Since 2002's gruesome rape-and-revenge tragedy, Irreversible, the films of Gaspar Noé have often been grouped together with what James Quandt baptised the 'New French Extremity'. This term, introduced in the February 2004 issue of Artforum magazine, uneasily aligned (then) recent works by directors as diverse as Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, Philippe Grandrieux, Alexandre Aja and Leos Carax under a rubric “determined to break every taboo.” With the release earlier this year of Noé's latest film, Enter the Void, however, it may make more sense to examine this work by the Argentine -born director in terms of Fredric Jameson's conception of 'magic realist cinema'.
Jameson begins his theory of magic realism with Alejo Carpentier's “prologo” to El Reino de este Mundo, in which he relates the combinatorial mischief of surrealists to that of magicians. Discussing André Masson's drawings in Martinique, he describes how the marvellous truth of the subject devours the artist - a truth that comes into being only through an unexpected alteration of reality, related to miracles. “The marvellous,” he writes, “implies a faith.” The real maravilloso is an aspect of everyday life, but one still imbued with the “invocatory power” of folklore. Jameson describes Carpentier's theory in terms of “a certain poetic transfiguration of the object world itself – not so much a fantastic narrative, then, as a metamorphosis in perception and in things perceived.” (177) Later, and particularly since the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as Jameson relates, magic realism has become associated with a certain movement in Latin American literature concerned with a kind of anthropology of the fantastic.
Drawing on Lacan, and Freud's conceptualisation of the “uncanny,” Jameson seeks to transfer this notion of magic realism from the realm of painting and literature to that of film, seeking in doing so an alternative to the late capitalist logic of postmodernism. The essay, 'On Magic Realism in Film', teases out its programme through an analysis of three films from Poland, Venezuela, and Columbia. With each of these films, it is through their specific relation to a certain historical referent, the way in which these films engage with history as such, that they find themselves opposed to cinematic postmodernism. Such that, in spite of the undeniable visual pleasure of the films in question, it is far from the case, as in postmodern 'nostalgia' films (such as The Godfather, The Conformist, &c.), that the viewer's engagement with history is confined to the consumption of a “surface sheen of period fashion reality” in the manner of some “visual commodity” (179).
To consider Enter the Void as a magic realist text now appears doubly strange: a French film set in contemporary Japan, it seems pretty far from either a work of Latin American literary anthropology, or of cinematic historiography. Its concern is neither with any historical referent, nor, for that matter, with magic (at least, in the strict sense). And yet, in spite of these apparently insuperable differences, there appear certain aspects of both Jameson's conceptualisation, and those of older writers, that seem to describe precisely the contours of such a film. In a French context, the appellation may not seem to strange, of course; when I interviewed Gaspar Noé earlier this year for The Quietus, he immediately related the notion of magic realism to that older term, poetic realism, usually applied to French cinema from the 1930s, such as the films of Jean Vigo, Marcel Carné and Jean Renoir (but for Noé, just as much a reference to Fellini). He described his film as “kind of a fairy tale” and yet at the same time insisted that it was “more realistic” than its brutal predecessor, Irreversible.
Of course, Noé himself can be understood in more than just a French context. He was born in Buenos Aires, the son of Argentine artist and writer, Luis Felipe Noé. Coming to prominence in the early 1960s, Noé Sr. can be seen as Marquez's contemporary in South America, and the aesthetics of the Otra Figuracion group, of which he was a key member, share with the latter a sense of reality transformed and surrealistically distorted. In the films Jameson considers, he describes a particular approach to the use of colour in terms of “a unique supplement, and the source of a peculiar source of pleasure, or fascination” (178) and the same could clearly be said of the bright, vivid hues of Luis Felipe Noé's paintings. It is in terms of colour that Noé Jr draws a link between his own work and that of his father, suggesting that the colourfulness of his latest film may be an attempt “to top [his father's] fluorescent colours.” A first-person perspective film about hallucinogenic drugs, seen through the eyes of its protagonist, Oscar, and set in the neon city of Tokyo, Enter the Void is characterised by a lysergic visual palette, and some of the more fantastic 'trip' sequences are comparable to the experimental films of Jordan Belson.
For what Jameson calls 'magic realist' cinema, it is not just a question of bright colours, of course. He speaks of an “awakening of fresh sight” (195) and here one thinks almost inescapably of the drug experience described in Noé's film, and of Aldous Huxley's reference to Blake's “doors of perception.” In a now famous anecdote, Noé has claimed the original idea for Enter the Void came to him whilst watching Robert Montgomery's (1947) first-person perspective Chandler adaptation, The Lady in the Lake, after consuming magic mushrooms. We hear of the disappointment of Noé's teenage self that the hallucinogenic drug experience had never been accurately rendered on film before. Enter the Void thus seeks in some way to redress this perceived imbalance. That a heightened, transfigured perception of colour forms a major part of this psychedelic experience - the “magic mirror” referred to by the character, Alex - should be self-evident, not least from the numerous aforementioned trip sequences in which colour quite literally detaches itself from being the property of some object to become a kind of free-floating – and “mesmerising” as Jameson (ibid.) puts it - quality in itself.
