Gaspar Noé : « I’ve made almost all my films by breaking and entering »

Article publié le 9 mai 2022

Interview by Maxime Retailleau taken from Antidote’s « Persona » Issue (spring-summer 2022). Translator: Rachel Valinsky.

Cult director Gaspar Noé is back with Vortex. His sixth feature film plunges us into the throes of Alzheimer’s disease, which Françoise Lebrun’s character suffers from, through a split screen that follows her day-to-day life with her husband, played by the master of giallo, Dario Argento. The movie marks a turning point in the director’s career, while revisiting his obsessions. As Philippe Nahon’s character declared at the beginning of Irreversible, “Time destroys everything.” 

ANTIDOTE: Vortex is, in my opinion, your most poignant and moving movie. Was the making and editing of this film, which draws in part on autobiographical elements, particularly difficult for you?
GASPAR NOÉ: When you make a movie, you become immersed in the subject, but making a film is like making an imitation of something, it doesn’t make you relive something you’ve already experienced. The first time I was exposed to this kind of situation was at a bit of a distance, when my maternal grandmother lost her mind, and then I experienced it closer up, when it happened to my mother, because of her age. She was the smartest person in the world, and she ended up losing her memory, and then some of her cognitive capabilities. When you’re faced with that, you feel like you are in front of someone on drugs, because you can’t understand how the other person perceives her surroundings. There are a lot of totally psychotic situations that are painful for the person who is going through them, but also for the entire family trying to help them.
When my mother was dying, I was in Buenos Aires, but I came back to France briefly to go to the Cannes Film Festival, where I saw Amour [by Michael Haneke]. I cried my eyes out, but I thought it was a good thing that someone had made a film on this topic, which is universal. Haneke did not invent the subject, but he is the first to have made a movie on it that has received so many awards and been so widely shown. The end of life is a sphere of existence that was considered non-commercial, but Amour was a very profitable and successful film, so I thought I would maybe make a movie about it one day, but in my own way, something more akin to Jean Eustache’s aesthetic than to Haneke’s.
But it was life itself that inspired me to make Vortex, not cinema. Three men I was very close to, who were like adoptive fathers to me, died one after the other in 2020: two because of Covid and one because of a heart problem. In the space of three months, I went to the Père-Lachaise cemetery three times, after having seen those people – intubated or not – just before they died. I had to face an omnipresence of these kinds of situations. But Vortex isn’t autobiographical.

« I asked myself: «How can I make a feature film that is not a psychological horror movie, but rather an existential horror movie where, in the end, the flesh, the brain, and the past all decay at the same time?». »

When did you decide to take the plunge and start making the film?
I hadn’t shot a feature film in a year. I needed to pay my rent, and my producers, Vincent Maraval and Édouard Weil, approached me and asked: “Do you have an idea for a film that we could shoot during confinement, in an apartment, with few characters? We shot the film in March and April 2021 and finished it in a hurry so that we could show it at Cannes. I had been wanting to make a film about an old couple for a long time, about the difficulty of surviving because of senility, cancer, or heart problems. It’s like a survival movie, but in a completely mundane, urban, intellectual context. In the end, the story is very banal, because in every family there are grandparents who lose their minds, who have heart attacks or strokes. I asked myself: “How can I make a feature film that is not a psychological horror movie, but rather an existential horror movie where, in the end, the flesh, the brain, and the past all decay at the same time?.

