a long talk

Gaspar Noé Is Not in Control

The director’s work has always been about losing control, but his latest films seem to get bracingly personal about it.

Gaspar Noé directing Charlotte Gainsbourg on the set of Lux Aeterna Photo: Tom Kan
Gaspar Noé directing Charlotte Gainsbourg on the set of Lux Aeterna Photo: Tom Kan
Gaspar Noé directing Charlotte Gainsbourg on the set of Lux Aeterna Photo: Tom Kan

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Somehow, Gaspar Noé has returned. The controversial Franco-Argentine filmmaker (whose last film, Climax, was for some of us the best picture of 2019) is getting some of the best reviews of his career for his latest, Vortex, an impressively depressing split-screen drama about dementia and old age starring the Italian director Dario Argento and French actress Françoise Lebrun. Also in theaters right now is Lux Æterna, a positively insane 52-minute art thriller shot in split screen that Noé premiered at Cannes in 2019, featuring Béatrice Dalle playing herself as a director whose bizarre drama starring Charlotte Gainsbourg is spinning out of control right around her.

Lux Æterna originated as a short for a fashion brand and wound up being an experimental look at the chaos of making movies. Indeed, the loss of control has been Noé’s great theme since his earliest days — loss of control not just for his characters, but also for his viewers and for the director himself. To that end, his films have become increasingly improvisatory, shot and edited in seemingly record time. And he has never stopped trying to use cinema to cause physical reactions in the viewer. In Vortex, the split screen makes the characters’ alienation visceral. In Lux Æterna, not only does the split screen enhance the chaos onscreen, a strobing effect over the last ten minutes of the film is … well, excruciating, and intentionally so.

Both of these movies seem to be personal to Noé in intriguing new ways: Some of the inspiration for Vortex came from his experiences dealing with his own mother’s dementia, as well as a brain hemorrhage that almost killed him in early 2020.

Was it hard convincing Dario Argento to act in this film?
I’m very close friends with his daughter Asia. When I had the possibility to ask him to be in the movie, Asia said, “Oh, you should come to Italy to tell him about it.” But he didn’t know what it was about, so probably he thought I was coming to propose a horror movie or Climax 2 or something like that. I told him, “It’s about an old couple.” He said, “But I’m not old!” “I know you’re not old. You’re the enfant terrible of the Italian cinema!” But I think there were two things that made him say yes. The first one is that I talked about the film Umberto D. by Vittorio De Sica that he also loved, and the second is that I told him, “Hey, I just have a ten-page script and I would not write any dialogue for you to memorize. I’m going to be taking care of one of the cameras. You will be taking care of your character.” That made him more comfortable. He’s not an actor; he’s never had to remember lines.

On the other hand, Françoise Lebrun is a veteran actress. Was it a challenge for her to work without a real script?
She worried about who would play her husband. She knew the name Dario Argento, but she hadn’t seen his movies, so I gave her his autobiography and some of his films. She comes from a very different family of cinema, but both of them are so intelligent that they managed to get along from the moment they met. They’re a very believable couple. He used to be a screenwriter before being a director, but before being a screenwriter, he was a film critic, so I decided, “Yeah, you’ll play a film critic in the movie and you’ll improvise your dialogues.” And for Françoise, I said, “Sorry, but it’s not very important what you’re going to say because I want you to mumble all the time. I won’t really understand what you’re saying.” I think she was a bit stuffed the first day, but I brought her a lot of videos, taking scenes from documentaries, and also personal videos that I had done with my mother, and other videos of other people to show the different types of dementia that can hit a woman. I said, “Please, you have to play with your eyes in this movie more than with the words.” She said, “Okay, let me cook the character my way.” And it was perfect.

The use of the split screen heightens their alienation from one another. Tell me about the scene when the father reaches across and holds the mother’s hand — in the split screen, it becomes a very intense moment, like he’s reaching across worlds.
Do you mean with the grandson hitting the car with another car? You have on one side Dario and the little kid, and on the other side you have Françoise and Alex Lutz [who plays the elderly couple’s grown son, Stéphane], and they’re at a table. On the first take, the kid was hitting the car while the father and Stéphane were talking, and they would ask the kid to stop, and he would stop. So there was no real drama. I went to talk to the kid and said, “Hey, come with me to the kitchen,” and then I said, “You know, the guy who plays your grandfather is cool? And the guy who plays your father is cool?” “Yeah.” “But don’t listen to them, they’re very stingy. They will not give you gifts. And I know that you certainly want a nice gift.” He said, “Yes, yes, yes.” “What kind of gift would you like?” He said, “Oh, there’s this motorbike,” like a motorbike for kids who are four years old. I said, “You want that motorbike? If you manage to break the car with the other car, you will get your gift.” “Yes!” He was so happy. He came back to the table and then during the second take, he started hitting the car with the other car like he was on crack! You can tell that Dario and Alex are trying to stop him and he doesn’t want to stop. They don’t understand why he turned crazy.

