Gaspar Noé likes to push buttons. Through the past two decades, the Argentine filmmaker, who has long been based in France, has established a reputation as a visionary with a mischievous streak. His film Love (2015), which went viral on TikTok roughly five years after its theatrical release, features unsimulated sex scenes filmed in 3D. Irreversible (2002) will forever live in infamy for a 9-minute rape scene. In I Stand Alone (1998), a butcher punches the belly of his pregnant mistress. “Your baby’s hamburger meat now,” he says. “Ground beef!” And this comes long before Noé gives viewers 30 seconds warning so they can leave the screening.
In December 2019, Noé suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Though the potentially life-threatening event did not result in permanent brain damage, it seemingly left the director a changed man nonetheless. His films Vortex and Lux Æterna are due Stateside in April and May, respectively, and Vortex, about an older couple coping with dementia, doesn’t depict anything remotely controversial. But evidently, Noé still wants to get a reaction: during an interview with The A.V. Club, conducted via Zoom while he was attending the Las Palmas de Gran Canaria International Film Festival in Spain, Noé demanded to know the specific scene in Vortex that made the interviewer cry.
The A.V. Club: How are you doing, health-wise?
Gaspar Noé: I just arrived to film festival, so I’ve been promoting the movie a bit everywhere in Europe so I’m bit exhausted, flying from one city to another.
AVC: How severe was your cerebral hemorrhage?
GN: It could have been worse. It could have been worse. I survived it. I could have come back damaged. I could have died and I could have come damaged like the character of Françoise Lebrun in the movie (Vortex), but I’ve been very lucky.
AVC: Did the hemorrhage happen before you started on Lux Æterna and Vortex?
GN: It was after Lux Æterna. Before Summer Of ’21. It was two years ago. Actually, it was just the last New Year’s Eve before the confinement, before the Covid appeared and the confinement. It was the New Year’s Eve between 2019 and 2020. It learned me to be humble. Just learn me to be a bit more humble.
If being close to death is what I experienced, it just feels that you are strong against the wall and you’re going to crash the wall and some force at the last moment saves you from crashing your head into the wall, but you know there is nothing behind the wall.
AVC: How has that near-death experience changed you as a person and as a filmmaker?
GN: I’m doing better. I’m more relaxed. I stopped smoking. I was told to avoid all these ... chemicals that friends always try to give you. Near-death experience sounds like something great, like what you see in Enter The Void, but the truth is that it was just pain in my head. I felt like there were bumps exploding in my head all the time. They were giving me a lot of morphine at the hospital, so I wouldn’t sleep. I would hear all these explosions. It was nothing pleasant or really psychedelic. The only psychedelic moment that I had on morphine during my three weeks of the hospital is when I saw Gravity on the small TV and I was wasted on morphine. Probably was my best psychedelic experience in front of a movie ever. But the movie created the experience, but yeah, I never enjoyed watching a movie on TV that much. I felt I was Sandra Bullock in that movie and the whole room was spinning around. It’s a great cinematic experience . . .
[But] my brain hemorrhage, it made me think of something. It’s all the mess that I would leave, for example, if I had died at that moment or if I had brain damage . . . then you know that all your belongings become heavy for other people. So it’s something that you just want to come back to regular life just to avoid that heavy mess to all your beloved.
AVC: You’ve had several projects that have featured split screen: Lux Æterna, the Saint Laurent Summer Of ’21 campaign and Vortex. What was the chronology of these projects?
GN: Actually, when I did Lux Æterna two years ago, 2019, I guess, I was proposed to do a short film, but I had no time to write [or] prepare it. So it was all done extremely quickly. I was supposed to do that short in March and I wanted to show it in Cannes. Initially, I said I would do a movie a bit like Climax with long master takes link to each other in an invisible way, but it was such a mess since the first day of shooting that I decided that I had to cover the scenes very differently. And I started shooting all the scenes with two cameras or three cameras. Then I had all this footage in the editing room with different angles. Instead of going from one angle to the other, I said, oh, let’s use the split-screen gimmick or—I don’t know what to say, whatever it is—and the movie became what it became in the process of its filming and editing.
I really enjoyed editing with the multiple screen. Then few months, one year later, I was proposed to do another short for the collection of 2021 for Saint Laurent. Once again, in two days, I showed a short film and this time, I knew since the beginning that I wanted to shoot it with a double screen, the split screen, and so I did that. When I did that movie, it was released for Christmas on the net and many people said, “Oh, it looks like Dario Argento movie, has this giallo feeling.” So I called Dario to tell him because he’s a friend and I said, “Hey, you know what? I just did this very short film and people are saying that it looks like one of your movies.” Then I wish him a nice Christmas and a nice New Year’s Eve.