You yourself narrowly escaped death in late December 2019, following a cerebral hemorrhage from which you miraculously emerged safe and sound after several weeks of hospitalization. Can you discuss this period of your life?
Just before you have a brain hemorrhage, it’s like you’ve taken poppers. Your heart starts beating fast and all of a sudden you hear a tiny explosion in your brain, and then you’re stunned. I was very scared, and when I recovered, I told myself I had been really lucky. It taught me humility.
The first thing they asked me to do after my hemorrhage was to quit smoking. I did use ecstasy from time to time, although I was never a heavy synthetic drug user, but I stopped completely. Now I only drink beer or wine in small doses and about once every three weeks I have a shot of vodka. I don’t want to be in such a troubling and painful situation ever again, because it hurts like hell. It’s like the Battle of Verdun is going on in your brain 24/7 for three weeks. I didn’t think it was possible to have migraines like that, and the morphine barely appeased the sound of the explosions.
For a long time, I had been thinking that there was one drug I hadn’t tried yet, and that was it. In the hospital, I had access to an IV, and all I had to do was push a button and the morphine would send me over the moon.
Did you have constant access to it?
Yeah, but it’s capped. It feels like opium in high doses. A week after my brain hemorrhage started, Gravity, a movie I love, was playing on a little TV across the room. I was so high on morphine that I felt like I was in a little capsule circling around the TV. It was a much more psychedelic experience than any of the previous times I had seen it in 3D, whether at the Pathé Wepler, or elsewhere. I was happy. 
To return to Vortex, although this feature-length film is very different from your previous ones – in particular because of the narrative slowness, which you fully commit to – it reprises some of the themes that run through your filmography, namely mind-wandering, entropy, the survival instinct, and death.
Some of my films are more nihilistic than others though, like Enter the Void and this one. Nihilism is almost a film genre in and of itself. At the end of Vortex, you feel like life has been given to you only to be automatically erased. Everything you believed in ends up in the trash. I didn’t want Vortex to be a provocative or humorous movie. I always said that I would make a serious film one day. In the movie, Dario says, “Life is a dream within a dream.” It was his idea to say that, and I identify with the reasoning in this sentence. This dream that we call “existence” is so futile that it’s not even worth asking ourselves if there is such a thing as the afterlife; we should actually be asking ourselves if there is really a life that comes before death.

Vortex, by Gaspar Noé. On the left: Françoise Lebrun. On the right: Alex Lutz.
Beyond improvising, Dario Argento also influenced the script of the film. Namely, he told you that he wanted his character to have a mistress.
I went to see Dario in Rome to ask him to play the male lead. He said to me: “But I am young!” To which I replied that he was 80 years old. He insisted:“But I look younger, and I am not at all senile, I’m full of energy, I am going to make new films. I don’t want to act in a film about the end of life, why do you want me?” I told him, “Because you’re charismatic, and it’s going to be fun.” I’ve known him for a long time, I’ve always found him super friendly. I wanted the future spectators to be moved to embrace the two
main characters.
I suggested to Dario that we choose his character’s profession together. We had already discussed the fact that he could be a film critic because that was his job before he became a director. Then his daughter, Asia, called me that evening and said, “My father has agreed to act in the film, but he wants his character to have a mistress.” He wanted his character’s world to be more complex. He didn’t want to be someone whose life was tied to his wife’s, as was written in the first draft of the script. I thought that was a good idea. As soon as he arrived, he tried on different outfits. The costume designer was younger than him. He said, “It could even be her.” She agreed to play this small role, and everyone was happy. Even the son of the character played by Dario is aware of their affair, which I think adds to the complexity of the story. He loves his father and his mother, but at the same time, there are secrets, as in every family. Realpolitik prevails.
Was it easier to convince Françoise Lebrun to play in the film?
We didn’t have the same field of reference, but she thought, “At least he has his own way of filming, and he films well.” She had already accepted, not so much because of the ten sloppy pages I had written, but because of my previous films. The best way to judge a director is to see his past feature films. Yet she wasn’t completely on board, because her agreement was conditional upon the choice of the actor who would play the husband. If he didn’t suit her, she might have pulled out of the project. Françoise Lebrun and Dario Argento had never met, they didn’t even know each other’s work, but I thought that they could be a good match, and that they would be really moving on screen. After introducing Dario to Françoise, she confirmed that she would be in the film. 

« Films are like children; they have their own personalities. I don’t have any children, but I have made movies, and sometimes I think: «It’s not what I originally had in mind, but the film has its own identity, and it has to follow that direction.» »

You give your actors a lot of leeway to improvise dialogues. What instructions did you give them while shooting Vortex?
I don’t usually provide a script, I let people do it their own way. If the scene is good, we keep it, and if it’s not, we cut it. I had already done this when I made Climax; I wasn’t about to tell the dancers how to dance. For Vortex, I told the three main actors to invent their roles. I did give more specific instructions to Françoise, because she’s so on the ball, of course, and so different from her character. She loves the spoken word, the script, but I told her that she had to speak with her eyes, that she had to stammer, and that we shouldn’t always be able to understand what she’s saying. I think at first she was a little frustrated or annoyed by that, but then she agreed that it was the right thing to do. It was a very different kind of performance than what she had done before: she had to rely on instinct, act like she was high. She’s fabulous in the film, but her performance is the opposite of what she’s done in other features, like The Mother and the Whore, in which she recited the text in full.     

