Over the years, the French-Argentine director Gaspar Noé has gained a rather notorious reputation as a provocateur (a word he hates), thanks to the brutal imagery in films like Irreversible (which opened with a man getting his face repeatedly bashed in with a fire hydrant, and then proceeded toward a nine-minute rape scene) and I Stand Alone (which actually pauses at one point to warn the viewer that they have 30 seconds to leave the theater before the shocking ending). His latest audacious project is Enter the Void, an expansive, effects-driven tale about a dead junkie’s soul drifting into the Tokyo night and passing between different levels of being. A sex-drenched epic hovering between psychedelic melodrama, medium-transforming experimental film, and postmodern city symphony, it’s already one of the most divisive films of the year, attracting both ebullient praise and snickering condemnation. We sat down with Noé to discuss the reactions to his film, his obsession with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and, of course, drugs.
The finale of your last film, Irreversible, featured a very prominently placed poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey. And now Enter the Void seems to directly evoke 2001.
I think the biggest cinematic moment in my life history is when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the age of 6. I think of it as the first drugs I ever took, just watching that movie with my parents. Even today, I collect old posters of 2001 and interviews with Kubrick. And I guess like 2001, this is mainly a big-budget underground movie, but it could only have been made in Europe. If it wasn’t me, then maybe it would be Lars von Trier or somebody making it. But I don’t know how many people will try to do what we did. It was pretty exhausting.
In some weird way, Enter the Void also feels like the art-film counterpart to Avatar, in that it depicts a character immersed in another world, entering an alternate reality, and having to make a break with the world he knows.
Yes, there have been some comparisons to Avatar, in one way or another. Avatar is very mind-blowing — or eye-blowing, maybe — especially in 3-D. Plus, both movies are like taking drugs. I’m sure [James] Cameron did some mushrooms. Those scenes in the forest with the glowing plants — if you’ve ever done mushrooms anytime in your life, you know those are exactly the kind of visions you have. I’m sure he must have done some “mental research” before he made that movie.
But Cameron is pretty firmly on record as saying he doesn’t do drugs.
Maybe so. And Kubrick also said he didn’t need drugs to make a psychedelic movie. For example, all the people who work on the VFX for these movies, they don’t do drugs at all. Not even mushrooms. There are other directors who do this sort of thing. Michel Gondry also does very trippy images, and I know for a fact that he’s clean as water. So maybe it’s true.
It sounds as though you’ve done some, shall we say, “mental research” yourself.
The idea for the movie began with mushrooms. One day, in my 20s, I was with friends, and had done too many mushrooms. It was too much and I went back home. That night, I turned on the TV as I was coming down, and it was showing Lady in the Lake, the Robert Montgomery film noir that’s filmed entirely through the character’s eyes. I wasn’t so much hallucinating at that point, but I thought it would be great to make a movie like this and add all the experiences I had today on mushrooms — telepathic perception, strange colors around people, the sense of floating. A color movie from the P.O.V. of a guy who’s tripping out. At the time, I was reading books about life after life, about astral projections. I don’t believe in those things, but I wished I could have one. You always have a friend who says, “Oh, I had a car crash and I came out of my body.” So I started playing with my breathing — you know, you inhale-exhale for over two minutes or whatever. I actually did get stoned, but I never came out of my body. I even tried hypnosis: I went to a school for hypnosis, to see if I could have an astral projection. But that never worked either. So I realized the only way for me to have an astral projection was to make a movie, and to put on the screen the images that I thought you would see in one.
Did you do any drugs while making the film?
Once you start making movies, it’s very hard to do plants or drugs, because the energy you need to direct a movie needs to be so high. And marijuana makes me so paranoid that even when I’m in a room with people smoking joints I have to go to the other side of the room. If you’re in a good mood, you drink two vodkas, you feel even better. But if you’re in a good mood, and people smoke marijuana around you, it’s hard to communicate with them. But between 17 and 25, I was pretty out there. And I guess the main audience for this movie are the young kids. People between 17 or 23. I remember Kubrick also said that he expected 2001 would talk to an adult audience, but it was mostly the kids and the hippies who liked the movie.
We keep talking about 2001, but I sense other influences as well in the film.
Well, there are lots of trippy movies out there. There are some great scenes in the movie Altered States, but there are lots of elements in it that don’t work for me. Videodrome is trippier than that. The other movie that’s really up there along with 2001 is Kenneth Anger’s The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. And then you get all these abstract movies by Jordan Belsen. Actually, Kubrick wanted Jordan Belsen as an adviser for the trippy scenes at the end of 2001, and he also proposed it to one of the Whitney brothers, the one who did Lapis. They turned down his proposal, but he still used the slit-scan machine the Whitney brothers created to do the special effects. Jordan Belson turned down the proposal, but he did do some stuff for The Right Stuff and The Demon Seed.