“I like showing the flesh of people,” Gaspar Noé told me. “Even the genitals or whatever. And when you shoot a car crash, of course you have to show that humans are made of flesh and that's how they come to this world and that's how they leave the world too.” Not just through colour then, but just as much in its relation to the body, Enter the Void enters itself within the orbit of Jameson's theory of magic realist cinema. Jameson speaks of a “reduction to the body” mobilising the “resources and potentialities of pornography and violence” (203) not just as constituent of this magic realism but part of a greater “de-narrativisation” of film (a term inspired by Stanley Cavell's “de-theatricalisation”). In Enter the Void, this focus on the body, and the body in its fleshiness, is taken to almost absurd heights, in for instance the long 'Love Hotel' sequence, denounced by so many critics as boring and pointless. It's very excess becomes its own rationale, its superfluity abstracting the flow of the narrative into something else – less like the telling of a story, more like the drug experience itself: lingering unnecessarily, gazing in rapture.
It is here, through the neutralisation of narrative into what Jameson calls “a seeing or a looking in the filmic present” (205) that we enter, finally, the film's relation to history. For though, Enter the Void is not set in any distinct temporal past – rather, in fact, following William Gibson's provocative remark in which “the future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed,” we might call modern Tokyo a kind of spatial future – it nonetheless offers a kind of history of the individual subject, as seen through particular moments of bodily trauma (for example, the death of his parents in a car crash). And that history, experienced as it is fragmentarily, drifting through visions and memories in a psychedelic haze, is precisely Jameson's “history with holes, perforated history, which includes gaps not immediately visible to us, so close is our gaze to its objects of perception.” (179) Going further – think here of the cinematic fillip of using first-person perspective throughout: “a kind of bas-relief history in which only bodily manifestations are retained, such that we are ourselves inserted into it without even minimal distance.” (205)
It is here, through this manifestation of a scattered temporal history in the midst of a spatial future, that Enter the Void employs these tropes of magic realism in the service of a critique of a certain kind of ideology. For if the idea of magic realism implies a disjunction or overlap, between different historical temporalities, “precapitalist and nascent capitalist or technological” (190) this is precisely the dream of Tokyo as dreamt by Western tourists, which is what the central characters of the film, despite their somewhat dubious resident status, most clearly are. Towers of neon - but just around the corner, traditional wooden machiya; serene, ancient temples AND MacDonalds AND Starbucks AND nightclubs playing up to date techno music. Isn't this precisely the tourist fantasy of Japan? And right in the middle of this, the dubious presence of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, proffered approvingly by the stoned 'hippy' Alex, totem of the gaze of the Western “traveller” upon Eastern religious culture since, at least, the 1960s.
If the story seems at first to follow the spiritual passage of Oscar after his death at the hands of the Japanese police, leading up to his eventual reincarnation (and therefore confirming the narrative of the Tibetan Book of the Dead), this initial interpretation needs to be interrogated, if not rejected outright, on a second glance. In fact, everything in the mise-en-scène points towards, on the contrary, an extended hallucinatory fantasy from which Oscar may well wake up. “I'm an atheist,” insists Noé “So even if the movie portrays the dream of a guy who dreams that his soul can come out of his body, in reality you never know what happened. He gets shot. And at the end of the movie you don't know if he's dead, or if he's gonna wake up in a hospital, or if he's going to wake up in prison.” Enter the Void, then, uses these tropes of the magic realist cinema, to expose and deconstruct the Western imagination of Japan, and of Tokyo in particular.
The film thus seeks less to replicate the actual experience of taking drugs but rather to “reconquer that terrain by other, internally constructed means” (206). Hypnotic visuals, psychedelic music (Coil, Denis Smalley, Delia Derbyshire, Zbigiev Karkovsky, Toshiya Tsunoda, Alvin Lucier), are all marshalled to the service of generating a fantasy that can be perceived directly as such. The film alienates its audience even as it draws them deeper inside itself, through a kind of attraction/repulsion that is at the heart of Freud's theory of desire, and the Lacanian concept of the objet petit a. The peculiar orientalist fascination of Japan for the Western traveller is structurally equivalent to this Freudian 'Thing', offering itself as a “magic mirror” to the Western gaze, just like the DMT that Oscar takes at the start of the film. As Gaspar Noé says of film-making itself, “At the end, you are playing with a spectator who wants to play with you.” The very pellicular of the movie, its skin/surface, acts as a libidinal intensification of this unspoken content, and of the desiring gaze of the viewer – offering it back as disavowed fetishism, or “magic mirror.”
(all page references in brackets are to: Jameson, F. 'On Magic Realism in Film' in Signatures of the Visible, New York and London: Routledge Classics, 2007)