(A necessarily shortened version of this review will run in this weekend's Sunday Telegraph.)
After the bruising, blunt-force celluloid trauma that was Irreversible, there was perhaps never likely to have been any going back for writer-director Gaspar Noe. That 2002 bummer laid firm claim to being the most anally fixated movie of all time, retracing its steps from infernal gay hangout Le Rectum to a prolonged scene of sodomy-rape performed by an arch-villain named for a tapeworm. Enter the Void, Irreversible's film-sibling, tacks a different line of penetration: this is cher Gaspar's front-bottom movie, as it were. Whether engaged in conspicuous panty-sniffing, manufacturing a link between smoking and breastfeeding, or simply cueing in utero footage more common to late-night sex-education shows, all the film's characters are longing to return to the safety of the womb; the "void" of the title may just be a commercially palatable substitute for another, six-letter v-word.
We begin, however, inside the main character's head, looking out at a day-glo, neon-lit Tokyo. Woah, we're supposed to exclaim. Trippy. Alas, young American Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) has just discovered hallucinogenic drugs and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which immediately renders this POV prologue more tedious than transporting, all mumbled dialogue and narcotics-induced fractals sprouting from the ceiling - an unholy communion of Prodigy video, Bret Easton Ellis novel and Jean-Michel Jarre son-et-lumière.
Mercifully, Oscar is shot dead by the local police during an early drugs bust; the bad news is that he returns in spirit form to honour a promise made in childhood never to leave his sister Linda, now employed - in the lissom, rarely-clothed form of Paz de la Huerta - as a stripper in the city's red-light area. Whether Linda realised at the time this bond would involve Oscar drifting into the heads of the men groping her in the club's backrooms, or eventually surfing a crest of semen heading toward her own cervix (as though her brother were Dennis Quaid in some X-rated remake of InnerSpace: InHerSpace, maybe) remains unclear - although, given little sis holds dear to a teddy bear and digs days out at funfairs, who knows?
Viewed with both feet on the ground, then, Enter the Void is an eminently preposterous proposition, its only possible saving grace Noe's proven ability to generate sensation (in all its forms), his desire to sit in opposition to the passivity and numbness most commercial cinema comes to induce. Irreversible, after all, was conceived as a challenge, pushing us to see how far we'd go both within and without the cinema: whether we'd intervene upon seeing a stranger being assaulted in a subway tunnel - or whether we'd walk out on a movie when it simply got too much to bear, as many viewers, repelled by Noe's methods, understandably did. It was a hard film, a nasty film, even, at least in part because of the tough, adult choices it demanded of both its characters and the spectator alike; the performers, meanwhile, were prepared to lie down in the gutter and give their all for their Art.
This follow-up clearly isn't meant for casual consumption so much as an experience designed (often brilliantly designed, in fact) to quicken the pulse a little. In form as in content, however, it feels like a regrettable creative regression, listlessly performed by a portfolio of models past and present (possibly one of the few species capable of convincing as vacuous itinerants, but still) and revelling in a spectacle that becomes first unmoored from reality, then increasingly gratuitous. It would be reductive to describe Enter the Void as Noe's circle-of-life movie, his Lion King - psychedelic blowjobs replacing singing warthogs - and yet it is precisely that; Oscar's death liberates Noe's camera to perform a few new, unmotivated contortions, plunging into bullet wounds and toilet wounds just because it can, not because there's anything to be said or grasped in doing so.
The way Noe films an ashtray or cooker hob from above is not the same way Lynch (himself no stranger to the Book of the Dead) films a hole in a ceiling tile, or Godard films a coffee cup, as interrogations targeted to draw out the uncanny fascination in everyday items. Rather, they're mere layovers, temporary fixed points within a framework of extreme attention deficient disorder, stylistic stepping stones paving the way to the now-expected mise en abime, in this case a stop-off at a pulsing Tokyo love hotel, where a variety of voids are observed being entered. Despite its preoccupation with birth and death, the film is scarcely human and not once moving, because the camera - forsaking stillness or reflection in search of its next available high or low - does all the moving for us; it is at the same time an exceptionally fluid piece of cinema, and a meaningless bore - and Noe knows as much, having to film head-on car crashes and gynaecological examinations (à la Breillat) in order to get any response whatsoever.
That he's still prepared to pursue such extremes only underlines Noe's status as among the most singular and uncompromising talents in world cinema - even Breillat has backed away from these shock tactics in recent years - but the director is 47 now, and you wonder for how much longer he can get away with ploughing these particular furrows. His partner and long-term collaborator, Lucile Hadzihalilovic, may have had the right idea: her 2004 oddity Innocence, set within a girls' boarding school within a remote forest, demonstrated it was possible to film a comparatively conventional, fable-like narrative without jettisoning one's darker, more adult sensibilities or any directorial edge. By contrast, the wonder and dread evoked by Enter the Void are, finally, childish: that of a Gap year student gawking at a live sex show, or an infant discovering their own genitalia for the first time. Required viewing for Freudians, it's a pretty bad trip for everybody else: a somnambulant midnight movie, a mindfuck that falls asleep on the job.
Enter the Void is on selected release from Friday.