Despite your reputation for making brutal films, I’ve always found your films to be strangely uplifting. Both Enter the Void and Irreversible end on sublime, maternal images. Irreversible is telling its story backwards, but it’s also, when you think about it, telling a linear tale about Vincent Cassel’s character’s evolution - people call him an “ape” and a “primate” throughout the movie - into someone who will understand the futility of revenge.
Did you notice that in Irreversible at the beginning, the real murderer is actually watching the killing? So if you put the movie in the right order, you see that it’s really dark, because they kill the wrong guy and the rapist is smiling. But it’s true, my films are sentimental, in a way. They’re very mammal films.
I’ve been reading books recently about brain biology. One thing I learned is that we have three brains. You have the reptilian brain, and then above that you have a second one that’s not connected to this one, the mammal brain. And then you have the neo-cortex, which most other species don’t have. It’s like having three computers, and sometimes they have different solutions. Sometimes they have three very different solutions to a very urgent situation. Maybe you’re with a girlfriend who cheated on you. And your reptile brain says to smash her face in, your mammal brain says, “Oh, she’s so sweet, how could I ever hurt her,” and your brainiac brain says, “How can I manage her so that she does not see the guy again, or maybe that you shouldn’t scream at her because if I do then she’ll go away?” And some people are better at different solutions.
Which one are you good at?
It depends. There are situations in life when you can feel in yourself the reptile, or the pig you are, or the monkey you are. And you know that you’re a chess player at the same time. There’s a part of us that is mammal, there’s a part of us that’s reptilian, and then there’s this small part that’s human that can calculate the future. I needed that brainiac quality of the human species to direct this movie and to be able to calculate all the things I would have to do with the crew. I can always pretend to be pessimistic, but I’m not a pessimist. I think I’m just realistic about the reptilian condition of the human species.
So, are you an optimist then?
I’m optimistic in the way that anyone who wants to do something unusual has to be optimistic that it can be done. This movie, it took me so long to make it, but at some point I had to know that it could be made, that I could do it. Making a movie is like being in an army, and you have to be convincing people all the time that your decisions are correct. You can understand why most people fail on their way to do the movie they wanted to do, because they have to manage all these other people. You know that things could be done if you had the right amount of money and the right amount of time, but you never have that. The only thing that you have is to convince people to work overnight and to do things your way and ask for extra hours, even though they have babies at home. You have to be an optimist and to cross your fingers and know that you’re going to get somewhere. If you’re a pessimist, then you should just stay at home and do heroin.
Would you call yourself a provocateur? Because plenty of people definitely would.
I don’t like the word provocateur. It sounds like a social disease coming from France. In France, we call it “the pervert in the room.” Sometimes at film festivals they need a French pervert in the room. I know that there are some kinds of films that I really like because they’re maybe daring, deep, whatever — I love Deliverance, I love Taxi Driver, I love Pasolini’s Salo, but I don’t think they provoke for provocation’s sake. They’re having fun with the audience, like William Castle or Lars von Trier can have fun with the audience. Like Alfred Hitchcock when he made Psycho or Frenzy. Even James Cameron is now having fun with the audience. You know that at the end there are some films that talk to everybody.
Do you think Enter the Void can speak to everybody?
In some senses. The scene of the car crash, that scene I think talks to everybody, because it’s a common fear we have about loss. In this case, that’s also why I made these characters a brother and sister and not a regular couple. Because I wanted them to share a common traumatic experience. And they could not have witnessed their parents’ deaths as children if they were a couple.
How did you go about making up rules for this world? For example, there seem to be certain ways that his spirit can pass from one place to another in the film.
This was hard to figure out how to represent. His mental trip is structured according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is what he’s reading when he gets shot. And there it says there are two first lights that come to you, very bright lights. After that, there are other color lights that come to you, and these are like different gates that can take your soul somewhere else. I didn’t know how to represent them. It took some time to find the right kind of imagery for those vortex scenes.
How about the ending? Are you willing to explain it at all?
There’s one thing about the ending that I want to say. I didn’t want to show the sister giving birth, but the mother. He hasn’t been reborn as someone else or something like that. We’re just not sure if he’s just starting the loop of his life again, or if it’s maybe just his first memory, like maybe the strongest memory of his life is the moment he came into the world. I don’t believe in telling people you can suffer this life because you’re rewarded in a future life. It’s like telling people that you’ll go to paradise and meet virgins. Why don’t you just tell people that they’re dead? You come, you see, and you go. That’s also why the title came at the end, “Void.” His life is not a void, but it’s kind of a maze. There’s nothing beyond it. Or, maybe there’s something beyond, but your soul isn’t part of it. It’s funny how much the lie of a life after life works with people. Even people who are non-believers seem to think that their soul is going to survive.