“I’m so used to bad reviews,” Gaspar Noé told me yesterday, on a rooftop in Cannes. He wasn’t lamenting their existence, though: “I really enjoy them when they’re very mean! I’ve always wanted to make a poster out of my bad reviews and frame it.”
To tout his new film Climax, Noé essentially did just that. The one-sheet for the movie features a picture of the 54-year-old director with a demonic smile on his face and ticks off Noé’s other taboo-pushing projects like a harrowing walk down memory lane. “You despised I Stand Alone,” the poster taunts, referencing Noé’s incest-laden debut. “You hated Irreversible,” it adds, and many critics certainly did, thanks to the movie’s scenes of graphic rape and violence. Then, after sneering at the squares who panned his last two projects — the hallucinogenic Enter the Void and the pornographic Love — the poster throws down the gauntlet: “Now try Climax.”
Here’s the twist: This past week at the Cannes Film Festival, after the press finally got the chance to sample Climax — a wild horror musical where a dance troupe’s spiked drinks cause them to turn on one another — the critics actually went gaga for it. Noé, a natural-born provocateur, had somehow made a crowd-pleasing hit. “They said it’s like a Busby Berkeley movie directed by Pasolini, or Fame directed by the Marquis de Sade,” said Noé. He shook his head, not yet used to all the acclaim. “I expected a worse response than my previous movies,” he admitted. “The last movie I did had 85 percent negative press. On this one, I said, ‘I hope I get 90.’”
Climax came together quickly after a friend, the dancer Lea Vlamos, invited Noé to a voguing ball in Paris last summer. “The energy was so happening, so crazy,” said Noé. “I’ve never been to a party or a club that I enjoyed as much.” The director found himself inspired by all the young dancers, and after meeting the well-connected DJ Kiddy Smile, Noé was introduced to even more. Noé had been contemplating another film project at the time — something “shamanistic,” he said — and decided to adapt his idea to suit a group of dancers for a down-and-dirty project he could shoot in no more than two weeks.
Off a one-page outline, he enticed The Mummy star Sofia Boutella to topline the film. Boutella, a former dancer, convinced Noé to hire Nina McNeely to choreograph Climax — a decision that paid off in spades, since the film’s first, extended dance sequence is an all-time marvel. Once the other dancers were hired, Noé gave free rein to them to improvise even, though none of them but Boutella had ever acted onscreen before.
“I was always asking them to bring their own ideas because people are never better than when they are doing it their own way,” said Noé. “It was very fun to create the movie like a collective. I was asking every actor, ‘Who do you want to kiss? Who do you want to fuck?’ Originally, I told Sofia her character would cheat, and I asked her, ‘Who do you want to play your lover?’ She picked the guy, and I said, ‘Who do you want to be the other man, the friend that you kiss in front of your lover to make him suffer?’ And she said, ‘I’d rather have a girl.’”
Noé set the film in the mid-1990s, a time when many of the dancers in the film had not yet been born. “Some of them are 18!” he said, flabbergasted. “Most of the others were 21, 22.” Still, he was amused to usher his young cast into a pre-iPhone era. “I still can’t get used to a smartphone,” said Noé. “There’s something I really dislike about it, but for a new generation, life without smartphones never existed.”
Noé will be counting on that generation to embrace Climax, and he’ll have significant help: The hip distributor A24 picked up his movie this week after its gangbusters Croisette debut. “I’m happy that the movie’s probably going to be commercial,” said Noé. “It was not meant to be, but my only commercial success ever was Irreversible, and that wasn’t meant to be commercial, either.”
In the meantime, Noé has been enjoying a surprisingly stress-free Cannes. He threw a raucous beach party for his cast, but was too timid to join most of them on the dance floor: “I love dancing, but I’m so impressed by these people that I can’t,” he said. “The only thing I can do better than them is holding the camera.” Noé also took in the most controversial film of the festival: Lars von Trier’s ultraviolent, button-pushing serial-killer tale The House That Jack Built. Naturally, he was a fan.
“I thought it was so funny!” said Noé. “He has a very cold humor, but I enjoyed it so much. It’s like a Todd Solondz movie, so dark. All the sadistic scenes were so funny that people were staring at me because I couldn’t stop laughing.”
As Noé recalled how angry von Trier’s film made his fellow moviegoers, he grinned. Whether it was a smile born from empathy or envy, I couldn’t tell.