Late in 2015, the Frenchman director Gaspar Noé released his fourth feature film, Love, and was summarily pilloried for it. On its face, the movie is harmless: a disjointed love story, it follows the druggy romantic deteriorations of a young American in Paris named Murphy. Where it gets you is in the execution: as Murphy cries and fights and fucks, we see it all. Obsessed with getting to the messy, gushing internal swirl of a relationship—the way that, from the inside, every moment can feel apocalyptic—Noé skipped any simulation in favor of long, often-tender, and utterly explicit sex scenes. Oh, also: it’s shot in 3D!
Many critics dismissed the movie, which is out on DVD this week, as indulgent pap—pointless provocation. Which is not technically anything new to Noé’: both his 2002 film Irreversible—which featured a long, brutal rape scene—and 2009’s trippy technicolor Enter the Void wore bullseye targets. But the virulent reaction that Love received did seem to be of another tenor. As the handlebar moustached Noé explained to The FADER—in his idiosyncratic, accented English, while slurping down a bowl of hot chili—the blowback was perplexing, and fascinating, and perhaps best explained by the subconscious reaction some straight old men have to seeing a handsome stranger’s dick.
Some people want their art to speak for itself. You seem happy to talk about it. You seem happy, almost, to defend it.
I would say I’m happy to talk about it. The only worse thing is, sometimes, you get exactly the same questions all day long, over and over. The ones I always get is, is the movie autobiographical? [Why] is the movie shot in 3D? Is it simulated or not? Sometimes you even answer the opposite questions because you’re so bored from answering the questions. In the end you start inventing situations. You give the right [answer] ten times in a row, so you end up having fun when you start lying about it. [Laughs] If we can avoid those three questions, it’s terrific.
This was an attempt to make a movie about how it feels to be in a relationship. Which is not necessarily the same thing as what being in a relationship is actually like.
You don’t remember the quiet moments. You remember fights. You remember seeing the girl kissing another guy at a party, or you remember a moment where you took ecstasy with a girl and you’re on the beach all night long—small images. But the truth is that the most lovingful moments are quite hard to remember. Because they’re musical. They’re not narrative. The moments of hugging and kissing or making love, they’re usually colored abstract or emotional.
When did you hit on this idea for a movie? Of a relationship from the perspective of the people living it, who are basically unreliable narrators?
There not so many movies that really relate to, I would say, film buff desires. When I saw, for example, Altered States by Ken Russell I thought it was a great idea to do a movie that reproduced how you feel when you take mushrooms. But that movie was almost a fantasy movie. Very narrative. [It was] the imitation of the perception under mushrooms, which is not always so good
So the idea of shooting Enter the Void came one day when I was walking in a park in Paris on mushrooms. And then I went back to my home and they were playing Lady in the Lake [a 1947 adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel in which all of the action is seen through the eyes of his famed detective, Philip Marlowe] on TV and I said, “Oh, it would be great if they could do a whole movie that was POV of someone who was stoned—you could reproduce how colorful the vision of someone who is stoned is, or all the thoughts and perceptions you have when you’re stoned.” Then I wrote a script. Then it became something else many years later.
At that same age, maybe when I was 25 and already had a very powerful love story going on, I thought, well, it’s weird how you never see on screen, at least on commercial movies, something close to what I was experiencing and my other friends were experiencing—the obsession when you’re having sex and kissing the same person over and over. That is very feverish. That is sometimes self-fulfillment but also sometimes self-destructive because you turn blind to the rest of the world. I said, “Why has nobody made a movie like this? I wish I could see this.”
There is something scary in how much, in Western society—which we think is more developed than religious society or different society like China—the depiction of the thing that is most essential to human beings is hidden by the group. You can tell your friends a love story. You can tell your friends how good the sex was with your beloved. But if you wanna put it on the screen everyone says, “Ohhhh, why do you show that?!!”
The reaction to the movie has been strong, much of it strongly negative. Have you thought much about why it’s gotten the reaction that it has?