One month later, when I came back to Paris after spending New Year’s Eve with my father in Argentina, I was proposed by my producers to do a cheap movie with two, three characters in one single location because many directors were doing those kind of movies that you could shoot during the confinement. So I said, “Yeah, I have one idea. There’s a subject that I’ve been thinking of for many years.” Then I told them what the subject was. It was about an old couple in which the woman has dementia and the husband is trying to take care of her, but it’s impossible. So they asked me who would be the actors. And I said, “Well, in my dreams, he would be someone like Dario Argento or Françoise Lebrun,” but I didn’t know if it would be possible or not. But also, when they said, “And how are you going to film it?” and because I had just done these two other shorts before that that use multiple screens or split screen, I said, yeah, it’s going to be using the split screen, but it didn’t mean much to them. But when we started shooting on the first day, I shoot one scene with one single camera and another scene with two cameras. The next morning when I watched the material to see if the scenes were okay, it was evident that it was stronger with two images, one on the left and one on the right. So we reshot the first scene with two cameras. Then from that moment on, from the second day on, I wanted to have all scenes covered with two cameras.
I didn’t expect it to be so evident, but it really is interpreted by anybody who knows about cinema not as the depiction of a double solitude, no, that they live under the same roof and they share a reality, but they’re totally disconnected from each other. So on an emotional level, it’s probably the most emotional split screen that I’ve seen myself. Probably, there are other movies that are very emotional with split screen, but I haven’t seen them.
AVC: How did you make sure the cameras didn’t appear in each other’s frames? Was there a little choreography involved, like in Climax?
GN: No. I was in one of the frames and my cinematographer was holding the second camera, but of course, we check the angles of one camera and the other. Also, there are moments in which they’re in the same room, the two characters, and one goes to the room and comes back to the main room one minute later and it’s, again, their characters. What we would do in those cases, we just follow one of the characters with one camera, and then same day or the next morning, we would pick up the right take for the person who left the room and then would check how many seconds long was the take so we knew that we had to create a scene with the other character going to the kitchen or to the toilet for one minute and 33 seconds. We were doing a countdown so the person would come back to the main room after one minute and 33 seconds.
But sometimes, we had to shoot first on one side of the image and the next day, the missing part. By moments, it was a bit complex. Also would help us to do the split screen, we were shooting with a larger lens than what you see on screen now. So we are resuming and reframing post-production during the editing process.
AVC: Can we expect your future films to be shot this way?
GN: No. It’s like I really enjoy shooting movie in 3D, but it’s too complex shooting with a split screen. I couldn’t have dreamed of doing something that had more meaning than this split screen in this movie. So no. Probably, I’ll try to find another game to play. Also, my first movie was full of voiceover, the movie called I Stand Alone and many people come to me and say, “Oh, are you going to use the voiceover again?” I said, “No, I’ve done it already.” Then I did one movie that was shot from the perspective of a character during his life and in his hallucination, post-mortem hallucination. It’s better to find a new game to play.
AVC: You did not use the Futura Condensed Extra Bold typeface for Lux Æterna and Saint Laurent, but it came back for Vortex.
Sometimes I want to make things simple for the credits. I try to be a bit more serious at the beginning of the movie with this one. I love working with my graphic designer, Tom Kan, but in some movies, it really makes sense. In some other movies, you have to try to be sober. I’m not the sober kind in general, but I was trying hard to be understated.
AVC: You quoted many people in Lux Æterna—Fyodor Dostoevsky, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Jean-Luc Godard, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Do you agree with the sentiments in these quotes or do you just find them pretentious or irreverent to a degree? These people seem like your heroes and you seem sincere, but the quotes also feel a little tongue in cheek.
GN: You forgot the quote of (Luis) Buñuel at the end. At the very end, there is one that says, “Thank God I’m an atheist.” I like them because those guys saying that during a dinner, it would make sense. It’s absolutely normal. But if you extract them from the context and you put them as a quote, yeah, they seem very pretentious, but also, the movie’s about pretentious directors, pretentious cinematographers. Some people can be extremely right, creative and still be pretentious, but yeah.
