Even in person, filmmaker Gaspar Noé never fails to shock and surprise.
Argentinian filmmaker Gaspar Noé is frequently labeled a “provocateur.” Always formally inventive, Noé’s films are often deeply disturbing and sometimes downright hard to watch. It was his 2002 French-language film Irreversible that put the director on the map. That film, told in reverse, features what is arguably cinema’s most gratuitous rape scene, shot as a ten-minute single take. Later, Noé tried to visualize the drug-taking experience with Enter the Void. The last time Noé was at Cannes he debuted Love, a three-dimensional sexual extravaganza that featured a profoundly unforgettable ejaculation shot, which prompted a light applause at the film’s midnight premiere. His latest premiered at Cannes 2018 with little known about the film aside from its title: Climax. I went in blind to this one and had what was perhaps my greatest festival viewing experience to date. Therefore, I won’t describe the film. Just know that it has to do with dancing and getting absolutely fucked up, and it won the top prize in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar where it premiered. I sat down to with the filmmaker for a lively conversation on many topics including death, ayahuasca, Lars von Trier, 3D, and the ISIS recruitment videos.
Do you think the film is about drug use or drinking?
It’s mostly about alcohol. I’ve been trying all kind of psychedelic experiences. It was supposed to be research for Enter the Void, but the research lasted for fifteen years and I enjoyed the research. I needed a reason to go through that. I think the craziest collective experiences that I’ve had were when I was in a shamanic session drinking ayahuasca with friends in Paris. 99% of the time you get into a bad trip and it was a real nightmarish night that I had with many friends. Also, I’ve had very awful experiences with people who cannot handle alcohol. Some people really act like they’re on crack and become cruel and mean and turn into monsters. The next morning they just pretend that they blacked out. You know that there are some kind of peculiarities that are enhanced by tequila or vodka. One day we had a drink of ayahuasca but the shaman got a bottle from someone else and everyone in the room was tripping badly. It was a trip to hell. Some people were trying to commit suicide. I thought I was on the Titanic. Someone was calling the cops. Then the cops just thought it was some psycho who was calling and didn’t even pay attention. When you come back from those visions of hell, you’re happy because it was all a dream and as vivid or crazy as it was, you come back to real life and you feel you’re back in the womb, in a safe place, and you kind of lose your sense of fear because you say, “Oh, it was all a game.” It’s very visceral and sometimes also very very digital. We were in the middle of the jungle and there was Indians and we were among trees, spiders all over the place, mosquitos. Then you take this drink and you feel like you’re in a video game with flying saucers. Why am I having these visions in the jungle context? In the end it feels almost like a voodoo trance.
What inspired you to do long takes in the film?
I was very very impressed by a movie that is two hours and twenty minutes long called Victoria. How can someone run after the actors with a camera? There were a few movies that were made as one long master shot. There was one by Sokurov, it was good but it was very preprogrammed one take. That movie really impressed me. If they can do two hours and twenty minutes why can’t I do a master shot that is forty-two minutes long?
Do you have any favorite films about dancing or any favorite dance sequences in films?
A movie that contains some psychotic scenes that were choreographed is Possession with Isabelle Adjani. You can tell that I’ve seen it and that Sofia has seen it. I like the kids dancing in Rise, the whole movie is great. One of the dancers included in the documentary was a young kid who really drove me crazy. Also you can see the dancer we had that is one who was not French but someone recommended me to watch him. He was a contortionist from Cuba. When I saw those videos I said, “I need this guy! I need this guy!” There is a YouTube of him and people were screaming, “That’s inhuman!” I wanted this guy for the red scene at the end. I flew him to Paris and I thought he was incredible. He was the dancer that was most exciting to film.
Even though the film is set in 1995, do you think there are some social metaphors in the film that apply to the world today?
Fifty years ago no one would have said the something like the Islamic state could be possible. It’s like the Middle Ages. We’re in age 2.0. The best technology. There was some guy doing an interview about the ISIS videos. The cinematic technology that they use for that their promotional snuff movies is incredible. It seems like the guy who is directing those is directing visual effects in America who moved to the state and he became the Kubrick of Hell. They are slashing and chopping heads and the visual effects that even the best directors who do the music videos for Beyoncé or Kanye West would never be able to do. They have the best materials, the best drones. The most barbaric aspects of our history mixed with the electronics of today.
Why did you use “Angie” by The Rolling Stones at the end of the film? It’s definitely an outlier when compared to the rest of the music you used.
I was trying many different songs. I wanted something sentimental and famous to be playing at the end. We tried “Hotel California,” “Angie,” other songs by David Bowie, Lou Reed, but the only one that really worked on the images was “Angie.” We were waiting for an answer for three months on that song. Finally, we got an answer with a financial proposal one week before coming to Cannes. One week ago we were still mixing the movie and we didn’t know if we could use the song.
Did you ever think of doing the film in 3D?
No, no, no. The cameras are very heavy. I’ll probably do another 3D movie someday but the problem with 3D is the technology. The technology used today will be aged in a few years. Even for a movie like Love 3D, probably 1% of the people that have seen it watched it in 3D. 99% of people who saw the movie watched it on their computer or on a DVD. It’s a lot of energy for something that isn’t seen much.
Do you think that medium is becoming irrelevant?
I don’t know. For example, every time there’s a movie that I want to see that was shot in 3D, there’s always the option to see it in a 2D cinema. I always go to the 3D version. One thing that I don’t like about 3D are the subtitles floating in space. There’s nothing more artificial than subtitles in a three-dimensional movie.
Are there any films that inspired you?
I just know which directors I like. Like Fassbinder, Pasolini, Bunuel, Todd Solondz, Lars von Trier. Those are the movies that I enjoy.
Did you get a chance to see von Trier’s new film The House that Jack Built while you were here?
I saw it last night. I thought it was so funny. I was laughing all the time, even when the guy shoots the kid. I thought it was as funny as a Todd Solondz movie. It’s so playful and so inventive. The end is incredible. It’s probably the lightest movie he’s ever done. It’s full of graphic violence but it’s very light and has a cold humor. He doesn’t care. He’s reached a level where he doesn’t have to justify himself. Even to have the scenes from his own movies at the end, it’s a movie about himself. It’s not about a serial killer.
How do you feel about being labeled a ‘provocateur’ in your fifties?
It’s good! I have a bit more money than when I was twenty-two. I party more. People stop me in the street. I have less fear of death now.
Because I have done my job. My mother died in my arms and we were all relieved when she died. When you get sick and life can turn into drama. One day I could probably commit suicide.
What do you think about death?
As it is written in my movie, it’s an extraordinary experience. I don’t know if you’ve lost your parents, but when my mother died in my arms it was one of the sweetest moments of my life. To see her lying in my arms, it was like the past, present, and future were all linked. It was a very visceral moment. It was a scene we were expecting. She was in total mental care. She had epilepsy without seizures. Her brain was burning and she was in a permanent state of terror; much more than any character in my movies. She was afraid of everything. It was far scarier. When she left, to see the face slowly calm. My father drinks a lot. I never expected that she would die before him. His life keeps on going. Your body starts to malfunction. It’s going to happen one day, sooner or later.
A24 will release Climax later this year.