In Gaspar Noé’s “Climax,” a dance troupe gathers in a remote building to practice their moves, initially making it seem as if Noé has opted to create dazzling non-fiction portrait of the art form. But the director of “Enter the Void” and “Love,” whose unnerving subjective camerawork and outré subject matter has enhanced his bad boy clout with each outing, has another disturbing story in store. Once the dancers — all professionals and non-actors, aside from “Kingsman” actress Sofia Boutella — inadvertently drink a party punch spiked with LSD, the movie follows them into one very bad trip.
Propelled by acrobatic camerawork and a pulsating neon palette, “Climax” devolves into a nightmarish vision of humanity collapsing into itself. And yet, moving along at a brisk 96 minutes, it marks the most palatable dose of the 55-year-old Paris-based Argentine auteur’s rambunctious vision to date.
Shot in 15 days mere weeks before its Cannes premiere, “Climax” went on to win the Directors’ Fortnight section of the festival and land U.S. distribution with A24. The acclaim has put Noé in the unique position of contemplating his boundary-pushing legacy and explaining how he wound up, at long last, making an accessible movie. At the tail-end of his promotional tour, the loquacious filmmaker called IndieWire on Skype to discuss his psychedelic inspiration, the new movie’s freewheeling production strategy, and his relationship to the commercial world.
You know what? Wait a second. I haven’t smoked a cigarette for one hour, so I’m just gonna smoke a cigarette.
It must be nice to be home.
The movie was shown in Cannes and it already has been released almost all over Europe and in South America. So even though I did the movie very quickly — it took me four-and-a-half months from the conception to the release in Cannes — since May, I’ve been traveling, answering the same questions here, there, et cetera. That’s why I couldn’t find time to start another movie or pre-production.
It must feel ironic that your fastest production still ate up so much of your time.
I think that the promotion of the movie took me twice or three times the time. It’s always funny to travel around, be put in nice hotels, et cetera. But probably because of my age, I enjoy shooting more than promoting now.
You looked really giddy during the early morning press screening at Cannes. I spotted you standing in the aisles, grinning as the screening played out.
The funny thing about that morning screening is that no one knew anything about the movie. It was first time that I managed to show a movie in a festival, especially at the Cannes Film Festival, where the audience and the critics in attendance didn’t know anything about the movie besides the title. When the movie was selected for Director’s Fortnight, they asked for the synopsis to put on the catalog. And I said, “Hey, I don’t want anybody to know what the movie’s about. So I’m just gonna put this stupid synopsis that says, ‘Birth and death are two extraordinary experiences.’” So when you and other people went into the movie, aside from knowing that the movie was called “Climax” and that I directed it, that was all anyone knew.
The problem is that that non-synopsis was a joke — and now, when I see that my movie’s been sold on DVD in France or elsewhere, it says this stupid synopsis: “Birth and death are two extraordinary experiences.” It was a joke, but they kept that.
Usually, your movies are met with divided reactions, but “Climax” has been well-reviewed across the board and really plays well with all kinds of audiences. What’s that like for you?
I think probably the movie’s funnier than my other movies. “Enter the Void” was probably the most serious one, more than “Irreversible” or “Love,” which had some sides to them that were violent or disturbing. “Enter the Void” seems more serious and it’s quite hard to laugh, watching it. But “Climax” is partly very energetic and joyful, and partly like a vision of hell.
The way it’s portrayed is so extreme that one time out of two when I went into a theater where they’re playing the movie, during the second half, people were laughing. Bergman made movies like that; Haneke, too. I’m a happy person. When a happy person makes a cruel movie, it becomes funny.
“Climax” does seem to open up your style to more audiences.
The thing that made this movie popular or better-received by the critics is that the characters are not tormented. They’re very positive, creative, and joyful in the first half, so you can pick the ones you prefer. But they’re not identified as losers or half-losers, like most of the characters in my previous movies. With them, you could tell they were doing it the wrong way. In this movie, you see 23 characters and say, “Oh, they’re all trying to make their lives better. They’re such great dancers.” And you’re hypnotized by their body language. And then we go into the second part, of course, as the same characters put in a stressful situation can become reptilian.
In my other movies, whether there was one precise character that we follow all the time — like the butcher in “I Stand Alone” or the young drug dealer in “Enter the Void” — the whole movie’s perceived through their brain or through their eyes. “Irreversible” had more than one character. “Love” had one main character because she does the voiceover. But in this case, it’s an open movie, a bit like that movie that I really like by Richard Linklater called “Slacker,” in which you go from one character to another every five, ten minutes. It’s more like a group portrait and not a character portrait. And so you can get attached to whoever you want.
“Slacker” with LSD. There’s a tagline.
Or, imagine if they redid “Slacker” at Burning Man. In Berlin, there is the most druggy, decadent club I’ve been to in my life. It’s called Berghain Berlin. People go to Berlin just to go that club. It contains 5,000 people at a time for three night in a row. They don’t close for three nights and everybody’s drunk, wasted. For some people, it’s paradise. For other people who are not prepared, it’s sort of hell. My movie’s a kind of reduced version of the Berghain Berlin.
You have discussed the use of drugs as a creative inspiration in the past, especially with “Enter the Void,” but this movie seems like a more of a cautionary tale. How has your relationship to drugs and cinema changed over the years?
I always thought it would be good to do a psychedelic movie like “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That really was my first psychedelic trip, when I was six or seven years old. That was when I said, “One day, I want do a movie like ‘2001.’” I’ve never been addicted to any drug aside from sugar when I was a kid. Of course, it’s quite hard to quit alcohol when you like meeting friends, drinking beer, et cetera. I’m part of my generation, so I smoked pot when I was a teenager. I never really escaped from any joint that was given to me. When I was preparing “Enter the Void,” I thought, “How can I pick up images that will help me to create this movie?”
Kubrick didn’t use any LSD or any other psychedelic before doing “2001: Space Odyssey” because he said his brain was his best friend. Douglas Trumbull, whom I’ve met, didn’t do psychedelic drugs, either. Still, they managed to create an incredible psychedelic movie.
MPI Media/Gaspar Noé
On the other hand, Kenneth Anger tried LSD when he made “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.” In my case, I did some ayahuasca with a friend, to pick up images to put in my movie, but I wasn’t promoting the use of drugs. They can be very risky, just like alcohol. In fact, I’ve seen much more social damages around me linked to alcohol than drugs. Cocaine can probably help you to stay awake one night.
At parties, some people think they come out of their closet because they did a line of coke. But then, when people turn into psychotic coke heads behaving like animals and they’re shaking, it just gets stupid. Alcohol can make you very stupid. Chemical drugs can turn you into a monster. But everything is good as in microdoses. While I’m talking to you, I’m smoking a cigarette and I have a beer in my hands.