What was the quote of Fassbinder? I can’t remember the quote exactly, but on one of Godard saying that all the new directors are like zombies. I thought it was funny, but I was editing the movie and I opened a magazine and it was his last interview. I say, “Oh, this would fit so much to the story.” It was just on the weekly magazine that I opened one week before sending the movie to Cannes. Let’s just incorporate this sentence by Godard, but I have a lot of respect, more than respect for Godard. He’s one of the real masters of cinema and certainly one of the most inventive ones ever.
Even I can often be pretentious, but most of the time, you know you’re pretentious and you have fun with it. I think Fassbinder was also very pretentious, but he knew about it and he had fun with it. Because in the movie, this girl, Béatrice Dalle, supposedly, she’s doing a period movie, but what you see on screen seems terrible. It seems that it’s going to be another one of those stupid movies everybody’s doing today with pop music in a medieval story or when you mix times. It’s like a piece of crap pretending to be a piece of art, which it’s trying to do, but also at the same time, you see it’s impossible to do a piece of art in the middle of such a crew with people fighting for power, for money, or just for the pleasure of fighting. The cinematographer in the movie and the producers in the movie are horrible people and then they think they are gods on set.
AVC: Speaking of famous and influential directors, what was it like directing Dario Argento?
Actually, I did not direct him and that was part of the deal. I told him, “Hey, you want to be in this movie? You’re going to act in the movie, but you’re going to create your dialogues on set. I’m not going to give you one single line,” because I’m a director also and my memory is very bad. I couldn’t learn any. I can’t even remember a full song. I suppose that Dario was the same. But when you see him giving intros on TV, when you see him introducing his movies at the cinema . . . whatever, he’s so funny and so charismatic that everybody starts applauding. So I knew he would be good as long as I would not try to put my own vocabulary in his mouth.
So he created his character. He created his lines and that made him happy. Also, he had some request about the character and I agreed on that. I told him, “Hey, you’re the master of your character. You’ll decide your clothes. You’ll decide your lines and I’m going to be taking care of one of the two cameras. Then I’ll be editing the movie, and that’s my job.” He said, “Okay, okay.” I never felt I was directing him. I was just advising him.
AVC: It seems like you didn’t really work with movie stars for a long time following Irreversible. Suddenly you have Françoise Lebrun, Béatrice Dalle, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Charlotte Rampling in your films. Are you more comfortable being part of the establishment now?
GN: No. Actually, when it comes to Lux Æterna or this other short, it was because those two movies were financed and produced by the fashion brand, Saint Laurent. They work with movie stars like Béatrice Dalle, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Charlotte Rampling, and also Catherine Deneuve, and other ones. They said, “Well, we would like to finance these movies,” and they gave me the carte blanche. That means I could do whatever I wanted, but one of the only requests besides using clothing of their brand was to use their female icons that they work with for the commercials. Of course, I admire these three of the Saint Laurent icons that I work with, so Béatrice Dalle, Charlotte Rampling, and Charlotte Gainsbourg. I fully respect them and admire them. So it was not that in any way, I forced myself to do something with them. It was a real pleasure to work with them and also to work with the brand that proposed me to do this movies for them, giving me a total freedom.
Françoise Lebrun is different because she’s not an actress that everybody knows about. Only film buffs in America, in England, and mostly all the young film directors in France know this hidden classic called La Maman Et La Putain (The Mother And The Whore), but she did that big movie and then even if she work in many other movies since, she’s known for that movie she did in 1973. I met her three years ago and I took her number. I thought she was so sweet as a person that when I started looking for a woman who could play dementia who would be a good actress and also who would be a person that you would want to hug as a spectator, she immediately came to my mind. But she’s not a movie star. Probably she could have been, but she was not. She was the best actress. She’s done one of the very best performances in French cinema ever and certainly of the ’70s, but she was not in the front line for all these years.
It is very weird because now, this new role gives her a lot of attention. And also, The Mother And The Whore is going to be re-released in June in France and elsewhere. So suddenly, she’s the star of two big movies that are separated. There’s a gap between the two of 50 years. So you see her very young and you see her today. You don’t know the missing parts between Françoise Lebrun at age 27 and Françoise Lebrun at age 77.
AVC: You’ve made several films about behavior associated with toxic masculinity. Lux Æterna and the Saint Laurent campaign are exciting because they center on women, especially the Saint Laurent campaign since there’s no man in it. Is this something you would like to explore further?
GN: There is a dog in the Saint Laurent campaign barking. I can tell by the picture of his voice that it’s a male dog. No. I’m not feminist, but my mother kind of was. I can be, I don’t know how to say—testosterophobic?—where the guys were to manage. I’ve been raised as a man and as a boy among boys and a man among men, so I know how heavy testosterone can be.