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The Argentine director Gaspar Noé is used to controversy. Watching his films, it’s obvious that he likes it. But even he was surprised when, in September, a Russian politician compared his new project to Mein Kampf.
The film is Love, so sexually explicit that Moscow pre-emptively banned it. Welcoming the decision, rightwing deputy Vitaly Milonov explained that, like the Nazi foundation stone, Noé’s film could be seen by “researchers” but not the public: “It can be studied for scientific purposes but can’t be openly distributed.” Noé shakes his head. “So now I am Hitler.”
We are in Paris, where he has lived since his teens, in a café near his flat in a scuffed corner of the 10th arrondissement. Slight and olive-skinned, at 51 his fulsome bandit moustache is flecked with grey. He is a bundle of nervous energy. “In Russia,” he says in accented English, “maybe because the guy in my film is good in bed and American, there is the problem. If he was Russian, it would be OK.”
However drastic Moscow’s verdict, it’s true that Love — the story of a doomed affair between young drifters in Paris — is one of the most sexually frank films to ever be released (or not) outside of actual pornography. Its opening scene is devoted to its central couple silently arousing each other; clearly nothing is fake. What follows involves other authentic moments from their sex life. A further note: the film has been made in 3D.
But the sex in Love is just one part of the equation. The dominant tone is bittersweet melancholy: Brief Encounter with orgasms. “I pretended to make porn so no one gets mad when they see the sex, walks out and asks for their money back. But yes, really it is a sentimental melodrama about a guy who loses his girlfriend.”
If there is a squeak of the disingenuous here, it’s because Noé has always been a showman, aware of the power of flesh as a selling point. During his incendiary first feature, 1998’s I Stand Alone, he paused to give audiences a countdown in which they could exit the movie. Between that film and Love have come just two more — Irreversible (2002) and Enter the Void (2009) — but with them a reputation as world cinema’s most gleeful enfant terrible, creator of films that bristle with neon, strobes and ultra-violence.
This time the detractors have, he says, mostly been middle-aged men. “Love touches women more. They say it is feminist. Women tell me: ‘You know, this is my story. I’ve been with this guy.’ ”
Watching Love, we might ponder who “this guy” is. Characters include the egocentric anti-hero Murphy (the maiden name of Noé’s mother Nora, mother Nora, born in Argentina to an Irish émigré father), an ex-girlfriend Lucile (he was in a relationship for many years with film-maker Lucile Hadzihalilovic), and an ageing lech called Noé. A newborn baby is, of course, named Gaspar. Yet such playfulness is, he insists, just that.
“Murphy is like me, but not me. Or like part of me. A younger brother. Dumber and less careful.”
Later, when our formal interview ends, he insists on picking up the bill, although his frequent references to paying the rent lead me to think he might be a little broke. (The traditional sideline of the art house director in high-end advertising has, he says, been closed to him since making a “terrible” commercial for Yves Saint Laurent in 2009.) He’s also adamant on walking me back to the Gare du Nord. On the way, he talks about not having children: “I had the most sweet, loving relationship with my parents, but I fear that if I do it, it won’t be as good. Do you have babies?”
None of this is the behaviour of the nihilist wild man you might expect from his films. (He does also ask later: “Have you ever had a threesome?”) Noé was born in Buenos Aires, the son of an Argentine intellectual, Luis Felipe Noé. Part of his personal legend is that at seven he saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, finding it so revelatory it made him a director (this too is referenced in Love). Eventually came I Stand Alone, a sledgehammer portrait of a vile French butcher, whose racism, misogyny and misanthropy fuelled a horribly gripping, flatly hideous voiceover.
Noé still doesn’t have a French passport but after his parents fled the Argentine junta when he was 13, he finds real meaning in his adopted country’s free speech. I Stand Alone was, he says, made to tease more than to expose. The butcher’s ravings drew strange admirers. “The National Front approached me to say: ‘Come on, join the team.’ I said: ‘OK, first thing, I don’t want to. Second thing, you know I’m not actually French?’ ”
Irreversible was more scandalous still. Starring Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel, it was a brutal account of rape and revenge, unfolding backwards over a day to an unbearably poignant end/beginning. Then Noé made his masterpiece, Enter The Void (2009), a mad, hallucinatory opus about the afterlife of a young American drug dealer in Tokyo.
The experience left him exhausted. It also forced him to deal with that most treacherous gift: the critically lauded, endlessly talked-about film that loses its backers money.
The budget for Enter The Void was €11m. For Love, it was €2.5m. The film stars three non-professional actors, recruited from a Q&A after a New York screening of Enter The Void, a friend’s party and a nightclub. All were fans of the director, “So I wasn’t just some guy with a moustache saying: ‘Hello, I want to make an erotic movie.’ ”
Noé argues the casting wasn’t simply down to economics: “People call it a risk, but famous actors go wrong on the screen all the time. I like faces that are new. Charisma is charisma.”
Love was still a tough sell: numerous investors almost funded the project before vanishing. “They were afraid. They wanted coolness from my name but also a clean movie.” Deals struck gave no guarantees. A week before shooting, a major backer dropped out. “A grenade on board the plane,” Noé says.
The French government was more reliable. On bumping into a 3D technician in the street some months earlier, he had learned that the Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication were giving grants to domestic films to use 3D technology. Always keen to push the visual boundaries of film, Noé dutifully employed the effect in a particularly memorable sex scene. (Viewers will note the tricolour in the background of another, his way of saying thanks.)
“I like 3D,” he says. “I still think: what can I do that will amuse me as a film-maker?” In fact, his next move looks likely to be into documentary. Money is not irrelevant. “With documentary, you just pick up a camera and start. But also, Aldous Huxley once said: the forces attached to real stories are more interesting than fiction.”
We start to walk. I have a train to catch and he is my chaperone. Guiding me up Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis, he turns: “Now I like the idea of not forcing people to say things.”
‘Love’ is released in the UK on November 20
Photographs: Samuel Kirszenbaum; Photoshot