Gaspar Noé’s films are argument-starters. 2002’s Irréversible told the story of a brutal rape and the men who seek vengeance for the crime, the movie unspooling in reverse chronological order. (Audiences walked out in droves during its extended rape sequence.) Nine years later, he returned with a very different narrative experiment, Enter the Void, about a drug dealer who’s killed, the entire film being his trippy journey from this life to the next. In 2015, the French writer-director gave us Love, a tale about young lovers that ends in heartbreak, although most critics focused on the extended scenes of unsimulated sex between the characters. (Writing for The Washington Post, Stephanie Merry memorably remarked, “Love drags on and on, alternating between arguments and intimacy, breakups and makeups. The movie never passes the authenticity test; if this is what sex feels like, we’ll all soon be extinct.”)
You may hate his movies, you may love his movies, but our world would be far poorer without Noé’s bold, restless plunges into the unknown, which test the limits of what films can be and what audiences will accept.
Which brings us to Climax, the rarest of all Noé films: a risk-taking, groundbreaking cinematic provocation that … just about everybody actually really likes. Since the film’s premiere at Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes last year, audiences and reviewers have been sucked in by this immersive, kinetic exploration of one increasingly demented night. The story is simple: A crew of French dancers (mostly nonprofessionals, but also featuring Atomic Blonde costar Sofia Boutella) are celebrating in an abandoned schoolhouse, enjoying some drinks and lively conversation. But then it becomes clear that someone has spiked the punch, and soon dark visions, random violence and ecstatic madness take over the group. In between, there are some of the most brilliant and high-energy dance sequences in recent cinema.
As with all of Noé’s films, Climax is proudly its own wild beast, creating a hyper-vivid world in which both the visuals and the emotions are extreme. (During one feverish scene, the camera tilts upside down, making it look like all the wacked-out revelers are hanging from the ceiling like demonic stalactites.) And because he’s so often labeled as a provocateur and his movies slapped with the “controversial” tag, it’s easy to assume that Noé himself is an anarchist, a button-pusher or a lunatic. But when I speak to him by phone, I’m disarmed by the fact that the 55-year-old filmmaker on the other end of the line is, in reality, a sweet, soft-spoken and altogether thoughtful individual. At one point, he even tells me, “I’m not trying to provoke people.”
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t afraid to push the envelope — or that he doesn’t have strong feelings about Western society’s prudish attitudes toward his sensual, hallucinatory movies. During our hour-long chat, he talks freely about how his mother’s recent death shaped his worldview, whether he thinks drugs help fuel creativity and why he’s so drawn to making movies about (as he calls them) “losers.” Oh, and if you hate his films, that’s fine with him — chances are, he’s not making them for you anyway.
A24 is sorta selling Climax as a horror movie. Is that how you see it?
I’d say that the closest genre would be the disaster movie, like The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure. And also horror movies, like Dawn of the Dead, which takes place in a mall in which people are turning into zombies. The Towering Inferno, I watched probably like eight times in a row when I was a kid.
You worked with a largely nonprofessional cast. Did any of them know the types of movies you make?
Mostly not. These dancers are very young and very much obsessed [with dancing], so when they have any spare time, they just concentrate on rehearsing their dances. Sofia had seen my previous movies, and she liked them. The choreographer, who came from L.A. to create the choreography, had seen them, too. But mostly all the dancers haven’t seen them. They’re not film buffs — they’re dancers.
I chose them because they were dancers, and I wanted the best dancers that you could find in Paris. It would have been much harder to get actors and to teach them to dance in such a complicated way. It seemed much easier to find the dancers and then let them improvise their lines in front of the camera.
Dance has meant a lot to you since you were young, but you’ve never been able to devote so much time to it in a film before Climax. What is it about dance that appeals to you?
It’s one of those things in real life that relaxes you. Besides watching movies, I like swimming, dancing and making love when you’re in love. Dancing’s quite easy if you live in a big city — there’s always parties, clubs. At least once or twice a week [when I was younger], I was in dance clubs. You move your arms and your legs — I don’t do sports, so that’s the only sport that I do.
There’s also this release that you get from dancing, which is similar to the euphoric high your films create. Do you see that connection?
Sometimes, especially with krump. I think that these dancers have a cinematic aspect. They’re very free inside with this type of dancing. They seem psychotic when they dance, and that’s why I wanted this type of street dancing: At the beginning [of the film], it’s all very playful, but in the second part of the movie [when the story turns darker], I need to push the strangeness of their dances.