Françoise, who certainly had planned something for the scene, was totally lost and she started crying. At that moment, Dario kept on playing his part, Alex was playing his part, and Françoise, instead of saying something, she was just crying, crying, crying. Then Dario, who I had not asked to take her hand, felt bad for her, and he crossed the table with his hand, and he said initially, “Are you okay, Françoise?” But in the editing process, I could rearrange and rerecord his voice to make him say, “Ça va, mon amour?” (“Are you okay, my love?”) That’s the magic of cinema. Sometimes things happen that you don’t expect. I never expected him to touch her and then [in the split screen] his arm seems like an extensible arm. It’s very weird visually, and the performances are all perfect.

Françoise Lebrun and Alex Lutz in Vortex. Photo: Utopia

How much of you is in the character of the son, Stéphane?
I don’t do heroin.

I don’t mean the junkie part, but the kind of person he is.
For me, Stéphane is a kind of loser that I always have playing the main part in my movies. The character of Enter the Void is a loser who wants to be a winner by selling drugs and he gets busted and he gets shot. Murphy, the main male character in Love, is a guy who goes to France to study cinema and he finds passionate love with a woman, and he ends up getting the neighbor he doesn’t love pregnant, so his whole life takes another path. Yeah, he’s also a loser. I would say Stéphane is also a nice loser who once could probably have been a winner because he seems intelligent. But half of my close friends that I like are losers. They’ve been partying and doing drugs, and they end up with family problems they cannot escape from.

I feel like almost all of your major characters on some level have some connection to you, though. I remember in Love, you have the protagonist who’s an aspiring filmmaker, and you have the character that you yourself play and then a different guy named Noé. I feel like you’re always putting some version of yourself in your characters.
Yeah. Also, the son in Vortex says he works in the film industry but he’s probably just doing documentaries. He’s fighting against his inner demon which is that he wants to take heroin again. I know 100 guys like him in Paris. And I relate to the father because he’s a film critic; he’s got posters on his walls and all these cinema books that I also have. And when it comes to the mother, she reminds me partly of my own mother. But also, I had a brain hemorrhage two years ago. They said there was 50 percent chance I would die, 35 percent chance that I would come back brain damaged, and just 15 percent chance that I would come back without brain damage, so I could have been in the same situation as the character played by Françoise. And I relate to the son because if I was not making movies or if I had an unwanted kid, probably today I would be doing heroin and watching DVDs, or trying to get some crack to try how good it feels. There’s a lot of crack in Paris nowadays. France is sometimes late, so we’re late with the crack, but now there’s a lot of crack in the streets. All these people who were alone in the streets. Especially the first year of the confinement.

So you had the brain hemorrhage right before COVID lockdown?
Two days before having my brain hemorrhage, I had hard-core oyster poisoning. I felt like I was dying. It was during the Christmas period, and I was drinking a lot with my father. I think it was a mix of too much alcohol and that oyster poisoning.

When I came out of the hospital, it was at the end of January, and they told me, “You are very weak. Stay at your place. Just watch movies and don’t go out.” I said, “Oh, but all my friends are partying.” They told me that I should stop smoking and if I had any temptation to use drugs, avoid those, but I never liked the drugs that speed you up. I’m being much sweeter to myself. I haven’t smoked a cigarette for two and a half years, and I watched more movies in these last two years than I had seen for over a period of eight, nine years.

So I stayed at my place watching movies on Blu-ray. I bought many through eBay. All these Japanese classics that I hadn’t seen. And then suddenly, COVID appeared, and everybody was hiding at home. There were no more parties, nothing. I was also told I should do some sports. I was on my bike going through the empty city during the day and watching DVDs at night. I don’t know if anything like that will ever come back to our lives. There was something very dreamish about the confinement, even though I lost many close friends from COVID.

