A traumatic orphaning leaves Oscar and Linda (who swore never to be parted during the event) separated as children, longing to be back with one another. When of age, Oscar (etching out a living in Tokyo selling and using drugs, hanging out with artistic friends and dealers) manages to unscrupulously gathers the money to pay for Linda's ticket, re-joining them. Time has passed, and Linda is a stripper in a club, partnered with the selfish owner called Mario, and Oscar has done little more than further experiment with drugs, and leave a trail of emotional and financial scars in doing so.
One night, after a bust-up with a friend and "business" partner, Oscar finds himself in trouble with the police, and threatening them with a nonexistent gun, is shot through the chest. A dying Oscar mutters to himself internally and dies in a toilet cubicle.
What follows is the camera taking the role of a floating spectator, with internal noises and music to itself, watching the consequences of Oscar's recent life unfold, and flashing back to tell the story of how Oscar and Linda ended up where they are, as well as surreally diving between these situations. Although references to the Tibetan book of the dead are made early on, no direct explanation is given as to what this perspective means - is this Oscar's spirit refusing to leave Linda, is it his spirit watching over everyone, or being forced to watch by punishment, or is it Oscar's dying brain trying to piece together his life and his bodily trauma by producing such dream-like sequences? Director Gaspar Noe states he made the film to be the latter of these, but allows for suggestion.
The camerawork and visual effects are astounding in their use - some may find nothing groundbreaking, but the real effect is in internalising all these effects - making them seem like they're happening to a damaged, high or dying brain, ensuring a slight hallucinatory state, which is further helped by a very eclectic soundtrack.
Some may find this film boring (one version breaching 155 min), some may gain only travel sickness, and some may call it the best drugs movie ever made, but it's not fully any of these; it's a finite journey which likes to tickle at your perceptions, and if watched properly should leave you with a small moment of wondering if you've just watched a movie or if you're in a hallucinatory state.
Not for the easily shocked or upset, featuring scenes of first-person death, drug use, abortion and a rather miserable life (with language to match), the film is ultimately rewarding, and should stick with you - like it or not.