The navel of the dream: Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void
Jared Russell

The films of Argentinian-born, French director Gaspar Noé belong to what Artforum critic James Quandt (2004) called the “New French Extremity.” Citing a wave of aggressively challenging films by Bruno Dumont, Catherine Breillat, Virginie Despentes and others, Quandt encapsulated a generation of filmmakers who push the boundaries of the horror genre by confronting audiences with an uncontextualized violence that refuses to explain itself with reference to categories beyond the everyday ugliness of human nature. Noé is the most controversial of this controversial group. His films chart a territory that parallels Lacanian efforts to portray an unconscious that knows no time, no negation, and in a way that offers a relentless meditation on the powers of time and of negativity.

The running theme throughout Noé’s work is how meaning is itself traumatically meaningless at its essence – how the automaton of the signifier is “shot through, transfixed with the tychic” (Sem. XI, 70). This is particularly the focus of Enter the Void (2010). At almost three hours, the film exhausts its audience with repetitive depictions of sex, violence and death, within a framework organized around an anti-social Real that both disrupts and sustains the Symbolic order of family, community and friendship. Though it insistently evokes the meaningfulness of human co-existence – of what supports the substantial bonds of interpersonal relations – Void ultimately demonstrates that this meaningfulness is itself not meaningfully grounded. In this way it illustrates what Freud called the “navel of the dream”: that which cannot be analyzed because it both resists meaning and makes meaning possible in the first place.

The film’s plot concerns Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a 19-year-old American living in Tokyo with his newly arrived, sexually precocious sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta). The first 30 minutes show Oscar’s life of partying, wandering the streets, taking and dealing drugs, until he is abruptly shot to death by police in the bathroom of a bar (“The Void”). The remaining two hours of the film reconstruct the days leading up to Oscar’s murder, his childhood and the death of his parents, and the devastating repercussions his death has on those around him. Intercut with stunning visual effects and some of the boldest feats of cinematography in film history, Void draws its audience in multiple directions, up until its final, vulgar/metaphysical climax. Unlike the director’s earlier Irreversible (2002), the narrative structure of which, presented in reverse, is compact and divided into discrete units (not unlike Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000)), Void is decisively oneiric, with long, meandering shots that, at 163 minutes, can feel excruciating.

At the beginning of the film, a psychedelic drug trip (paying homage to the final sequence in Kubrick’s 2001) sets the stage for an exploration of Tokyo’s sprawling, Technicolor cityscape. The primitive depths of inner experience to which Void descends early on are reflected in the external environments that subsequently serve as the story’s backdrop. The club where Linda works as a stripper is an emporium of naked women bathed in flickering blue, green and red lights. Scenes inside frenetic nightclubs are filmed with no effort to conceal the sensory overload that prevents any authentic human interaction. The streets of Tokyo appear as some dazzling electronic maze over which the camera twirls from high above. This is not, however, a film that indulges in visual effects for their own sake. Rather, Noé works to erase any distinction between subjective hallucination and what appears objectively to a disembodied gaze. The result is a strikingly original blurring of the boundaries between mind and world.

A tagline flaunted by the film’s distributor advertises, “Here is an artist who’s trying to show us something we haven’t seen before.” More accurately,Noé attempts to show what precisely cannot be shown, in order to show what the effort at showing, representing – revealing meaning – consistently elides in order to begin to function. Turning on depictions of intoxication, memory, embodiment, and the inherence of the position of the Subject (treated in terms of reincarnation), Void is ambitiously cerebral yet rigorously visceral at the same time. Cinematically, the film is as traditional as it is innovative. Making use of unknown actors and hand-held camera work, it draws on Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave at the same moment that it deploys the most elaborate digital effects. Refusing a tradition in film theory that opposes realism and anti-realism, Noé presents the Real as something that both escapes and determines the facile opposition of real and unreal through an intensive confrontation with the irreducibility of loss.