Ironically, during the pandemic, it seemed like everybody discovered Love on Netflix. Were you aware of this?
Yeah. People needed to masturbate. Now people don’t buy DVDs. So on the platforms, what was the most pornographic thing they could find, and also that had an artistic excuse? Of course it was Love. There are millions of people who saw it in France during the pandemic, and in the States even more. They would never go to see an erotic movie in a theater because it was dangerous. People said to me, “Oh, thanks to you, I had my first threesome in my life,” or “Thanks to you, I was watching the movie with this girl and we got horny and we made love and then we had a long love affair.” But it seems the movie was mostly seen on Netflix because it had a not very successful commercial release when it came out theatrically. And people were watching it many times because they needed some support for the masturbation. How do they masturbate nowadays now that Love is not streamable? Which movie are they doing it to?

What was the best film you saw during confinement?
The one that I saw like four times in a row was The Ballad of Narayama by Keisuke Kinoshita. That really touched me and probably inspired Vortex. I didn’t know Kinoshita’s work until one day I went to the Criterion office. You know, all the directors go there to steal DVDs and Blu-rays, and the president of the company said, “Oh, you should take this one too.” So I took it, but I didn’t know what it was about. And then I saw many other Kinoshitas. I also loved the movies of Kenji Mizoguchi that I missed. I had never seen Andrei Rublev. Even Abbas Kiarostami, I had never seen a movie by Kiarostami, so I watched him. And also I discovered Mikio Naruse. It was like going back to my adolescence.

What was the worst film you saw during confinement?
The worst films that you see are not the ones you put in your DVD player. The worst movies you see on planes. And Hollywood movies are becoming worse and worse every day. [Laughs.] Have you seen the last James Bond? [Blows raspberry.] I remember watching The Man With the Golden Gun like ten times in a row when I was 12 years old. I don’t think any kid who is 10 years old could watch the last James Bond more than once. It’s so long. And also it’s so talkative. Talk, talk, talk. Those movies were fresh, funny, sexy, and now there’s nothing sexy about them. I know sexiness is banned from blockbusters now. Even the Marvel movies, they’re talkative.

Do you think it’s actually worse or do you think you’ve changed?
I’m sure it’s much worse. From time to time, you have one that comes out, but they’re rare.

What’s a good big Hollywood release that you’ve seen in recent years?
There’s not one that comes immediately to my mind. For example, among the blockbusters, I really enjoyed Titanic when I saw it. But Titanic reminds me of another movie that I saw six times in a row when I was a kid, The Poseidon Adventure. Wait, I found one movie that I like from Hollywood. Joker. I enjoyed it as much as I would enjoy the James Bond movies when I was a kid.

That’s interesting, because Joker is a very dark movie.
I liked it because it was dark. That’s one of the few examples of enjoyable movies coming out of Hollywood. I also liked Arrival very much, by Denis Villeneuve. That’s the other one. I didn’t want to say Arrival because I said it two years ago and everyone said, “Ohh, what? Gaspar Noé likes Arrival?”

Françoise Lebrun and Dario Argento in Vortex. Photo: Utopia

Getting back to Vortex, one thing I love about the film is that it’s so brutal, and we all know the unhappy ending is coming, yet it’s filled with little moments of humanity.
It reminds me a bit of a movie that’s also very close to the ground, very human: A Separation by Farhadi. The scenes of the father, who has Alzheimer’s, escaping from the house and getting lost. I’ve been through similar situations with my mother. I would go to pour a drink or I would go to pee for 20 seconds and I’d say, “Don’t move from the table.” And I would go as fast as I could, and I would come back and my mother had disappeared. The whole day, no one would know where the fuck she was. At night, she would ring the bell and no one ever knew what she did from like noon to eight at night. She had disappeared in the city. So when I saw A Separation, it reminded me of things that I had lived. Actually, nowadays, I’m very much inspired by Iranian cinema. There was one Iranian movie that came out last year in France, called La Loi du Teheran [Just 6.5], all about drugs in Iran. I believe it’s never been released in the States, and the same director [Saeed Roustayi], who’s very young, has a movie in competition in Cannes [Leila’s Brothers].

Along with A Separation and some others you’ve mentioned, there have been films like Amour and The Father that have dealt with dementia. You’ve mentioned your mother’s struggles, but was there something specific about this subject cinematically that you felt hadn’t been explored yet?
Of course. The subject of aging, old age, dementia — it’s so common in real life. The main fear among people in the western world is getting old and losing your mind before dying. It’s a kind of taboo that people have parents with dementia. I found this out just by showing my movie. I didn’t know how many of my friends were going through the same kind of stuff that I went through with my mother. I was in Istanbul two days ago and I met the director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and he said, “Oh, this is also my story. My mother tells me, ‘I want to go back home’ while I’m at her place.” Everybody talks to me about the same eight, ten movies that deal with this subject, but in real life, every day I have five different stories from friends dealing with it. There should be 800 movies about it.

