There’s no doubt that Gaspar Noé loves to push people’s buttons. His three features, I Stand Alone, Irréversible, and the new Enter The Void, are endurance tests as much as works of art, with Noé practically daring viewers to stay in their seats. But those who do will experience some of the most genuinely challenging, provocative cinema in the world today, movies that work on minds as well as nerves. Enter The Void is Noé’s most prolonged, extravagant experiment, two and a half hours of subjective phantasmagoria, largely featuring a protagonist who’s a disembodied ghost. (As Noé discusses below, the American version has been cut by a full reel, but that can only cushion the blow so much.) Feeding off the neon energy of Tokyo’s liveliest districts, the movie approaches the formal inventiveness of experimental film, as narrative gives way to coruscating blasts of colored light. It’s crazily excessive, ceaselessly pretentious, and utterly invigorating. An animated Noé recently spoke to The A.V. Club after the film’s Sundance screenings about Tron, incest, and why he loves when people hate his movies.
The A.V. Club: Is the atmosphere different at Sundance than at Cannes?
Gaspar Noé: Yes. When we go to Cannes, people are there to fight, to scream—like football, the World Cup. Once I was working on a movie, and then when I went to Cannes, I went there to whistle at all the other movies in competition. You go to help your friends and fight with your friends’ enemies. The direction was either two thumbs up or two thumbs down, but nothing in between. But I’ve got that for every single movie I’ve done, so it’s part of my life experience now.
AVC: It’s hard to imagine someone being indifferent to Enter The Void.
GN: Some people say, “This should have lasted five minutes. Five minutes was enough.” Or in the newspaper that my father read in Argentina, he was offended because the journalist said, “This was the worst movie ever shown in the Cannes Festival. Everybody agrees, at the Palais, in the streets, in the bar. It’s the worst movie.” I say, “Dad, it’s good news. The worst ever—you realize what the competition is to get the worst movie ever?” The hateful reviews are very funny. And sometimes you can enjoy a hateful review much more than a good review, because they introduce all these words. [Laughs.] I saw a review, “This movie is not a movie. It’s not a piece of shit—it’s pure diarrhea.” Hey, the guy really hated it.
AVC: After the Cannes screening, you said you were a little disappointed that people weren’t more provoked by it.
GN: Ah, but then the next day, I read the articles, and people were going crazy. My own reaction was that the movie wasn’t properly finished. It was a work in progress. The visual effects weren’t finished. The soundtrack wasn’t finished at all. I cut four minutes out since then, since Cannes. We added some flickering effects and out-of-focus effects. I like it as it is now. When people say, “Oh, I missed it at Cannes.” I say, “I’m glad you missed it, because I want you to see the completed version.”
AVC: The effects have a lot in common with experimental filmmakers like Tony Conrad and Stan Brakhage.
GN: Maybe for this movie, I was more inspired by Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome, or maybe the end of 2001. There is the hardcore flicker that is made with images that are one color or black and white, and you change each frame with flat color, but then in this case, we added a slight flickering colored effect. Sometimes you can tell it’s there and sometimes you cannot. Still, it plays with your brain. Maybe it uses alpha waves or beta waves, I don’t know. Even myself, when I get into it, when I get in front of it, I feel I’m stoned because of the flicker.
AVC: Conrad’s The Flicker is just alternating black and white frames, but the afterimages create shapes in your mind. You can’t always tell in Enter The Void when you’re seeing something that’s actually there.
GN: Another trick is that at many moments, the image gets out of focus or comes back to focus, and at a point, you feel like you’re falling asleep. So you’re trying to make the focus, and you actually lose the focus, because the moment the image comes back to focus, your own sight went elsewhere. You’re trying to re-adapt your sight to see clear, but actually, maybe it’s mind-exhausting.
AVC: Like a lot of experimental film, Enter The Void is explicitly concerned with the process of perception. The camera literally goes inside the characters’ heads. Did it start from a place of, “These are the images I want to film,” and then you built a story around it, or was the relationship between the brother and sister the starting point?
GN: I would say it’s the movie you want to play a new game in. The game for me, the goal in the movie, was to induce an altered state of consciousness as much as possible inside the viewer’s brain, although you consider your own self as the potential audience. You cannot think of other people than you and your friends. I was thinking “Which is the kind of movie I would like to see on a screen? What movie could play with my perception?” Avatar plays with the perception of people. There are not many movies. Persona, The Flicker by Tony Conrad gets you stoned. Mulholland Dr. gets you stoned.
AVC: People sometimes talk as if those are movies to get high to, but that seems like overkill. Watching them is already like taking drugs.
GN: The one that I can watch over and over, and I feel like I’m getting the best dream I could—like when you’re a kid, you like your mother telling you the same story over and over, but there are movies also that you want to watch over and over, because they put you in a good mood, because you know what the dream is about. You know it’s going to have a happy ending, and it’ll come back. But I love, for example, watching “Un Chien Andalou.” I can watch it over and over.
