathaniel Brown), in addition to some kaleidoscopic computer animation that could be substituted in toto for the Jupiter landing in 2001. Then a spoken synopsis of The Tibetan Book of the Dead during the descent of a multi-story stairway. (The film is in English.) Then, at the half-hour mark, the death of the protagonist in a standard Drug Deal Gone Wrong, followed by an almost two-hour illustration of the uncannily prognostic synopsis: going into the light; floating above the city in endless direct overhead shots, the disembodied spirit briefly penetrating the head of a Japanese nightclub owner in mid-coitus for some vicarious incest with his stripper sister (Paz de la Huerta); his life passing before his eyes — the camera now positioned behind the back of his silhouetted head — to provide some background for, and ultimately a good deal of repetition of, what preceded the death; and an extended series of visual variations on a “hole” motif, starting with the fatal bullet hole in his torso and carrying on through the assorted orifices and canals of a gory abortion, a gratuitous hardcore tour of a Love Hotel, and a Nova-style documentary shot of a penis ejaculating inside the vagina, point-blank.
There seems to be no reason for the film ever to end as long as there remains in Tokyo some unvisited den of iniquity, some trash pile, some snake pit, some cesspool. But end it eventually does, the initial trepidation having long since given place to exasperation, not an ideal frame of mind, either, but somehow more comfortable, more settled. Much could be said about the phantasmagoric, virtuosic visuals, so much in fact that we might forget to say, might be distracted from saying, the obvious and the essential: that The Tibetan Book of the Dead could just as well have been illustrated through the experience of a Buddhist nun, a dedicated veterinarian, or a Chilean miner, and that the filmmaker’s preference for lurid sex-and-drug banalities exposes him, for all his “experimentalism,” as a run-of-the-mill sleazeball.
Tamara Drewe, a sex romp of above-average intelligence and in full-blooded color, deftly directed by Stephen Frears, is a contemporary riff on Far from the Madding Crowd, set knowingly (or if you must, self-consciously) in Hardy country, at and around a writers’ colony in Dorset, where it seems a bit thick of the visiting American Hardy scholar not to remark on the parallels. The title character is a decamped local (Gemma Arterton, once the lead actress in a miniseries of Tess of the D’Urbervilles for British television) who now returns — oh very well, the return of the native — with a nose job, a pair of short shorts, and a swing in her gait, and who proceeds to toy with the affections of three men, the honest hunky horticulturalist she has known since girlhood (Luke Evans), the middle-aged and very married detective novelist (Roger Allam), and the heavily eyelined rock drummer who has just quit his band on tour in the area (Dominic Cooper). The motivations and indeed the entire personality of the central figure, a would-be novelist herself, are fuzzy in the extreme, and she, along with everyone else, gets upstaged by two snooping, pot-stirring teenage girls (Jessica Barden, Charlotte Christie) whose heads are permanently in the clouds but whose minds are paradoxically in the gutter: “He’s not even a proper celeb,” sniffs the chief instigator when the heroine takes up with the worldwide best-selling author. To put it another way: the pretensions of the arty folk supply ample fun, gentle fun (sample detail: the skull-and-crossbones on the collar of the rocker’s dog), but it’s the aspirations of the adolescents, low as they appallingly are, that put some teeth in the fun, some pain, some horror.
Never Let Me Go, pardon my tardiness in getting to it, might be termed low-profile science fiction, so light on the hardware, the décor, the couture of the genre, so mundane in all its trappings, as to skirt classification, operating in a borderland, a no-man’s-land, occupied by the likes of On the Beach, Lord of the Flies, maybe Daniel Petrie’s Resurrection, maybe Todd Haynes’s Safe, a short list at any rate, shorter on screen than on the bookshelves. Adapted from the acclaimed Kazuo Ishiguro novel I haven’t read, it is set in the near past in an alternative universe where medicine, post-WWII, has cured the incurable and life expectancy has topped a hundred. It is set, more narrowly, amidst a love triangle, two girls and a boy, at the private school of Hailsham in the English countryside, the “special” student body of which is bred for organ transplants, just two or three apiece before a premature demise. I think I’m allowed to give that away. But there is also a reason these particular students are enrolled there, and I think I’m not allowed to give that away, even though the film doesn’t trouble to hold its cards too close to the vest.
The time span of the narrative runs into the common problem of aging on screen, whereby the three stars, Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, must cool their heels in the wings while younger players take their places in the year 1978, pretty good likenesses for the girls and not so good for the boy. (Sally Hawkins, as a compassionate teacher who believes in telling her pupils the truth about themselves, helps tide us over during this preliminary stretch.) And the stars themselves do a decent job of acting younger than they are, seven years later, before they catch up to their correct ages in 1994. There’s a kind of wan monotony to their performances, especially Mulligan’s, and again there’s a reason for it I can’t go into, but it’s monotonous nonetheless. Director Mark Romanek, of the quite dissimilar One-Hour Photo, gives the film a gray gloomy image to go along with the rueful yearning mood, and Rachel Portman chimes in unrelentingly, as if she thought the name of the film were Never Let Up, with musical accompaniment out of the “cowpat school,” like a lower-grade Vaughan Williams, a Lark Descending. (The title tune, a pastiche of the lushly orchestrated pop ballad in the bailiwick of Kay Starr or Margaret Whiting, ostensibly lifted off a cassette tape of the fictitious “Judy Bridgewater,” is rendered with an unerring ear by jazz singer Jane Monheit.) Although the pervasive monotony can get a little oppressive, a little imploring, the mundanity no doubt makes it easier for the spectator to remember that the principal business of science fiction, whenever it may be set, is the present day. (The all-hardware variety, which nowadays means all-CGI, makes it easier for the spectator to forget, prone as it is itself to forget.) Clearly, comprehensibly, affectingly, this fringe-dweller has something to say about the plight of disenfranchised people in particular and, for that matter, of people in general, our common condition.
The eleventh San Diego Asian Film Festival runs this next week, October 21 through 28, at the UltraStar Mission Valley, a “new decade” in the words of the forward-looking press release, although the scheduled demolition of the theater in the makeover of Hazard Center casts a bit of a shadow. Enjoy it if and while you can. Overlapping that festival, October 22 through November 5 at the Museum of Photographic Arts, and at Landmark’s La Jolla Village on October 23 only, is the fourth annual San Diego Italian Film Festival, containing within it a five-film retrospective of Marco Bellocchio, at least three of which five have hereabouts never been shown in public. ■