Climax, like Enter the Void, tries to mimic the sensation of being on substances. For this movie, how did you get your cast to be all on the same zonked-out wavelength?
It was quite easy. I wasn’t really directing them. I was showing them two hours of footage that we took from the ‘Net — not only stoned people, but also drunk people being arrested at clubs, people coming back from rave parties out of their mind or people taking bath salts. It was fun for all the dancers — we were all loving watching it. [When I started filming] some people wanted to roll on the floor. Some other people wanted to scream. I watched the first take and would say [to some of the dancers], “Give me something different.”
Do people tell you that watching your movies is like being on drugs?
When you watch movies, you want to be transported somewhere, into an incredible world. I was transported as a kid when I saw 2001 for the first time. And yeah, I’m attracted to those movies that are like rollercoasters — visual rollercoasters or narrative rollercoasters. Because I like them, I’m trying to do those kinds of movies. I usually get very bored with movies with actors playing with close-ups of their faces when they talk and with lines that seem very learned. I used to watch lots of movies when I was young, but nowadays, I avoid the ones that aren’t playing with the language.
The extreme style of movies that you make, nobody else really does it.
There was one movie this year that was very similar to the second part of Climax: It’s called Utøya, about the massacre in Norway. They made a movie, 90 minutes long, but it’s all in one shot, and the camera is running after the main female character, and all the students have been massacred. The way they showed it, technically speaking, is somewhat similar to mine. They didn’t cut the scenes with different takes and keep the camera going — it’s just more natural and more claustrophobic.
You’ve said that Climax is “probably the funniest” movie you’ve made. So many bleak things happen in the film: What makes the movie funny to you?
The drama is so extreme in the second half, and the situations [get] so bad, that I see lots of people laughing watching Climax. It’s a kind of black humor. It was also the case with the [most recent] Lars von Trier movie: I went to Cannes and I was watching The House That Jack Built, and I couldn’t stop laughing. Some people were complaining around me, but there’s something unbelievable about what’s going on that [it becomes] a joke.
I wonder if that laughter is also the gleeful reaction of seeing things in your movies that other directors won’t include. Filmmakers don’t take the risks that you take.
Directors don’t take big risks besides [risking] failing commercially — if they go over the budget, sometimes they have to give back their salary.
Early in Climax, you have the dancers improvise conversations with one another. In one sequence, we see two guys talking about their sexual preferences in extreme ways. It’s the kind of thing movies don’t normally show us.
It would happen in real life, but you wouldn’t see those kinds of seedy jokes on screen, because in America all movies are financed on the basis of the screenplay, 90 pages long, in which all the lines are prewritten. And of course, if anybody shows that to an agency asking for an actor, they will say, “Hey, are you crazy?!?!” That’s the good thing about improvising a movie: You film the movie, you edit it and then you mix the sound. You’re not going to have all those [external] filters.
The film includes a title card that reads, “Death is an extraordinary experience.” Why do you say that?
It comes from the death of my mother, which I saw. When it happened, it was a very climactic moment. And I don’t know why Western society is always portraying death as the end of all things or something devilish. No, death in some cases is the best thing that can happen. It can be an extraordinary experience — it’s an experience that no one can come back from and describe. The beginning and the end [of life], they’re the same. Living is a [collaborative] possibility. That’s how I make my movies: This is my most [collaborative] project ever, and the whole movie is about people giving a show. It’s like a Tower of Babel, and then everything collapses because of the same people [who are] making it.
You’re often described as a provocateur. How do you feel about that?
I don’t like that term — not because of what it is, but I don’t like the fact that, in America or in England, you use a French word. My movies are, how would you say, raw. When you see Pasolini movies, Cronenberg movies or Taxi Driver, I don’t know if they were provocateurs or what. I just know that I can watch those movies over and over. I think Peeping Tom is a masterpiece. As a director, I try to do movies like the kind of movies that I like to see. I’m not trying to provoke people.
Because the film prominently features the French flag on the wall of the central location, some have read Climax as a commentary on national strife. You’ve insisted that’s not the case, but is it ever flattering when critics choose to read themes and ideas into your movies that aren’t there?
That’s true also for painters, for writers, for poets. For me, you create things alone or with other people, but once the result is finished, there are things that become evident that you didn’t even think about in the process of creating them, painting them or writing them.
We didn’t expect to shoot anything in the snow. But one day, it was snowing in Paris. And so I asked one [of the actors], “Can we have one or two takes of you in the snow?” It happened by accident, because one day it was snowing in Paris. But after shooting the movie, they all said, “Oh, it was intentional. It’s an homage to The Shining.” No, it was just a last-minute idea.
