When Gaspar Noe was growing up in Buenos Aires in the 1960s and 1970s, his mother was a film buff and his father, a celebrated painter, was friends with the head of the Argentinean Cinematheque. It meant that from an early – and possibly inappropriate – age the future filmmaker was experiencing classics from the history of cinema, whether in the company of his mother or simply slipping in by himself.
A pattern was set by these childhood sessions: for Noe the cinema was a source of wonder and an act of transgression; what he knew to be wrong felt so very right. That line extends through the subsequent career of the 54-year-old writer and director, who subsequently came of age and went to film school in Paris. A Gaspar Noe film has a singularity of belief that makes for indelible images – the audience is divided between the compelled and the repelled.
Kiddy Smile and Sofia Boutella in Gaspar Noe’s impressionistic meltdown, Climax.Credit:Madman Films
"Attention. You have 30 seconds to leave the cinema," warned a stark title screen in Noe's 1998 debut I Stand Alone, and ever since the ecstatic and the brutal have been in primal conversation through Noe's unflinching images. In 2002, his Irreversible backtracked from a horrific, explicit rape scene late at night to the idyllic morning that began the day, while 2009's Enter the Void was a point-of-view overload that updated the psychedelic experience.
"There's a [Ernst] Lubitsch interview where he says in the American cinema all characters have single faces, but in life everybody has multiple faces," Noe says. "You don't have the same words and reactions in front of your friend or your lover or your brother. The same person in different situations can change a lot. You cannot say that the moon has a white face and a black face – it's simply turning all the time."
Noe sometimes refers to his feature films as his "crimes", which is less of a provocation than an acknowledgment of how getting them financed is a kind of heist, and at the Cannes Film Festival in May he debuted his fifth one. Climax is an impressionistic meltdown in two parts – the first is an exquisite and extended piece of choreography as a group of dancers finish rehearsals for an upcoming American tour, the second is the nightmarish breakdown of their wrap party after the sangria is spiked with mind-warping substances.
"Everyone thinks that the sangria has been spiked with something, probably acid, but really all the worst dramas in my life weren't connected to chemicals or plants, but rather the acceptance of alcohol and how crazy it makes people," Noe says. "Some people are sweet and repressed, but when they drink too much it opens up another section of their brain that makes them cruel and evil."
Sofia Boutella stars as Selva in Climax.Credit:Madman Films
It's Noe's technique – the way the camera turns the urgent dancing into a kind of rhythmic summoning, before staggering from desperate flailing to potential atrocity – that makes Climax so artfully effective. As has repeatedly been the case in his career, his refusal to step back courts excess, but there was only a handful of walkouts in Cannes, which is a change for Noe, and the film has drawn the best reviews of his career.
"People say I've grown up, but I'm just getting older, and maybe wiser. I'm more comfortable shooting a movie now because I've been a part of these crimes before and now it's another crime I'm committing," Noe says. "I'm comfortable with the camera, I'm comfortable improvising scenes at the last moment, but I'm not more intelligent than before. Maybe just calmer."
Noe isn't self-obsessed enough to be a provocateur. He makes the film he makes, but he doesn't measure them by the reactions of others. Noe is softly spoken and ready to answer queries, although he admits that on the whole he'd be happier staying at home and watching his formative collection of taped VHS classics. Often Noe explains himself with a reference to an earlier film: he sees Climax, taking care to make an Australian reference as a friendly gesture, "as my French dancing remake of Wake in Fright".
The ensemble cast of Gaspar Noe’s unflinching Climax are dancers.Credit:Madman Films
Noe, who is married to the gifted French filmmaker Lucile Hadzihalilovic, notes that he was so short of money prior to launching Climax at the start of this year that he was, "ready to prostitute myself and direct a perfume commercial". He got if off the ground with a single-page outline and shot it in little more than two weeks. Apart from the late addition of the French actor Sofia Boutella (Star Trek Beyond, Atomic Blonde), the ensemble cast were dancers whose inexperience in front of the camera suited his purpose.
"Because they weren't actors, they weren't playing other characters. They were being themselves, whether we were doing the interviews or dancing or fighting," Noe says. "They haven't been taught to cry or scream on a stage, so when they had to do that they were realistic. They were able to get close to real psychosis because I showed them videos of people high on LSD or high on crack.
"There was of course no drugs involved in the shooting and even at one stage we thought about enhancing their mood with alcohol, but mostly these dancers don't drink so a glass of vodka left them wasted and mumbling," he adds. "They were completely clean and excited to get to the second part of the shoot where they could pretend to be out of their mind and psychotic."
Noe has forged his career in the space between being a cineaste and a sensualist, listing making love, swimming and dancing as his three favourite activities. The comparative success of Climax should give him the means to quickly make his sixth crime, aided by his belief that film directors are like – as the line in Chinatown goes – politicians, prostitutes and ugly buildings in gaining respect simply by lasting long enough.
"People call me Mr Noe now," Noe says, just a hint of satisfaction in his bemused laugh. "That I never expected."
Climax is in cinemas now.
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