French filmmaker Gaspar Noé is a highly divisive director, but when he speaks you may be surprised. He has a reputation for being an enfant terrible and provocateur — two hysterically violent scenes from his second feature “Irréversible” staked his infamy — but he’s far more soft-spoken and less abrasive than you might imagine. And in conversation, it doesn’t take long to realize he’s a also a classic cinephile, erudite and excitable once his mind starts racing about all of the vast possibilities cinema has to offer.
Noé’s brand of moviemaking is extreme, challenging, and innovative, and his latest opus, “Love,” starts its rollout to select theaters tomorrow (read our review). A reflective and melancholy piece that examines a failed relationship between a young man (Karl Glusman) and his first love (Aomi Muyock), the film — shot in 3D, and featuring real deal sex scenes — has accordingly split critics down the middle, as is always the case with his work. Regardless, his films always demand to be seen at the cinema on the biggest screen possible and with the sound turned way up. It’s bold and bracing on the surface, but underneath the lurid exterior lies an intimate and plaintive work that wistfully looks back on a faded romance.
I recently had the chance to talk over the phone with the filmmaker about his approach to “Love,” portraying sex on screen, and more.
Though it’s only explicitly stated in “Irréversible,” all your films are highly concerned with the notion that “time destroys everything.” Even in this newest film, your most sentimental work to date, time is a big component.
I wrote the first draft of [“Love”] before “Irréversible” and even proposed it to Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel, but it did not work. We did “Irréversible” instead, for many reasons. There are some similarities to the ending that [are reminiscent] of “Love” in some ways. But it is quite different. In this case, the whole project was about portraying a love story of two young, daring kids who are 20, 25. I would say, that’s how it happens in life, [that time destroys all things]. I was not inspired by any other movie. I was most inspired by my French loves and my own life, and wanting to make a generational movie that portrays love addiction as it is [both optimistic and pessimistic] without considering any commercial issues.
Was it your impulse to make a film that shows sex in a different way than most audiences — especially in the U.S. — are used to seeing at the cinema?
Yeah! We believe we live in an open Western society that is not religious. But when it comes to the presentation of sex in a loving way — everybody is obsessed with it, everybody dreams of hugging their boyfriend or girlfriend or maybe having babies or not — love is a general, universal obsession. Why do people always close the door when you get the joyful aspects of life? In a way, movies don’t present how sweet or normal sex can be. There were many doors open in the ’70s during the sexual revolution by many directors who were doing movies containing sex scenes that were not sex movies as you may call them. There’s something very old fashioned in the world we live in. You can have images of cruel or mechanical sex available anywhere to young kids, but they are disconnected from real life. The presentation of love in real life is missing from the movie theaters. It’s totally a chronic nuisance. How many people get killed in movies now? Even in a general audience movie like “The Passion Of The Christ,” where it’s all about torture. Why can that be seen by kids, but just two grown up persons kissing and enjoying their bodies, that’s a problem?
What was the first film you can remember, porn or otherwise, where a sex scene made an impact and captured your imagination?
Not a sex scene, but I know my first sexual obsession. I was a very young kid when I saw the James Bond movie “The Man With The Golden Gun” and there was an actress called Maud Adams in it. I had a crush [laughs]. Sometimes you can be ten years old but you have an adult addiction, almost sexual, to the female figure. I remember I was obsessed with her photos and would cut them out of the newspaper. I’d study the joints on her face. I think that was my first cinematic crush with a woman. But I don’t know how sexual it was between her and James Bond, just her face turned me on like a junkie.
Any favorite sex scenes?
There is one sex scene in a movie that’s supposed to be a horror movie: the scene from “Don’t Look Now” by Nicolas Roeg. It’s very powerful. It’s unusual to see such a sexual scene in a Hollywood movie.
Can you name any classic erotic or porn films that you’d like to champion?
Maybe the first porn VHS that I ever bought, “The Devil in Miss Jones” by Gerard Damiano. When I was twenty we’d watch all these old French porn [movies] from the ’70s. I know the old French porn movies better than the American ones.
A lot of people label you as just a violent filmmaker, which I feel is shortsighted. Was “Love” an attempt at showing another side to your filmmaking?
No, there are two projects that I really dreamt of for many years: “Enter the Void” and this one. I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but I know what I want to see onscreen, whether I’m directing or someone else. Because no one else did it, I ended up making these films [laughs]. But a few years ago, there was a movie in some terms similar to mine because it portrayed very well love addiction, called “Blue Is The Warmest Color.” Thankfully for me, it was a lesbian story, so I didn’t feel that someone was doing the movie I wanted to do. The way that love story was portrayed was very mature and very contemporary. If you consider it in the history of cinema, how many movies portray in an uncensored but positive way, or in a realistic way, how it works for two young people who fall in love? I haven’t seen many movies that present that. And ‘Blue’ is maybe the closest thing to my movie and it’s a story about two women.
I’m very interested in your collaborations with DP Benoît Debie. Can you talk about constructing the look of “Love”? This is your first feature shot with digital cameras and in 3D.
Benoît is the sweetest cinematographer I ever met. And also the most playful and colorful that I could dream of. I was very happy that finally he was free when I started shooting the movie because I started pre-production without knowing if he would be available. He had done a 3D movie previously with Wim Wenders [“Every Thing Will Be Fine“], so he told me the cameras were heavy but not so bad and that I should try. I don’t regret at all shooting in 3D. It makes it look like a big budget movie when it’s not at all. There’s something playful in the sense that people put glasses on to watch a movie in order to see an image that’s a bit more realistic than a flat image.
Do you have any mainstream aspirations as a filmmaker?
I don’t know. To my eyes, my last two movies, “Enter The Void” and “Irréversible” were very commercial movies, but really to this day the latter is most successful and it’s extremely violent. I just want to be able to pay my rent and buy movie posters. I’m not obsessed with money. So I’m more obsessed with making movies that I will be proud of. I don’t know, if I find money and freedom for the next project, I don’t mind having big toys. Sometimes it’s easier to have big toys if you have big names on the screen. My favorite movie ever is “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which is a very expensive commercial movie. Kubrick managed to do a very personal, intelligent movie I would call a masterpiece, but he did it inside of the studio. Maybe he was lucky and it was the right era to do those movies. Maybe today people are less valiant than before.
“Love” opens October 30 in limited release, expanding slightly November 6.