Alex Lutz is best known as a comedian, specifically for his role in the shortcom Catherine et Liliane. How did you know that he would be the right person to play the son of these characters, played by Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun?
I had heard good things about his film Guy [which Alex Lutz directed and in which he plays the lead role, editor’s note] and I saw it on a plane. I thought: “Damn, this guy’s transformation into a 70-year-old singer is amazing.” The movie is very melancholic. Later on, I found out he was doing stand-up on TV, but at first I had no idea he was a comedian. It turns out we had met briefly at an awards ceremony. He told me he loved what I was doing, and I said, “I loved your movie, congratulations.” We exchanged contact information and much later, when Dario agreed to do the film, I thought: “Who could play the son, someone who’s a little lost, who might physically resemble the mother and father?” Since Dario has a long face, and Alex also has a long face and likes to transform himself, I decided to call him. When I saw him again, I found him very sweet, bright, and melancholic.
I saw one of his shows afterwards. When you see him on stage, you laugh your ass off from start to finish, but in real life, it feels like he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. I thought, “This is it; these three people all have the intelligence and talent needed to play this family in a believable way.” A lot of people have said to me, “It doesn’t feel like they’re improvising or reciting a script at all, it feels like a documentary about a real family.” That’s an accomplishment for them and for me too because the spectator can suspend disbelief. When I’m watching a film, as soon as I notice the make-up, the hair styling, a misplaced projector, I’m pulled out of that documentary aspect, I feel disconnected. In Vortex, the light is ultra-realistic, and they act so well that you don’t even feel like they are actors. A lot of people have told me that they’ve always found the use of the split screen to be artificial, but that for once, they thought it was a natural fit.
With time, you have acquired a cult following as director. Are you aware of this?
Yes. Wherever I go, even for a screening of Vortex, where the characters are 80 years old, the theaters are always full of 18-to-25-year-olds. That’s because all of my recent films were about young kids discovering sex and getting high. So now, they must be thinking that Gaspar Noé and Dario Argento means there will be a Climax 2, with gloved, sadistic characters and zombies [laughs].

« I’m actually a real film junkie, it’s my main drug. »

Speaking of Climax, I read that before you started directing the film, you attended a voguing ball for the first time, in December 2017. How did you hear about it?
I had met a girl named Léa Vlamos three weeks earlier, on a commercial shoot directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, for which a choreography had been prepared. We talked, she told me she did voguing and gave me her contact information. I watched a video of her dancing. I wasn’t familiar with this style, but I thought it was great. I’ve always liked to watch people dance. She invited me to a ball, and I asked my production manager to come with me. The dancers had a very joyful energy. I filmed as much as I could with my cell phone and got some people’s contact information. The following week, I wanted to film them dancing, so I started to come up with a plan to make a movie that would be almost like a documentary. I then wanted to combine it with another story I had been thinking about, and against all odds, even though there was no script, Arte invested in the project. Climax was not a huge commercial success, but it was released worldwide. The only real commercial success I’ve had so far is Irreversible. I made it thinking it would be a flop, because I thought it would mostly be shown at midnight screenings.
I was wondering if it was difficult to convince Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel to play in Irreversible, given that they had refused to do Love, which you’d already written a short screenplay for?
Sophia Loren made a film with De Sica, released in 1960, called La Ciociara, in which an Italian woman and her daughter are raped by North African soldiers in a church. It won her the Oscar for best actress, the first time a foreigner had received it.
Monica Bellucci wanted to play in Irreversible, especially since she had just shot Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra, where she was really the film’s trophy. She often had roles that focused on the desire she elicits. Pretty Woman is good, but when you see Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, it’s even better. There are roles in which women really exist.
Vincent had seen Seul contre tous [I Stand Alone] and had already asked me: “When are we going to make a movie?” I was also friends with Albert Dupontel [who plays the ex of Monica Belluci’s character, editor’s note]. We were all available and we all wanted to make this film. Just like Françoise, Dario, and Alex were available to play in Vortex. I’ve often made movies with people who are available for just a month and a half or two months. Irreversible, Climax, and Vortex were shot in that order, in a very short period of time. These are three movies that were conceived, shot, and edited very quickly. 
It’s a shame that you have occasionally had to wait a long time for funding, otherwise you could have made many more films.
No, because the funding for Irreversible happened in no time. 
I was thinking more about Enter the Void.
Right, but it’s also because the film was long and expensive. In fact, it was my most expensive movie. It’s a feature film in which the main character becomes a ghost and I wanted to shoot in Japan, which increased the financial risk for the producers, so they were right to delay the production. Vincent Maraval and the other producers were really cool, because they still let me shoot as I pleased, even though it was a real gamble. I won out as a director and so did they as artistic producers, but financially, it was a loss for them. Sometimes people say that the director’s job is difficult, that you can be ripped apart by the press, but they don’t throw knives at you, on the contrary, they make you exist when they speak badly of you. On the other hand, when people lose money, that’s real. Getting bad reviews is not the end of the world. As a director, when I make a film that looks like me, I’m happy, that’s my ultimate goal. The important thing is to be able to show it to Cronenberg, to Dario Argento, to my father, to my mother. They are my primary audience. 
People sometimes refer to you as the enfant terrible of cinema…
The terrible old unkie now [laughs].
Haha. But as far as your family is concerned, it doesn’t seem like you built yourself in opposition to the parental model or that you rejected the education you received from your mother – who was a cinephile – and your father – who is a painter. On the contrary.
When I was 10 or 11, my mother took me to see The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant at the Goethe Institute in Buenos Aires. I discovered what a lesbian was by watching this film. Then, as soon as I arrived in France, when I was 13, my parents took me to a screening of Fellini’s Casanova, and on my 18th birthday, my mother took me to see Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, because she thought it was important for me to see how cruel men can be.
In France, bawdiness has been a libertarian pillar, but my parents were never into that. They weren’t against pornography, but they weren’t for it either, unlike some of my friends’ sixty-eighter parents, who advocated for sexual liberation. My parents were not conservative, but even to this day, my father doesn’t understand pornography.

