Gaspar Noé's Cinema de Shock

Gaspar Noé likes to shock. The Argentinian filmmaker best known for 2002’s ‘Irreversible’ has made both France his home, and sex and outrage the bedfellows of his films. His latest disquieting journey (2018’s Climax) sees Noé adopt a more improvisational approach, with rave reviews following the film’s release.

"Revenge is a very important emotion..."

Inside Berlin’s Hotel Dormero, a German journalist is huffing and puffing at how long she’s having to wait for director Gaspar Noé. Loudly sharing her consternation to anyone who will listen, I toss her the bone that she can have her revenge soon enough in person. Unsatisfied with this morsel, Noé himself instead snaps it away from her:

“Revenge is a very important emotion…”

… And indeed it is, because it features as one of the prime motives in his latest shocker ‘Climax’. In it, a group of French dancers descend into a paranoid hell as they unwittingly succumb to a drug-laced punch at an end-of-rehearsal party. Turning on each other as they violently hunt down the culprit, it becomes unremittingly chaotic, excessively bloody and quintessentially Noé.

Crashing through our cinematic consciousnesses in 2002 with his ground-breaking ‘Irreversible’, Noé, 55, still brings both an outrage and innovation to his films that manages to leave audiences reeling. An unashamed exponent of “le cinéma de corps”, body horror, strobe lighting and deafening soundtracks are the weapons that complete his sensorial assault.

"I’m happy that there are some people fainting in this one..."

“I’m happy that there are some people fainting in this one. In many ways I was afraid that people would think it’s too funny. But the movie is both funny, and I don’t know, scary but in a gentle way. It’s a kind of roller coaster and when you build roller coasters you want people to scream, to laugh. And some people will probably have their heart beating fast…”

He laughs to himself, a wry, beatific smile.

“One day I’ll try to make a serious movie but I’m not there yet.”

Son of a celebrated Argentinian painter and a dedicated and committed Francophile, Noé is as much a student of film as he is an outrageous exponent of it. Conspiratorially hunching over every question, Noé’s oval face is part fan-boy, part academic, both of whom are wed to extreme drama. 

“I like movies with drama. Sometimes it’s very explicit. Sometimes it’s implicit, so it’s hidden. But yeah, even when you read (fairytale author, Hans Christian) Andersen… those stories written by Andersen are as dramatic as any movie by Fassbinder.”

...Arranged as unstable atoms in his dramatic petri dish, Noé sees himself more as a catalytic instigator than director..

Having calmly buried any bad sentiment in the room, it’s clear that Noé is a director who knows how to hit the ground running. Whilst many may struggle with his languid takes, filled with as many banalities as there are shocks, the man’s matter-of-factness unquestioningly brokers your attention. Increasingly committed to improvisation, he is becoming that rare kind of director who can pull amazing performances out of complete unknowns.

“For example the two guys that were being overly sleazy about the girls… when the other guy says “Well, my ex-girlfriend left me because she got pregnant off another man.” I still don’t know if it’s a true story or not. But the way he said it was so touching that probably it is. Or not… Or, if it was, it was just them creating a great performance…”

Arranged as unstable atoms in his dramatic petri dish, Noé sees himself more as a catalytic instigator than director.

“I would ask what would you enjoy doing? And which name do you want for the character? Please help yourself, because in the second part of the movie when you are being crazy, please portray the kind of craziness you would enjoy the most. I’m not going to tell you what to do, just bring your ideas and we’ll push them further.”

...There is no time to brace for the next retinal stab coming your way.

Less concerned about story than atmosphere, it is clear that Noé wants to create experiences instead of expositions. Often entering the youthful netherworld of real-life excess, his Steadicam disembodied-ly drifts through the lives of his actors. Flies on the wall of his creation, we are lulled into a stupor, until we suddenly hit the windscreen of each inciting incident. With no Hollywood slo-mo to pick up the pieces, things are just left to happen. People get hurt. No sympathy is left to spare. And in using these kind of matter-of-fact exclamation marks, there is also no time to brace for the next retinal stab coming your way.

“I was reading a very good book this week –  a book by Houellebecq, Les Particules Élémentaires about the present selfishness and quest for pleasure. The story is the appearance of the pregnancy pill. There’s something about loneliness, that is probably more evident in his book than in my movie, in which people are working together, creating a scene together. Like, my first part is far more positive than anything he’s written, but then this collective creates something – not the Babel tower – but a show and the show looks great. But when things turn bad, that same collective starts destroying each other. I would say it turns more into like ‘The Lord of The Flies’. In which like, the most fragile people become the first victims. It’s not about the good ones and the bad ones. Mostly in a stressful situation, like in war time, the first ones to get smashed are the fragile ones.”

'2001- A SpaceOdyssey'...was my first drug trip ever.

Neither nestling in comfortably as entertainment, nor as horrific commentary, Gaspar Noé‘s films now inhabit a purgatorial place in cinema. Shared with similar directors such as Lars Von Trier, his films are now more chilling than many mainstream horrors dare dream to be. For as Noé’s hyper-saturated visuals beguile you, you always know that they carry the connective dread of a morbidity yet to show its face, as he himself discovered with his formative viewing of Kubrick’s ‘2001’.

“When I saw ‘2001- A Space Odyssey‘ at the age of six, the Stargate scene was my first drug trip ever. Even after years and years, it’s still one of the best descriptions of hallucinogenic rush that has ever been put on the screen. -But I also remembered the astral baby at the end and that started a discussion with my parents. I said, “What the fuck is that? That monster, that human monster with the big head?” “-That’s a foetus. You were like that in my belly before coming to this planet.” Because of that explanation, it fixed even more the adrenalin rush I had watching the Stargate scene.”

As a man who clearly loves his cinema and who is unconcerned about miring himself in any auteur mystique, what you see with Gaspar Noé is exactly what you get. All brought to you without any excessive need to apologise, nobody is more surprised than him at his current critical embrace. Shuffling out, en route to another cigarette break, this méchant, visual interrupter isn’t done having fun yet. Just don’t expect that ‘romantic comedy’ anytime soon.