Most jarring is Noé’s decision to shoot from his protagonist’s immediate, first person point-of-view (a technique inspired by Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1947)). At the film’s beginning, we see the world literally through Oscar’s eyes, complete with blinking eyelids, the camera aping the movements of his head. After Oscar’s death, Voiddivides the cinematic gaze between two perspectives: one maintains the immediate point of view as the camera glides through city streets, clubs, morgues, to create an ethereal sense that we are witnessing events through the eyes of Oscar’s ghost; alternately, we witness the events of the near and remote past of Oscar’s life, with the camera hovering just above the back of his head and shoulders. At times, the same scene is repeated: a sentimental moment in which Oscar and Linda make a pact “never to leave each other” is presented first from the immediacy of Oscar’s conscious perception, and later from the perspective of a post-mortem gaze-in-deferral that contains the back of his head within the frame. After three hours of shifting between these perspectives, the effect is profoundly disorienting: leaving the theater, the viewer has the sensation of hovering just outside the head, witnessing the world from a dislocated position as the body operates on its own. Noé in this way uses film to decenter consciousness and to foreground the experience of the drive.

In Lacanian terms, Noé’s cinematic treatment of the Real involves a repetitive return of the breakdown of communal and familial ties that indicates the fragility of the category of the object as an organizer of unconscious psychic reality. What the Subject is confronted with in the figure of the Other is not the semblance or imago of a merely inverted position vis-a-vis some mutually shared, natural environment. As the receptacle of signifiers through which the being of the Subject is figured, the Other sustains desire through a hopeless interrogation of that lack around which the signifying chain is structured. With the downward spiraling descent of Void, Noé articulates this strategy of courtship and self-destruction by refusing to allow any good to come of the promises that his characters make to one another. In this way, the film depicts how, rather than being merely disrupted by betrayal, the Symbolic is constituted around the possibility of betrayal as what gives rise to the fiction of the social contract.

What Void confronts its audience with in this manner is Lacan’s claim that consciousness cannot function as the basis for any sharp distinction between classical notions of subjectivity and objectivity. Efforts at self-reflection (“seeing oneself being seen”) always contain irreparable elements of failure – one cannot achieve a completelyreflective self-awareness, which would be required to make life transparently meaningful while it is being lived. This is the trauma at the heart of thefilm – the “essentially missed encounter” (Sem XI, 55) that constitutes the kernel of the Real at the heart of human experience. While he is alive, Oscar’s self-awareness unreflectively coincides with the immediacy of his sensory experience. As the film proceeds in the aftermath of Oscar’s death, efforts to make sense of his experience are thwarted by the fact that his life had never truly been lived. As Oscar’s ghost rehearses its brief existence, it is not only the traumas of his past that haunt him, but the trauma of the passage of time itself. What Noé demonstrates in this way is how trauma can occur not just “in” life, but as life.

Noé has made no secret of the equivalence he draws between cinema and drugs. Void announces this equivalence in no uncertain terms. When Oscar meets with the drug dealer Bruno (Ed Spear) for the first time, the stash of LSD he is after is presented in a DVD case. When another dealer asks who he was sent by, Oscar answers, “Gaspar.” Noé here echoes Chilean cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who in the 1970s declared (with characteristic self-aggrandizement), “I ask of cinema what most Americans ask of psychedelic drugs” (Hoberman and Rosenbaum 1983, 77). Is this equivalence to be taken seriously? Does Void offer more than an over-the-top spectacle for today’s unprecedentedly jaded audiences?

According to Benton and Tylim (1997),


One must be suspicious of hyperconscious images of violence and destruction. The explicit representation of violence appears as a fetishistic strategy that impedes access to new dimensions of meaning. Thus, one must pay attention to the dynamics between foreground and background of film representations when attempting to unveil the hidden meaning of films. An evenly hovering attention may serve as a buffer against the distractions offered by the hyperactivity, the impressive sets, the sharp colors, the overpowering sound and special effects, or the charisma of the stars. (659)


Noé often (though not always) works deliberately against this “hyperconscious,” “fetishistic strategy.” His depictions of violence are at times harrowingly undistracted, as when Oscar lies dying on the floor of a filthy toilet in Void, or in the infamous eleven-minute, single-shot rape sequence in Irreversible. McGowan (2011) writes, “Rather than showing violence through a series of rapid cuts designed to render it more spectacular, [Noé] uses exclusively long takes that make it impossible to find enjoyment in the violence” (208). There is neither enjoyment to be had, nor meaning to be unveiled. For this very reason, Void actively pursues a state of “evenly hovering attention” in which everything and nothing assumes significance, in order to disclose a dimension of radical failure that the film attempts to thematize.