« I don’t think there are many directors who have shown their erect sex in 3D at the Cannes Film Festival, on Europe’s largest screen. »

You were immersed in cinema from a very young age, but you were also a great fan of comics, and you studied philosophy. Why did you finally decide to devote yourself to the seventh art?
I finished the École Louis-Lumière at 19, because at the time it was a two-year course. I thought I was still too young to work, but the director Fernando Solanas offered me a position as his assistant, and I ended up working for him while I attended university at Tolbiac [Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne], just across the street from where I lived, as an amateur. I enrolled two years in a row, but I didn’t go to all the classes and didn’t take the exams.
As for comics, it’s an art form that I like a lot, but it’s a very solitary activity, whereas cinema is a collective art, which is much more enjoyable in every single way. I couldn’t be a writer; I couldn’t be alone. And I’m better at framing with a camera than drawing. I’m actually a real film junkie, it’s my main drug. I’ve never been addicted to coke or anything like that. When I’m in a paralyzing situation, or depressed, or it’s raining, all I need is a can of chickpeas for lunch, and I can watch three movies in a single day. It makes me happy. 
Speaking of drugs, I heard that you were on MDMA while shooting the party scene in Irreversible.
We were all high during that scene. I couldn’t hold the camera, there was a staircase to climb, and I kept falling, so I finally had to hand it off to someone else. I never got high on a set again after that. One time, I smoked a joint while I was an assistant director on a film by Fernando Solanas. I had a stupid task to do: sweep up the dog shit on the banks of the Seine so that people could dance. But sometimes, when you smoke too much, you get paranoid. Instead of removing the shit, I spread it all around, it was a nightmare. I got worried that people would slip on it. Even something easy to do gets complicated after you smoke a joint. I told myself that I would never smoke again while I’m working.
After you began working for Fernando Solanas, you directed some short films, including Carne, which preceded your first film Seul contre tous [I Stand Alone]. They both have voiceovers that immerse us in the stream of consciousness of the butcher’s character (played by Philippe Nahon), who sinks ever deeper into hatred and despair. How did you write the script for these interior monologues?
I asked myself, “What would I be like if I were a 50-year-old French working-class man in a state of crisis?” In most of my films, the characters are not heroic. They are pretty much all losers, except in the last film, where you get the sense that they were successful in life and that now the arrow of time is destroying them. But Vincent Cassel’s character in Irreversible is not heroic. Karl Glusman’s character in Love wants to make movies, but he makes very stupid choices. In Enter the Void, Oscar makes one mistake after another. A lot of my friends are losers, but I love them. When your friends make mistakes, you can learn from them to prevent them from happening to you. It’s happened all around me, drug binges, toxic relationships, unplanned children that lead people to change their lives. My films illustrate the mistakes my friends have made.
I tried to include more voice over in Enter the Void, but it didn’t work. I don’t know if it’s because of Nathaniel Brown’s voice or because I wasn’t inspired enough with the sound editing. We recorded a lot of stuff and I took it out because I realized it wasn’t working. Sometimes, I shoot sequences and then realize that they don’t work, so I cut them. I had to reevaluate the concept. Films are like children; they have their own personalities. I don’t have any children, but I have made movies, and sometimes I think: “It’s not what I originally had in mind, but the film has its own identity, and it has to follow that direction.”
With Philippe Nahon, when we made Carne, I had written dialogues, but then, when I made my first feature-length films, I realized that it was much more fun to let people just exist in front of the camera rather than give them a prewritten text that comes from your own vocabulary and way of thinking. The more you back off from the people you’re filming, the more moving it becomes.