It also seems to me that all your films are about the loss of control. There’s a clear line from something like Irreversible to Enter the Void to Climax to Lux Æterna to Vortex. They’re all about people losing control of their circumstances.
But in most cases, in my movies, it’s an induced loss of control. People want to lose control because they’re bored by their lives. But in this case, it’s a biological loss of control and it’s a very common one.

Gaspar Noè on the set of Lux Aeterna. Photo: Tom Kan

Lux Æterna shows something that I think happens quite often. You have the director, Béatrice Dalle, and she’s losing control of her set, which happens on a lot of film shoots because everybody else down the line thinks they can do a better job than the director. I assume you could relate to her predicament.
Yeah, but I think also Béatrice Dalle is playing Béatrice Dalle in the movie. That’s how crazy she really can be in real life. She’s extremely funny, very bright, very hysterical, but her language is dirtier than the language of 99 percent of the guys I know in Paris. But yeah, those situations happen. Especially in the movie, the producer is a producer of commercials who wants to produce a feature film, and those power issues on the set are so much more common in the commercials industry, because you can turn everybody into a slave with money. The most unfriendly people I met in the film industry were actually in the advertisement industry.

What about the strobing effect in Lux Æterna? You open with Dostoyevsky’s line about the epileptic seizures and you end with what feels like ten minutes of just strobing lights. Which feels like an extension of your fascination with losing control. Were you trying to induce seizures in people?
The line about the epileptic seizures, it’s not about how bad a seizure can be, but it’s about how good it can be. It seems that there’s something enjoyable that I haven’t tried yet. If I could induce an epileptic crisis, probably I’ll just press a button, but it’s not so easy. I don’t know if anybody is going to have an epileptic seizure in a theater watching this movie, but I’ve seen many, many people hiding their eyes during the last five, ten minutes of the movie. I’m very proud of that. I really like the final credits. Among all the credits that I’ve done, that’s probably the most hypnotic. Also, I didn’t invent the flicker and I didn’t invent the color flicker. There were many experimental movies in the ’60s and ’70s by Paul Sharits, by Tony Conrad, playing with those stroboscopic frames or images that already were scandalous in their time because some people would feel weird among the audience.

The responses to Lux Æterna were interesting. When it premiered at Cannes in 2019, a lot of people interpreted it as your MeToo movie. I don’t know if that was actually intentional or if that was just because of the time when it was released. Was that on your mind when you made it?
No. It was inspired by shoots that I’ve assisted on. Lux Æterna was a proposal that came to me from Anthony Vaccarello, the artistic director of the Saint Laurent brand. He said, “Do whatever you want as long as you use clothes from our latest collections and two or three celebrities working with our brand.” My whole script was just two or three lines long. It wasn’t even a page. I told Béatrice and Charlotte to talk about witchcraft and about other film shoots, and they improvised. And it became a 52-minute movie after five days of shooting.

But also, you cannot disconnect yourself from the moment in which you’re shooting the movie. It’s good that there are some feminist speeches are out there, but I would probably have done the same movie ten years earlier if I had thought of it. It’s just how people describe the movie. Like ten years ago, no one would consider that a witch was a feminist, but now the word “witch” is used more and more among the feminists. My mother was a feminist. I never trusted a man who says, “I’m a feminist,” but yeah, I can be testosterophobic.

You can be what?
I can be testosterophobic. The male testosterone can be very boring and annoying and repetitive. So mostly in my movies, the girls have the cool parts and the men have the stupid parts.

I remember when we talked about Climax, you talked about how you shot it in February or something and then it was ready by May for Cannes. You’re making these movies faster and faster, it seems.
It’s because I want to show my movies in Cannes. I conceived of Vortex at the end of January of last year, we found a location in February, and we were shooting at the beginning of March. We finished on the 10th of April, I think. The Cannes Film Festival was not held in May last year. People said it would be delayed to October or November. So I said, “Oh, I have a few months to edit properly.” Then they decided that the festival would be held in July, so, shit, I have to hurry! I had to edit and do the sound editing and the sound mix very quickly because I couldn’t consider putting the movie in a closet for one year or to go to any other major festival — because there’s only one big festival and the other ones are just behind.

