In Nick Schager’s interview with madman/visionary Gaspar Noé, the director notes that one of his inspirations for the POV shots in “Enter the Void” was a 1947 Raymond Chandler adaptation:
One day many years ago, maybe when I was in my late teens or early 20s, I took some mushrooms with friends, and then I went back home and they were playing “Lady in the Lake” on TV. That’s when I decided that the first part of the movie should be shot in first-person perspective.
“Lady in the Lake” is a film that claimed to represent “a startling and daring new method of storytellng, a milestone in moviemaking” but is in actuality mainly a novelty (if a personal favorite of mine). The majority of it is shot from the point of view of the main character, private detective Philip Marlowe (played, when he appears on screen, by Robert Montgomery, who also directed the film). The result is both compelling and deeply silly, with a lot of glancing at reflections (a must for any first-person camera scene), hands reaching out from the bottom of the frame to open doors and Audrey Totter kissing the lens.
With one major exception, having any significant portion of a film be in first-person camera is a difficult proposition — if it doesn’t instantly read as gimmicky, it can still be unbearably disorienting, and it naturally limits what can be shown to what’s within the range of the character. The first part of “Enter the Void,” which is shot from the POV of the drug-addled Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), is deliberately claustrophobic — you’re locked into the character’s head, his actions, his thoughts, his blinks, which blacken the screen every few seconds. It’s effective, but also dizzying and almost intolerable — it’s a relief when the camera’s released.
That sense of suffocation, of being boxed in that comes with the first-person POV is memorably invoked in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which is all about being trapped in one’s own head — in that case, the first person camera adds instant empathy to the situation in which Jean-Dominique Bauby finds himself, and in both his and the audience’s case, his richly colored memories provide an escape.
In Sokurov’s “Russian Ark,” what we see is from the viewpoint of the narrator, voiced by the director, who may or may not be dead or dreaming — he’s visible to some, and just an observer to others, drifting halfway between a participant and a disembodied perspective.
These days, a first-person perspective can instantly call to mind video games. “Doom” has a lengthy Karl Urban POV sequence as a gesture towards its source material that is, unlike the rest of the movie, goofily fun, while “Kick-Ass” also evokes a first-person shooter with a scene in which Hit-Girl uses night vision to take out a group of thugs.
But what’s becomes the true place of the first-person camera, the aforementioned major exception, are films supposedly shot by a character or series of characters documenting the action from within the midst of it, like “The Blair Witch Project,” “Cloverfield,” “Diary of the Dead” and “[REC].” That these are all genre films is fitting to the strengths and weaknesses of the choice — shaky camerawork is better explained away when it’s the work of people who are running from something, and a deliberately limited POV both puts you in the place of the character, and limits what you can see — and scary things are always best kept in the dark.