Gaspar Noé on his psychedelic horror trip, Climax

“When people produce movies, they want to get their money back,” the Palme d’Or-nominated director explains. “And there’s some subjects people don’t want to talk about.”

March 20, 2019
Gaspar Noé on his psychedelic horror trip, <i>Climax</i>

If you've seen any of Gaspar Noé's films prior to experiencing Climax, you likely know what you're in for when it comes to what the 55-year-old Argentine-French filmmaker delivers his audiences. If you're new to his work, however, a brief disclaimer: Climax is not for the weak of heart. A visually dazzling and altogether horrific trip into psychedelic hell, the film packs a variety of unsettling visual shock into its 96-minute framework; incest, child abuse, abortion, and drug addiction — all part and parcel of the Noé experience — are topically present and accounted for, and if you don't find yourself distressed by the sheer magnitude of the film's descent soundtracked to dance and electronic icons ranging from Daft Punk and Aphex Twin to Lil Louis and LFO, the swirling camerawork that consumes Climax's final stretch might give you a good case of motion sickness.

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During a Skype conversation on what he describes as "A sunny day in Paris," Noé claims that the primary influence behind Climax — a 1990s-set film about a French dance troupe who unknowingly consume LSD-spiked sangria and promptly descend into total madness — was "an old story I'd heard in the 90s." Some critics have cast doubt on the existence of the story itself, but that possible discrepancy does nothing to detract from the freaked-out and morally ambiguous singularity that Climax embodies. It's also arguably Noé's most accessible work to date, a potent and dance-driven distillation of the mind-expanding meditation that was 2009's Enter the Void that effectively drops all pretense and dives straight into mayhem.

During our conversation, we covered topics ranging from therapy and the nature of remakes to his early memories of America — but there was one topic he chose to stay mum on: his next project, a short film he's currently working on. "I don't want to talk about it," he states plainly. "You're always hoping the next thing you're doing is not gonna be bad. I don't want to sell the project before I know it's good."

Gaspar Noé on his psychedelic horror trip, <i>Climax</i>
Gaspar Noé on his psychedelic horror trip, <i>Climax</i>


What's your least favorite element of filmmaking?

Having people read my screenplay before the movie is shot. It's just paper to seduce actors, and actors have agents, and everyone's telling you how to rewrite it and they all have ideas on how to make it better. Sometimes, the producers go to see the bankers and give them the script, and then everyone knows about your project. I hate that. That's why I like making movies with no script now. You don't need to hear one hundred people advising you — people who, sometimes you respect, but most of the time you disrespect.

That's why, when I was young, I always admired Jean-Luc Godard, who made movies with no script at all. Imagine if someone was doing a painting and he had to tell people what he was going to paint and which colors, taking three hours to describe the painting. It's all extremely annoying. Shooting is probably the most important part, editing is most pleasant when the material is good. Promoting the movie is fun at the beginning, but after months of talking about the movie over and over, you get asked the same questions and you feel that you've been repeating [yourself].

Tell me about how you decided to make Climax.

I started writing about two other true stories — collective collapses. This was an old story I heard in the '90s and I thought, One day this will be a good movie. There were dancers involved, but it could've been actors. While I was working on these two other projects in my mind, they didn't get into pre-production, and I knew people were expecting a script from me. I wasn't going to get into the sausage machine of writing a script and proposing it to actors, so at the end I said, "Is there any other movie I could do on the side that would make me happy?" I was thinking about doing a documentary on the side, like how Tony Kaye did Lake of Fire while he was working on feature films, or Werner Herzog.

One day, I went to a voguing ballroom — I was invited by one of the dancers in the movie. I didn't know anything about voguing. One night I started watching Paris Is Burning and I fell asleep — because it was very late at night, not because I didn't like the movie. My only relationship with krumping was that I had seen Rize. I'm not really into those families of dancing, but I love parties and I love dancing. When I'm a club and I see someone who's a good dancer — whether it's a boy or a girl — I'm hypnotized. I'm more fascinated by dancers than acrobats, magicians, or sportsmen in general. When I went there, the mood was so funny. No one was drunk or whatever, but they're all screaming. I was like, This is the best party I've been to in many years.

In the opening of the film, the TV featuring all the dancers' testimonials is lined with presumed influences on the film, including a VHS of Dario Argento's Suspiria. Did you see Luca Guadagnino's remake last year?

No, I haven't seen it. I really love [the original] Suspiria, but besides the fact that there's horrific scenes and it takes place at a dance school... I loved the colors and the fact that it was very kitsch and sexy, and it happens in a very colorful room. Another movie I should've put on the side of the TV was David Cronenberg's Shivers — but I didn't have the tape in my collection. Did you like the Suspiria remake?

I did, but it's very different from the original.

If you do a remake — or, now, they don't even do remakes. They just keep the title and do their own movie. I've been proposed so many remakes, and I've always said, "Yeah, perfect, let's just keep the title." It's much easier to do a remake of a movie you disrespect, because it can only be better. It would be crazy to do a remake of Taxi Driver.

