Interview: Bad boy of French cinema Gaspar Noe on making Climax and taking psychedelics

Gaspar Noe’s films (which include Irreversible and Enter the Void) are always strikingly provocative. The Frenchman’s latest work is the insane psychedelic dance movie Climax, which is about to arrive in cinemas. Helen Barlow attended the first ever screening of it and interviewed the director soon after. 

Watching the first ever screening of Gaspar Noe’s Climax one early morning in Cannes was a heart-stopping experience, with speakers blaring to enhance the red and black strobe-lit atmosphere of a dance club.

The bad boy of French cinema had refused to provide any information to the press until after the screening when he presented a red and black poster with the following words: “You Despised I Stand Alone. You Hated Irreversible. You Loathed Enter the Void. You Cursed Love. Now Try CLIMAX.”

Beneath there was the devilish image of Noe lifting up a drink as if to say, “Cheers!”

Our interview occurred the day afterwards at the beach restaurant of Director’s Fortnight, the festival’s independent sidebar where Noe prefers his films to screen. The 54 year-old has barely slept and orders a double espresso.

“The problem is I came with these dancers and they’re party monsters, so it’s been three days in a row of drinking, drinking, drinking,” Noe explains. “We were up till three last night so I’ve been partying till late.”

The dancers, incredible physical specimens, are young and new to movies so were looking to their fearless leader for guidance.

“They didn’t expect to be in a movie one day. They are not actors, just street dancers who go to battles or ballrooms and mostly dance alone in front of an audience. That collective thing that happens on a movie makes them so happy to be here – and you get free drinks!” Noe chuckles loudly.

Not free drinks like in the film, thankfully. Climax, loosely based on a real event in the mid 90s, follows a dance rehearsal and after-party where things turn awry – and violent – after the collective sangria is spiked with LSD and all the dancers have a bad trip.

“Having a drug like LSD, knowing you’re taking it, is not always easy. But if someone drugs you against your will it’s a nightmare,” Noe says.

“It happened to me once late at night when I was really tired. Someone gave me acid and I don’t know whether it was intentional or not, like three drops instead of one. I felt like I was in an altered state, walking along each block seemed like the distance from Paris to Moscow. All my senses were falling apart.”

Noe drew on that experience, and on similar experiences when people have turned psychotic under the influence of alcohol and also during shamanic rituals “where it all turned so weird. I had these different ideas for a dance film with people turning crazy and setting it in the 90s with great music from the period.”

Shooting Climax in an abandoned school on the outskirts of Paris, he wanted to locate the movie in an enclosed space: “It’s like a womb and at the end they come into the light. It’s like a birth of sorts.”

Noe made the film on instinct and recalls his producer not believing he could film it in 15 days.

“We had three and half weeks total and didn’t have time to write dialogue,” he says. “We were working with people who are not used to rehearsing or learning lines. I usually cast non-professionals and here wanted to work with dancers because they are very instinctive.”

The director managed to enlist French actress Sofia Boutella (Fahrenheit 451, Hotel Artemis, The Mummy, Star Trek Beyond) as the choreographer.

“I hadn’t seen her movies and contacted her because I knew her as a dancer who was older than the 20 year old kids. She was an incredible actress as well.”

Boutella proved as fearless as Noe, also enlisting her choreographer friend, Nina McNeeley, to help with the film’s astounding dance moves captured by Noe’s regular cinematographer Benoit Debie.

What inspired Noe in the beginning to make these dangerous movies?

“They’re no more dangerous than the ones I liked watching when I was 12,” he responds. “My mother would bring me to watch a Fassbinder retrospective in Buenos Aires when I was eight. She was a big film buff. Nowadays the worst, most dangerous images you can watch are all on demand on cell phones: snuff videos, hardcore gangbangs, the sleaziest images of cold, clinical sex, and real war. In movies you know you’re not in any danger. It’s all fake.”

His previous movie Love features unsimulated sex though with invented characters. As with the violence of his other movies he wanted to show the reality of love.

I spoke to Noe in Cannes for that film too. He said the film’s much discussed 3D ejaculation scene was 70 per cent as it happened and that he added one additional spray squarely aimed at the audience. The film thrust then unknown actor Karl Glusman (now Zoe Kravitz’s fiancé) into the spotlight. Interestingly in Climax there is sex but no genitalia on display as with Love.

Argentina-born Noe, an atheist, is married to French filmmaker Lucile Hadzihalilovic, though will not discuss his personal life. He says he “loves kids, but I have no kids and no abortions either.

“I have the most normal life in the world, but to all the rest of the people I’m totally out of my mind.”

I suggest that making movies is his escape from normality.

“Marriage, is it normal? Having kids, is it normal? Partying every week for me is normal.”

In terms of his drug usage Noe explains how and why he has used psychedelics.

“I’m curious. I like this sentence by Nietzsche, how any experience that ‘doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. Especially when I was doing research for Enter the Void I was trying almost every psychedelic I could find. Images. Images. Probably I was just lying to myself,” he chuckles. “Maybe it was just in order to enjoy my research and I needed to have a project to justify my research.

“The problem is most people are afraid of dying, afraid of losing control. Psychedelics open your mind in that sense even if you can have bad trips. You become more fearless when you open your mind a little bit with psychedelics.”