Why do people sometimes get so angry at the movie? It’s mostly men. And I think it’s in an unconscious way that these film critics are writing against the movie. The truth is, heterosexual men don’t like watching the penis of another man. Especially if he’s with pretty girls around him.
You can show guys with guns no problem. But the moment someone puts out his dick—even without taking out the clothes! Just open the zipper! They’re like “Ahhhh!” The enemy is there. For most men, the penis of somebody else is an enemy.
Do you think about how this movie might inspire young filmmakers? They might see this and think, “Oh, I didn’t know you were allowed to do that on screen.”
I would say, inspiring or not, this movie was not inspired by other movies. Although Murphy in the movie wears the jacket of Travis Bickle, I did not have any cinematic references in mind when shooting it. But what it could be a good example of is that mostly it’s no problem. Once it’s shot and it’s all OK, you can get a wide release and be closer to life that you usually see.
I didn’t open the door but I re-opened it. The doors were never officially closed. They are still kind of open. But they are oxidized. Oxidized? How do you say? Rusted? Because no one has used them since the ’70s. But you just push them and they open.
Why can’t you show the natural, most essential aspects in every person’s life? Most of the scenes we enjoyed the most is loving people who reward you for your love. Why, when he gets a condom, he has to be put in a closet? I don’t think a dick is dirtier than a hand. I don’t think a vagina is dirtier than a face. People still claim it’s shocking or provocative. It’s not meant to be provocative. It’s just meant to be truthful.
You got a grant from the French government to shoot this movie in 3D. Did they see a script ahead of time?
The script was seven pages long.
Actually I took advantage of the fact that some directors in France could manage to do movies without a script. The main one was Godard. I heard that in the ’80s and ’90s he would never write a script. And they would give him money as long as he had famous actors. I thought, “Well, if he could do it, why don’t I try?” And that’s how I could finance [Irréversible], the movie with Vincent [Cassel] and Monica [Bellucci], [just] on their name—that script had three pages. Most people in [the government’s film office] said, “Where’s the script?” I said, “Hey, I already done a movie with a script that was three pages, now I have seven, so shut up.” [Laughs]
Was the production on Irréversible ultimately similar to that on Love?
That was a last-second project that I invented in order to do a movie. We had money to do a movie with Vincent and Monica. It was like participating in a bank robbery that you had never expected. Someone tells you, “Oh, the bank door opens at 5:30 and closes at 5:35. If you go inside you have three minutes to take the money and run.” And I was like, “Uhhh, I did it.”
But it’s weird how easy it was to do a movie that was hyper-violent. Images of sexual dominance, rape, those kinds of cruelty—you can portray that, and that movie was reached everywhere. [Irréversible] had a 16-year-old, 18-year-old rating in most countries. But this new movie, in which there’s no scene of violence—in which you just see beautiful people having consensual love—this movie got higher ratings. It was banned in Russia! Why some things that belong to my life or to my friends life, why are these things more shocking than a cannibal movie?
For example, with this one, the Ukrainians decided they would release it but it got the highest rating ever—[under] 21 years old [not allowed]. And I asked the age of consent—at which age can people have sex [in Ukraine]? And they told me 16. And I said, “Why do people who really have sex have to wait five years to see a movie in which people kiss and, sometimes, rarely, have sex?!” And also they start to watching all kinds of porn videos on the nets since the age of 10. It makes no sense.
Do you remember the first time you saw pornography?
I remember the first image of a couple mating that I seen. It was when I was 10. I was in my best friend’s apartment, and his older brother who was maybe 13 or 14 had this one page taken off this Danish magazine, and it was black and white photo, and it was a woman laying on her back in a bed and it was a guy ass naked on top of her, with his waist between her legs. And I remember, [looking at] that photo over and over and saying “This is how people make love and this is how babies come into the world.”
There was mystery inside there that one day would be solved. But the photo was very ugly. It was a useless black and white photo. Maybe the guy did not have an erection. I could not see his dick. I see the ass of the guy and I could not even see the pussy of the girl. She had her legs open but the guy was in between. It was very hard to have sex to those images at that time, especially.