Any specific remakes you remember turning down?
I'm not gonna give all the names, but there was an idea of doing the sequel to Altered States. They sent me the script and I said, "You know what? I loved Altered States when I was younger. I'd rather do a remake because there's scenes I really like in the movie. I can make the movie better than the original." But at the same time I was putting more of my own attention on Enter the Void. I told my producers who couldn't raise money for Enter the Void that I was probably going to do the remake to Altered States, and it triggered some financial stuff. "We can get the money to do Enter the Void."

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You mentioned Lake of Fire before, which is about abortion. Abortion is a theme in Climax

And all of my movies. There are many movies in which there is pregnancy or abortion. I'm not pro-life, I'm not pro-choice, I'm not pro-death, I'm not anti-choice. In my personal life, I thought it was much easier to be careful. One of my favorite horror movies ever is Four Months Three Weeks and Two Days. I'm very inspired by that movie. I really like about Lake of Fire that you don't know where the movie's standing—it just shows the situation in America.

Do you remember the first time you visited America?

The first memories of my whole life are New York memories. When I was born in Argentina, we moved to New York two months later because my father had a Guggenheim grant as a painter. I spent the first three years of my life in New York. My first two memories — besides going to Central Park with all the hippies and Hare Krishnas and watching Jason and the Argonauts on TV — the first was being on the beach on New York somewhere, and there was a rainbow. The second, I was in a building on Bleecker and Broadway, and I went on the balcony and started peeing on the people below. I really enjoyed peeing on the people walking by.

What is your perspective on everything going on in the world right now?

Fascism, for me, is linked to Italy. Nazis are linked to Germany — I don't know what you call going on in Japan or other countries. But everyone's pushing nationalism everywhere and it's breaking. All the good and evil in the world — whether you were communist or conservative, et cetera — now it's all falling to pieces because this social disease is spreading everywhere. It's this hypercapalist world that brings us back to the Middle Ages, and Trump. In a socialist society, people wouldn't even consider him. All these evil wars that are created, the World Cup, we're fighting for our flag — people all over the planet are enjoying being behind their flag. What do they want?

The French flag is very present throughout Climax.

I was asked by a Portuguese journalist, "Why the French flag?" All the money for the movie was French, all the actors were French. [Laughs] I had no idea what I would put behind the DJ set in the movie, so we were looking for the background and our designer had a red fabric, a blue fabric, and a gray fabric — in the wrong order. "Why don't we just put the gray in the middle and have it be the French flag?" Once I saw it, I was like, "Whoa, that's intense. Let's keep it." This is a French movie, and I'm proud of it. When people ask me about religion, I always say, "I'm atheist, and proud of it." So I think it's funny to say that it's a French movie and proud of it, because people think it's atheistic.

Incest is another theme in Climax, as well as much of your work in general. Why is that something you keep returning to?

When people produce movies, they want to get their money back — and there's some subjects people don't want to talk about. Drug addiction, incest, inheritance. It's part of life. I hear more stories of incest between cousins than between brother and sister... It's not the main subject of the movie, and when people treat those subjects, they want to make it the main subject.

Climax arguably blurs the line between sex and violence more than any of your other films. What's your perspective on that?

There's not much sex in the movie. There isn't. It's more about losing control — when people are drunk, or when people riot and get excited because other people lost control. The movie becomes dysfunctional. There's no sex scenes. [Love] was a movie about passion, so there was no need in this movie to show genitals or anything indicating that. As for violence, there's physical violence but it's also about a family or group of people turning crazy for one reason. They all want to be good, but they turn destructive.

All the characters are very likeable in the beginning, and they become hateable in the end because they all become monsters. There's no character that's better than the others. Even the one that's responsible — you could say, "This character is psychotic, but it's not because of the person. It's because of schizophrenia. Maybe something bad happened to her in her very bad childhood."

Trauma and repression are frequent themes in your films, and they're also frequently discussed with therapists.

Most of my films are about virtuality of reality. Whatever you see is being erased as soon as you see it, and once the dream is over, your life isn't even a dream because the dream has disappeared. It's not about faith, but about the absence of life. I don't really believe in death, but I don't believe in time in the way that most people think time works. About the relationship of humans, I think everything really works on an unconscious level.

Do you or have you ever seen a therapist?

I've never been there. I'd rather be making movies. [Laughs] Why be brainwashed by a shrink when I could be doing movies? I would never pay someone to put my life in their ears and make it secret. I'd rather put my good self, bad self on screen and see what the largest audience thinks of it. It's more rewarding.

A lot of people have a lot of different opinions about you and your work.

And they're all right! [Laughs] When people come to me at a party and say, "I hate your movie, I can't stand you," I'm always like, "Thank you." I'm happy that the movies exist and that people talk about them.

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Gaspar Noé on his psychedelic horror trip, Climax