For a keen student of human behaviour like Gaspar Noé the fun normally begins once his movies are released from post-production quarantine and put up on the big screen. If the material is toxic enough, as it was with Irreversible (2002) – the centrepiece of which was a sickening 8-minute anal rape sequence – then Noé can start to chalk up the walkouts and finesse the faintings.
Neither of these occurrences is likely to displease a film-maker who admits that he “put some sequences in [his] films which were shocking because [he] was interested to see how people would react”. Or, as he disingenuously adds: “First of all I make films for myself and for my friends. If other people take my films badly then I’m not too bothered.”
But how quickly the pendulum can swing back. Instead of walkouts, Noé’s latest film Enter the Void has been provoking sniggers for an impregnation sequence that shows a penis entering a vagina shot from inside. On the day that I meet him in a downmarket Paris café, the 46-year-old Argentine-born director still seems to be stoically coming to terms with this slight.
“I had seen some documentaries about giving birth with similar images,” says Noé in rapid-fire French. “I didn’t think for a moment that audiences would laugh when they saw that image.”
With his Zapata moustache, bald pate and small, wiry frame, Noé’s distinctive look, completed by black T-shirt and jeans, backs up an intense personality. With Enter the Void the challenge the director set himself was to make “a psychedelic melodrama” about a near-death experience, or after-death experience – depending on the viewer’s interpretation.
“My idea was to make a very sentimental film and at the same time try to recreate the kind of anxiety one often feels while taking a hallucinogenic drug like mushrooms,” adds Noé, who dabbled in hallucinogenic drugs during his twenties.
For his new film Noé, who stresses that he is “totally atheist”, found inspiration in a variety of Buddhist texts, including The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which he read twice, and several essays by the late Belgian/French explorer and mystic Alexandra David-Néel. When Enter the Void premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year to contrasting reviews, Noé told one interviewer he subscribed to the Douglas Sirk school of melodrama where “sperm, blood and tears” are of paramount importance.
“I think you can see that applies not only to Enter the Void but also my first two films Seul contre tours and Irreversible,” says Noé now. “If you really want to make something gut-wrenching, then you have to talk about procreation, the omnipresence of death and, of course, you need people to cry.”
Noé always intended for the most jolting moment in Enter the Void to be a car crash in which a brother and sister lose both their parents. The scene, which is expertly and shockingly edited, finds a small echo in Noé’s own life. When he was growing up in Buenos Aires he took a taxi with his sister and his mother. Noé and his sister were in the back seat, with his mother in front, when the taxi they were travelling in hit another car.
“My mother was gushing blood,” remembers Noé. “Fortunately the wounds were only superficial. But I still have a very precise memory of this moment. That’s often the case when you witness violence because the adrenalin lodges the memory in your mind.”
Ever since the accident Noé says he has associated travelling in a car with the possibility of death. It’s a bit stupid, he adds, because although he has not passed his driving test he does ride a scooter around Paris, where he lives, “sometimes when drunk, so the risk is much greater”.
One of the primary melodramatic devices Noé uses in his films is this idea – that life is fragile and at any given moment you can lose everything and everyone you care about. In Carne (1991) and its sequel I Stand Alone (1998) a racist butcher, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the French National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, is first abandoned by his wife to bring up his child alone, then loses his job and eventually any trace of dignity.
This idea that all of a sudden your life can be turned upside down is one that Noé is familiar with. As the son of one of Argentina’s most respected painters, Luis Felipe Noé, he had enjoyed a privileged upbringing in Buenos Aires until his father’s name was mistakenly put on a political blacklist.
“I must have been about 12 when one day 15 or 20 plainclothes policemen carrying machine guns entered our house,” remembers Noé. “I was alone with my father that afternoon. The policemen wanted to make my father confess to something he hadn’t done. They had got his name from somebody they had tortured. Not long after, we all left Buenos Aires to live in Paris.”
Perhaps because he is the son of a painter he deeply admires, Noé refuses to be dubbed an “artist” himself.
“I don’t consider myself in that way because I make films which always involve collaborating with other people,” he says. “For me an artist is someone solitary like a musician, a dancer, a sculptor or a painter. For each film I make I have a dream of how it will be, but it never does turn out that way. At the beginning of each film there is some sort of artistic élan but very soon your role becomes more akin to the conductor of an orchestra.”
This kind of attitude is almost unheard of in France, where the cult of the auteur is still deeply ingrained. But Noé goes even further by stating that his wife Lucile Hadzihalilovic, who co-wrote the screenplay for Enter the Void, basically co-directed all his early short films, including Carne, which won the best short film prize at Cannes in 1991 and set Noé on the road to fame and notoriety.
Noé’s obsession with the precariousness of life has also found expression in several short documentaries. It is a shame that his reputation as a shockmeister has meant that this part of career has fallen off the radar. Arguably one of the most considered and important documentaries he has made is an 18-minute short called SIDA (2008) which is now available to watch on YouTube. The film, which was commissioned by the UN, reveals the incredible dignity of a patient suffering from Aids in a Burkina Faso hospital, using his simply stated case as a public health warning. It is not the first, nor will it likely be the last, documentary that Noé will make about the killer disease.
“Even as a heterosexual, Aids is probably the illness I’ve been most exposed to,” says Noé. “I’ve always been interested in depicting sex in my films and making these documentaries just seems to me to be a continuation of that.”
‘Enter the Void’ is now on release. Read Nigel Andrews’ review