Enter the Void is a film, which is so beautifully composed that it seductively beckons one to journey deep into inner space. The prospect seems tantalizing at first, as sensations of awe and wonder skim across the visual plane through its glowing images of neon nightlife. But by the time receptive exploration has begun, the intensity of the experience becomes magnified to an almost unbearable degree leaving the viewer feeling helpless against the sheer force of the mental agony it confronts. This film is not just an existential meditation on life. This is a film about life, death, and suffering in the continuum of consciousness as described in part by the sacred text, The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Though most of the film takes place outside of linear time, it does begin with a somewhat traditional plot. A young American named Oscar is living in Tokyo. The audience sees everything through his eyes, even the shutter snaps of darkness every time he blinks. This effect makes the viewer’s relationship with Oscar immediately intimate. He is a blank screen for our own egoic projections. So, through his eyes we explore his dim apartment, the beautiful figure of his sister as she leaves for work, and above all the kaleidoscope of Tokyo city lights shining from over the balcony. Oscar has been reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which he reviews as being, “pretty cool”. Once he is alone, a few white granules of dimethyltryptamine or DMT are sprinkled into a pipe. We see the lighter go up to our face, we see the eyelids blink more slowly, and then everything dissolves into a mingling of twisting fractals, fading in and out of different color schemes. These intertwining geometric visions lead the audience into sedate astral contemplation, mostly concerning the nature of of the titular void.
Suddenly, Oscar is interrupted by a cell phone call. We learn from his end of the conversation that he is a drug dealer and the cosmic scene is interrupted for business. Our protagonist gets up to splash some water on his face. In the bathroom he stares into the mirror and for the first time we see the embodiment of the consciousness we have been tuned in to.
Unfortunately for Oscar, the drug deal is a set up for betrayal. He is shot by an overzealous Tokyo police officer and dies on the floor of a bathroom stall. The blood pools around our vision, the blinking becomes languid, slow, and finally Oscar ceases to breathe.
However, this is where the movie becomes really interesting. Oscar’s vision never goes black. Rather, his sight, now unblinking and disembodied, floats above the cacophonous crime scene below. According to Robert Thurman’s translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, “during the between state, the consciousness is embodied by a ghost-like between body, made of subtle energies structured by the imagery in the mind, similar to the subtle embodiment we experience in dreams.” (Tibetan Book of the Dead, 45)
The perspective of the subtle energy rises up into a light on the ceiling and the screen is consumed with its pulsating penetrating light, blinding the viewer with its emptiness. However, as quickly as this vacuum of light is found, the disembodied spirit recoils from it and continues to explore the physical remnants of the murder. Thurman describes this part of death as, “confusion about what has happened to them, residual unconsciousness from the stage of imminence, and terror of being cut loose in the universe prevent them from recognizing their deepest home in this clear light translucency.” (Tibetan Book of the Dead 44)
It is obvious to the audience that this subtle energy is still very much attached to the physical world. Its limitless ability to traverse time and space begins to allow a story to reveal the reasons why. The rest of the film swims deeply through ecstatic and torturous memories. Forms begin to bleed into one another; realities, memories, and fantasies swirl together. Human nature reveals itself to be largely perverse and cruel in the Tokyo streets, but this disembodied consciousness has its eyes wide open without flinching. Regarding the dynamism of disembodied spirits, Thurman claims, “During the between state time, due to its fluidity and the subtlety of their Energy embodiment, their consciousness is magical in power and extremely intelligent.” (Tibetan Book of the Dead, p.45)
The viewer is galvanized into falling deeply into inner space and these fathoms are marked by an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, through the recurring image of a fetus.
Image from – 2001: A Space Odyssey
Whether in deep space of the inner or outer realms, the fetus symbolizes rebirth of consciousness. In Enter the Void, the allusions to the Tibetan Book of the Dead are overt and so the emergence of the fetus reminds the subtle energy that rebirth is an option. It can return to human form.
The last part of the Tibetan Book of the Dead contains advice for choosing the right womb to reincarnate into. In a lingering hypnagogic scene, the disembodied spirit glides above many scenes of intercourse, viewing the sexual energies as prismatic light. However, only the womb of his sister who has coupled with his best friend actually draws the subtle energy in. The audience is shown the primal scene of spermatazoa gushing towards the glowing ovum, where in the fusion of gametes the seed of life is germinated.
Reincarnation as the child of one’s beloved sister may seem sentimentally appealing to the viewer, but according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the womb should be chosen for reasons outside of “emotional addictions, lust, hate, or delusion” (Thurman, 194) This makes the tone of the film decidedly tragic throughout, as Oscar lived a painful life, was murdered, and then was unable to transcend that suffering in his next reincarnation.
Oscar’s time spent in the bardo or the between was an amalgam of the confusion and suffering he had known as an individual human. The profound sense of discomfort experienced in his lifetime compelled Oscar to explore consciousness and ponder enlightenment. The bardo was a journey of painful encounters, where forms dissolved yet memories still haunted and attachments remained unsevered. Death as a mode of transcendence was not yet possible for Oscar, and so his attraction to reincarnate into his sister’s womb seems justified. In an incorporeal way, the impetus was to exit the bardo by entering the void.
Though the film does not have an overtly triumphant ending, the sacred themes are nevertheless persistent. The Tibetan Book of the Dead provides a context for the binary between life and death, which presents a holistic continuum as the model for understanding consciousness in the universe.
As Thurman says, ‘‘Tibetans considered it a matter of common sense and scientific fact that animate beings exist along a continuum of lives, and that death, between, and rebirth processes follow a predictable pattern.’’ (Tibetan Book of the Dead, 18)
Therefore, the whole process of the expansion of consciousness is sacred to the Tibetans and even the woeful outcome of Oscar’s experience is an exalted aspect of the divine. The void can be thought of as any emptiness that is sought for want of wisdom. In the afterlife, the Tibetans encourage that the deceased seek the void made of clear light, but Oscar’s choice is just as noble in terms of the voyage to enlightenment.
In conclusion: see the movie or don’t see the movie, but do read the Tibetan Book of the Dead for illumination on the continuum of life/death/enlightenment.
Fremantle, F. (2001). Luminous Emptiness. Boston: Shambala Publications.
Noe, G. (2009).Enter the Void [Motion picture]. France: IFC Films.
Sambhava, P., & Thurman, R. (1994). The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Book of Natural Liberation Through Understanding in the Between. New York: Bantam.