Are there any actors you’d like to play in one of your films one day and why?
I would love to do a feature-length film with Scorsese, who has already acted in films, because he is very funny. I like to work with actors who are also directors. I would love to do a movie with Mel Gibson too. With guys like that, you know you’re going to wake up in a good mood because you’re going to have fun at breakfast and dinner. I want to work with people who have a passion for life and have interesting stories to tell. American actors who come to mind include Jim Carrey, Joaquin Phoenix, Benicio del Toro, and Jennifer Lawrence.
You have made cameos in some of your own films, in roles that are not particularly flattering. In Irreversible, we see you masturbate very briefly in the beginning, in the nightclub Le Rectum. Why did you want to make this appearance?
Maybe I needed to show my cock [laughs]. But I didn’t have an erection, because my camera assistant and my assistant director, who were standing right in front of me, started making jokes. They were like, “Oh yeah, we’re turning you on,” so I only had a half-boner. But I got it up afterwards. In Love, I showed my cock again. I was wearing a wig to make it look like I was someone else, but it was me, and that time, I was hard. I don’t think there are many directors who have shown their erect sex in 3D at the Cannes Film Festival, on Europe’s largest screen. 
You are probably a pioneer in this field. You had to wait many years before you could finally shoot Love, unlike Irreversible. Are there other films you’ve been trying to shoot for a long time, but haven’t been able to make yet?
There’s often a combination of factors that work to my advantage. I’d like to make a film in Kinshasa, a bit like I did in Tokyo, out of my own sphere of reference. It just so happens that a city that I liked a lot, that I wanted to spend some time in to make a film, is Kyiv. This is obviously no longer possible. Or maybe I should go and make a film in Buenos Aires, where my father still lives, but since the immediate future is quite hectic, I’m finding it hard to make up my mind. I haven’t started pre-production or writing for anything yet.
Making movies is like throwing a dinner party: you don’t really know who’s going to show up until the last second. The best situations are when you are able to cancel the dinner at the last minute if you think it’s going to be a flop, or when you can completely improvise one when there are four fabulous people in town and you know it’s going to be good.

« The advantage of not having a script that is too specific is that you can’t be asked to remove dialogue. »

Political correctness is increasingly encouraged within the cultural field. Do you fear that it will end up stifling artistic freedom in cinema? You said in an interview that it would be impossible to finance a film like Irreversible today.
Political correctness is much more pervasive in the United States and in England than in France. I’ve made almost all my films by breaking and entering. The advantage of not having a script that is too specific is that you can’t be asked to remove dialogue. In Climax, the dancers improvised some great dialogues, but if I had written them, a TV station would certainly have told me I couldn’t keep them in. In Irreversible, the dialogues were improvised too. The one with the rapist would have been unthinkable to write down and then try to get money for. There are things that are much easier to represent in a documentary, but when it comes to fiction, people want the director to have a pre-established moral point of view.
Vortex is your most naturalistic film, and you also made a short film about a Burkinabe with AIDS in 2008, as part of a collective documentary in eight parts, titled 8. Would you like to make your own documentary one day?
Yes, I would. The advantage of making a documentary is that you can store up material and when you shoot one, you need much less funding. You don’t make as much money, but there aren’t fixed deadlines and people let you do your thing. But as always, you need to be supported by smart people who aren’t trying to teach you your own job.

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