In Climax’s second half, the characters grow more and more under the sway of their spiked drinks —
They’re also mostly under the influence of fear or paranoia. You don’t know how much they’re really under the influence of alcohol. I’ve been in situations in clubs where people who were very drunk turn absolutely crazy just because they cannot handle alcohol or a mix of whiskey and vodka. Some sweet people can turn into monsters with alcohol.
It brings to mind a question: Is our true selves our sober selves? Or do we reveal who we really are when we’re stoned or drunk?
Mostly, we’re very rational during the daytime. And we work with the part of the brain, called the neocortex, that permits humans to communicate verbally, to write, to play chess. But when you’re drunk, sometimes the neocortex stops working, and what becomes the boss is the reptilian brain — it’s all about survival of the species, and people can become extremely cruel. Most people have one to three faces, and they’re not the same person according to who they’re talking to, depending on the day, or under the influence of what substance. People can be angels and turn into devils.
Artists have often relied on substances for inspiration. Do you?
There are some chemicals that you can buy in pharmacies, like Adderall, that wake up your brain. Legal speed makes you productive for a short time. You can write all night long. Those chemicals can be productive for a short time. Psychedelics, I haven’t done so much. You see all kinds of weird visions. I barely tried LSD in my life, as a teenager. I heard about micro-dosing — just take a very, very little of it, and it makes you more relaxed — but [substances] can be good in a good amount, with the right people, in the right context.
If you overdose, it’s like alcohol, where if you take one drink, it can make you happier and friendlier, but when you drink the whole bottle, you’re such a mess. I’ve been curious in my life, but I’ve never been addicted to anything, and I wouldn’t rave about the experiences. But for whoever is strong enough, go for it, but in the safest context.
Climax has gotten far more glowing reviews across the board than your previous work, which tended to be pretty divisive. Is that strange for you?
Not everybody liked the movie, but I was surprised to have such a high percentage of good reviews compared to the percentage of good reviews that I had for my past movies. In [Climax], because you have like 23 characters, they’re all lovely, they’re all creative. So when it comes to the second part of the movie [when bad things happen], there’s some kind of empathy. Very clearly, the characters of my [earlier] features were making wrong choices all the time, and they were getting into problems that made them sadder and sadder. I mostly did movies about people who could be identified as losers.
What draws you to losers in your films?
In life I know much more losers than winners. They’re around me. In France, people complain all the time about their lives. There aren’t so many people around you that you really admire as heroes. I’ve never done a movie with heroes. I love that character played by Ethan Hawke [in First Reformed] — the situations turn this guy into an antihero. I like characters that are present. I like drama about people who are trying to make life better but it just gets worse and worse.
Speaking of things getting worse and worse, Irreversible now feels more relevant because of the #MeToo era.
In many ways, Irreversible was inspired by American movies like Straw Dogs and other strong adult movies made [in reaction to] major commercial movies in the 1970s. Those kinds of movies have kind of disappeared from the big market nowadays — it’s all these Marvel movies or movies for kids. In France when the movie happened, it happened because I had no script but I had an idea: It’s going be a revenge story told backwards. My [backers] said, “Let’s go for it,” and the movie happened. If I had written a proper screenplay, I’m sure that no one would have financed it. The movie industry has become far more conservative in its depiction of life, while documentaries are [truer] every day.
People never could see past the sex scenes in Love. The idea of real sex unnerves moviegoers —
Especially in America, far more than anywhere else, besides the Muslim countries or other religious countries, or in China. I had much more psychotic questions in America. But there’s something about male nudity — it’s funny how it disturbs people in America. I don’t think it’s any more disturbing than the hand or the foot or anything else — it’s just a part of the human body. And it’s also the part that generates life, it generates love, it generates affection. I link sexuality to something that’s hyper-positive.
That must have been frustrating, how countries like America freak out over such content.
It’s not only in America. It’s Western society in general. Since you’re a kid, you play with plastic machine guns — you watch movies about war or about aliens invading your planet and you have to kill the aliens. In the Western world, people celebrate the cult of war and try to put sensuality under the table.
In the end then, who do you make your movies for? Are they just to entertain yourself?
When you do Q&As, you end up meeting lots of people — some of them are similar to you in many ways. You don’t do the movies just for yourself. You think of your own taste and your friends’ taste first. You’re not running for president, so you don’t need to have half of the country voting for you. If you have the one percent of the country that you like buying tickets to see your movie, you’re extremely happy.