Does it matter to you at Cannes whether you’re in the Official Selection? Because I remember Climax was in Director’s Fortnight, which is actually a different, smaller festival.
I would even go to the Film Market! Even if I have to rent the screening room, I’d rather go to the film market in Cannes than to any other major festival. All my friends go there, so it’s like a movie party. I once went to Venice with the new cut of Irreversible. By the way, I can’t understand, I did a new version of Irreversible and it was never shown in the States or in Canada. It’s more shocking than the original one.

What’s the new version of Irreversible? Is it in chronological order now?
Yeah. I didn’t add anything. I even made it slightly shorter. I just used old elements and I put it in chronological order and the movie is more shocking and more violent. The original was very poetic because it had this concept of being told backwards. But now it ends up in total shit. [Laughs.]

Why did you do that?
Because it was possible! Because they asked me to find some extras for the Blu-ray edition, and I said, “Okay, I have an idea, I want to put the movie in chronological order.” And the result was so strong; it was released theatrically in Russia, in France, in Germany, in Japan. The truth is, if you see it, it’s more emotional, more dramatic, and … I wouldn’t say nihilistic, but evil wins at the end.

Can people finally tell that the real rapist is in the background of that final scene, watching the beating?
Now it’s very clear that the only person who’s not damaged at the end of the movie is the aggressor, yeah.

What did people think? 
Some people said, “Ah, it’s your best movie ever!” Others said, “No, I liked the original version because it has a hopeful note at the end.” The same story, the same events, the same dialogue, but the way you identify with the characters is radically different. It’s very interesting to watch both movies. If I had tried to produce or release the chronological version, it’s so dark that no one would have financed it even with the movie stars that I got to do it.

You’re getting some of the best reviews of your career with Vortex.
Truly, a very bad sign. With many directors, their movies that won the Oscars and got all these awards and total positive critical response, like five years later, everybody has forgotten those movies. But I understand why many more people like this. It’s because the subject is very close to a problem that most have to deal with, especially people who are over 40, 50 years old.

I don’t know. When people scream or are pissed off, I enjoy it. Bad reviews, like the really bad reviews, are very enjoyable. Some of them you want to make posters and put them on the wall, so when you wake up in the morning, you know who your enemies are and what you’re fighting for. Also now you can find a photo of anybody just by their name. So you have a review by someone, half of it’s like a whole page of insults coming from an abstract name and then you see the photo of the journalist with a bow tie and a cheap smile, and say, “Of course. We don’t belong to the same family.” So seeing the photo or watching a video of the person who wrote the article makes you laugh.

What was your favorite bad review in the past?
Oh, I had a few good ones for Irreversible. Like, “the new Marquis de Sade has arrived” or stupidities of that kind. Or calling me a “Nazi homophobe” or whatever. I think when people are offended by a movie; it’s funny because it makes you think that people still believe in cinema. I know that my father gets upset when I have bad reviews because he comes from a generation in which they really believe in the printed press. There was one very bad review for Love in Argentina in a leftist newspaper, for which my dad was working on sending drawings. “How can this guy who works in the same newspaper where I do my drawings be so hateful against you?” I say, “Dad! Come! Find me the address. We’ll go and spit on his face! Let’s go together!” [Laughs.]

In the case of Vortex, maybe the fact that one of the characters is a film critic has also made critics look warmly on the film.
But do you notice something cruel about the movie? It’s almost like a joke. At the very end of the movie, when the apartment gets emptied, you see his essay, called Psyche, it’s on the ground. It’s ready to go to the garbage can. What’s supposed to be the testament of his life is just going to the garbage can.

That is probably personal for you, too, because anyone who creates something and tries to put it out in the world surely fears that it will be discarded or completely forgotten.
It’s happened very quickly. I think most of the directors of the ’60s and ’70s that died in the last 15 years didn’t expect that today no one can watch their movies. There are directors who’ve made like 60 movies and there’s not one on DVD and not one that is rescreened in a cinematheque or whatever. The truth is that there are technological developments that made the work of many cinema creators disappear. Cinema ages very quickly, and it can disappear very quickly because of the ways it was distributed. Even if you do a 4K transfer and you put it on a DCP, to open a DCP, you need a code that comes from the lab, but all the movie labs are going bankrupt. You now have movies on hard disc that cannot be opened because there’s no one to give you the key number to open the DCP. Most of the movies that have ever been shot and distributed are already disappearing.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Gaspar Noé Is Not in Control