According to Alex (Cyril Roy), death is “the ultimate trip.” Voidpresents a world in which death does not threaten from the future, but has always already come to pass; in which life is a downward trajectory towards an absence of meaning; and where no one is possessed of the capacity to be alone. Time is trauma as perpetual loss: not only is the film’s main character killed within the first thirty minutes, we witness the death of Oscar and Linda’s parents; the separation of Oscar and Linda as children; the breakdown of Oscar’s friend Victor’s family after Oscar seduces Victor’s mother; Linda’s being turned into a sex worker by a pimp; Alex’s descent into madness as he runs from the police. And these are only elements within the film’s narrative. Loss is also a prominent theme cinematographically. At one point, as Linda is wheeled out of the room following an abortion, the camera remains, drifting towards and then fixating on fetal remains in a kidney basin. Later, Linda protests that the ashes of her brother are meaningless to her, impulsively dumping them into a kitchen sink. As the remaining traces of Oscar’s body wash away, the camera descends into the darkness of the sink’s drain; when the camera pulls back, it emerges from the hole in the floor toilet where Oscar died, as a janitor mops away any record of his murder. The cumulative effects of these images are far more disturbing than the violent cinematic assaults associated with the New French Extremity. Void is divided into loosely organized sequences, each of which ends with the camera descending into a black hole (a toilet, a drain, an exit wound), or a strobe light, or an accelerated drift over streets that race by too quickly to be recognizable. Each sequence thus traces a dreamlike event back to its inscrutable “navel,” exploring how any effort to make sense of experience issues from, and is inevitably drawn back towards, a traumatic Real that means absolutely nothing. The film ends with the image of an umbilical cord being severed, before indicating that the “void” of the title is not death but life itself.

Critics have largely reviled the film for its superficial philosophical pretensions, but Noé clearly presents the limits of reflective, thoughtful speculation quite deliberately. The sexual and violent content of the film are ancillary to its meditation on traumatic aftermaths, disappointments, missed encounters that cannot be appropriated for the purpose of symbolic meaning-making. Oscar’s life is tragically cut short, and we subsequently learn that what little life he did lead was squandered. If, as critics contend, the film’s narrative appears underdeveloped, this is perhaps because Noé wants to indicate an absence of developmental narrative, or rather an absence at the heart of narrative and of development from which meaning emerges, but in a way that remains extremely precarious and that is never thoroughly realized. As Oscar’s ghost revisits the past, nothing provides the sense that a thread is constructed by means of which time might serve as a basis for narrative coherence. As the signature line of Irreversible asserts: “Le temps détruit tout” – time destroys all. Enter the Void explores the meaning of this “truth” as the insistent absence of any universal truth, or why “truth is structured like a fiction”: scenes from Oscar’s hopeful childhood are juxtaposed with scenes from his hopeless adolescence; the soundtrack blends tediously monotonous techno music with the heartbeat of a mother synced to that of her child; death puts an end to life but not to an endless repetition of the emptiness of death itself. Noé’s vision may be devastatingly bleak, but it is thoroughly relevant to psychoanalytic efforts at understanding the relationship between meaning and non-meaning that we are increasingly confronted with in a clinical context today.



Benton, R. and Tylim, I. (1997). Introduction to the special issue: film and violence.

Psychoanalytic Review, 84:657-665.

Hoberman, J. and Rosenbaum, J. (1983). Midnight Movies. New York: Da Capo Press,

McGowan, T. (2011). Out of Time: Desire in Atemporal Cinema.Minneapolis, MN:

University of Minnesota Press.

Quandt, J. (2004). Flesh & Blood: Sex and violence in recent French cinema. Artforum,



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