AVC: You start Enter The Void with the character on drugs, and you have a reference to the fact that DMT is the same chemical your brain emits when you die.
GN: They say that you have DMT inside your brain in the hypophysis, in the middle of the brain. There’s this theory that the DMT you have inside your brain helps you to or allows you to have dreams. Why do you need to dream? What is the positive aspect that generates the need of dreams among humans? Because everything has to go for the survival of the species. So maybe the dreams make the people stronger, whatever. But they say if you have a car crash, or if you’re dying, there’s this theory that says some people can release huge amounts of DMT. Then you have a hallucination that is very close to the ones you can have whether you’re smoking DMT or drinking it. Things I’ve read. [Laughs.]
AVC: The movie is so interested in those altered states of consciousness.
GN: What I don’t like in movies dealing with the illustration of altered states of consciousness is that usually you see the guy from the outside. Even in 2001, it’s weird, because at the end, you have this trip, and from time to time you have a close-up of Keir Dullea moving his face inside the helmet. Why did they put those in there? Hallucinations are an inner experience in which most of the time you forget you’re there.
AVC: Visually speaking, so much of the action of this movie is the repeated motif that you have of the camera going into holes, whether it’s the light or the bullet hole in his chest.
GN: The whole thing is about getting into holes. Putting the camera into any hole.
AVC: There’s a lot of return-to-the-womb imagery in the movie, especially during the climax. How much do you think things through in Freudian or psychoanalytic terms?
GN: Actually, I don’t think he wants to return to the womb. He wants to return to the baths, where he was taking the bath with his mother and his younger sister. I’m not sure that people want to go back to the womb. People want to go back to the teats of your mother and hear your mother’s heartbeat. Did you notice who was the mother at the end of the movie? It was meant to be not very clear, the image out of focus, but did you recognize the sister?
AVC: I did notice the mother shows up in the love-hotel scene. It’s meant to be ambiguous?
GN: It’s meant to be ambiguous, but not so ambiguous, because we shot it with the mother, not with the sister. So at the end, he thinks he’s finally reincarnated, but when he comes out, he sees his own mother out of focus, like if he had one final flash before he dies of his first memory ever, coming out of his mother’s womb. Or he gets into a loop where he’s going to grow up again and see the car crash again and go to Tokyo again, get killed again. Either he’s trapped in a temporal loop, or he’s just remembering, before losing his consciousness, he’s remembering the first moment ever.
AVC: The ending of Irréversible is in a similar vein, where it can almost circle around.
GN: And that’s why when the title comes at the end, “The Void,” it’s like he’s getting into an empty life, or then it’s just a void, and that’s the end. I put it at the end, like instead of putting “The End,” it’s “The Void.”
AVC: So why did you end up setting the story in Tokyo?
GN: In Tokyo? Because Tokyo is like a huge futuristic pinball machine. It’s like a bubble with two lost creatures inside a pinball machine that doesn’t care about them. The other thing is, it’s very colorful. When people do DMT, they say it looks like the movie Tron. If you want to make a movie that looks like Tron with real locations, you have to go to Tokyo or to Las Vegas.
AVC: I think anyone who visits Shinjuku comes up with the same analogy.
GN: We shot in Shinjuku and Kabukicho. You have to have a very good location manager who knows the people in the neighborhood. You deal with them, because, of course, there are lots of massage parlors, whatever. If you don’t talk with the people and manage to make it happen, you can get in trouble. If you just arrive there with a handheld camera and start shooting, you can get smashed in the face.
AVC: The chaos of that environment also increases the need for security. You were talking about the desire to return to the mother’s breast, and at one point you actually intercut him having sex with his friend’s mother and a memory of him breastfeeding.
GN: The mother and the girl who plays his sister are purposefully very similar. So at a point, he’s mixing his beloveds, his mother with his sister. It happens from time to time that my mother calls me by the name of my father. It always happens.
AVC: In the first scene, before you know what their relationship is, his sister is wearing a negligee that looks as if she’s just crawled out of his bed, as if they might be boyfriend and girlfriend. There does seem to be a pretty provocative intermingling of platonic and erotic love.
GN: You know they would not turn incestuous, but also, she’s very pretty, so I would say any straight brother could be excited by such a sister. It’s funny, for example, I met a few porn actresses, and I was always wondering what the father of a porn actress feels when he sees the images of his own daughter, or the brother of the porn actress. It’s easy to be the boyfriend of the porn actress, or it’s easier, but to be the brother or the father…
AVC: I would imagine they try not to.
GN: [Laughs.] Once you’ve seen it, what do you do with those images in your mind?
AVC: You have the primal scene in the movie of him seeing his parents having sex, which would be the opposite of that.
GN: They say that when you see your parents having sex as a kid, they call it the primitive scene. [Laughs.] I want a primitive scene in my movie. It’s funny, when you start talking about primitive scenes, so many people have seen their parents having sex.
AVC: Technically, how much of what’s in the movie is practical, and how much of it is done in post-production?
GN: Everything dealing with actors has been shot on Super 16. And then, for example, all the shots flying from one apartment to another one through the ceiling, all those ceilings were recreated digitally out of photos. You take photos of the street and then photos of the apartment, and you recreate in 3-D the structure; you stick the photos to the 3-D structure, and then you decide what’s going to be the camera movement, the speed. The company, the guy who did the visual effects, Pierre Buffin, he had also done the visual effects in 2046 and some of the visual effects in The Matrix, and all the best 3-D in David Fincher’s Fight Club, or the one he did after with Jodie Foster.
AVC: Panic Room.
GN: He was used to doing cameras flying through the ceiling. And, for example, the last shot, the long shot that goes through the plane, we shot with the helicopters, and then they recreated the city out of the shots of the helicopter. So it’s a mix of the real shot and post-production, and the same for the camera coming out of the tunnel, and you see the city that looks like a scale model. Actually, that was a real shot that then we treated in post-production to reduce the depth of field and change the colors to make it more unreal. Also, we paralyzed some people. The people were moving in the street, and now they’re all like small soldiers in this scale model. In this, we played a lot at recreating the lack of depth of film in the image, but also now we have some kind of lenses that can tilt, and then you can have the upper part of the image out of focus. It’s a movie that is supposed to take place inside the brain of the main character. Mental images are not very definite.
AVC: There’s such a premium now on sharpness, on everything being high-definition and ultra-detailed, but you’re using the technology in a different, more expressionistic way.
GN: Trying to make it look like Super 8.
AVC: Even the Super 16…
GN: I try to make it look like a dysfunctional Kodachrome.
AVC: So you’re cutting the movie for American release?
GN: Actually, I like this version as it is, but I signed a contract that if the movie was over two hours 20 minutes or whatever, I would do a reduced version. The solution I found: Instead of doing another edit of the movie, is just I managed to cut the reels, I managed that the movie could work without the reel number seven.
AVC: What happens in reel seven?
GN: That’s after the abortion scene, you see the abortion, and the camera flies through and hits the fetus and gets into another dimension or whatever, and he comes out, and the guy is calling, that’s where reel number seven starts. You see the girl in the kiddie-land, she’s depressed, and then the guy says, “Well, can you bring me my stuff? I want to see Linda” on the phone. And then there’s the orgy with the two girls, and then Mario tells Linda that she’s fired, and then you see him waking up at the morgue. There’s all these dreams where he wakes up and doesn’t wake up, and then she wakes up and says “Oh, I had a dream about my brother. We were was sitting at the morgue.” And then she throws the ashes in the sink. And at that moment when the camera gets into the sink, that’s where reel number eight starts, so in the reduced version, they will have the nine reels. I don’t know if they’re going to play the full-length version in some theaters, or only the eight-reel version. But otherwise, you’ll see when the camera hits the fetus, it comes out in the, you see some cockroaches, and it comes out in the cemetery. It’s not a controversial reel. There’s nothing real important. Just the moment he wakes up disappears. I like it as it is, but I don’t mind. I would say, my conviction is that the people like the movie for its decadence, not that it’s 17 minutes shorter, that it makes any difference.
AVC: It’s literally unchanged other than that?
GN: In some ways it’s more dramatic, because reel number seven is kind of minimal, and otherwise you go from the abortion to Linda coming to Victor and then going to the plane, and then you got to the sex hotel, so it’s not a censored version. It’s just a shorter version. I like it much better the other way. But it works. People who see the short version don’t notice there’s anything missing at all. I don’t know, maybe it’s like if you do a trip, a mushroom trip or whatever; if you enjoy it, you want it to be long. They say that if you’re coming down from your mushroom trip or your acid trip, you have to smoke tobacco, because it re-enhances and you can keep on going.
AVC: If you sat me down and said “Cut 17 minutes out of this film,” if I started cutting, I wouldn’t know where to stop. I don’t know what’s essential and what isn’t.
GN: Even if they put it on video on demand, maybe they can put both versions. [They didn’t—ed.] It’s up to them, but I’m pushing it as much as I can to have my version, maybe because that’s the movie I wanted to see on the screen. That’s how I like it. But if you see the other, you don’t notice that something’s missing.
AVC: Do you sit and watch the film at screenings still?
GN: Yeah, it’s one thing. I don’t know if I should worry or not, but the image of the penis coming at the camera at the end was not meant to be funny. People are laughing so much. I don’t know if it’s a nervous reaction or because it’s really funny. But I thought it would be epic or mythological or dramatic, like the rest of the movie. Or dream. If you saw that in your own dreams, you would not laugh.