Mark Stafford talked to French provocateur Gaspar Noé about his latest opus Enter the Void, an ambitious, sprawling ‘psychedelic melodrama’ seen from the point of view of a dead man.
Mark Stafford: In the screening I was at, there was one walkout, a lot of dark murmuring and a lot of people clearly thinking Enter the Void was something special. What’s the reaction been to the film?
Gaspar Noé: It’s funny, it’s gotten the best reviews of my career, and the worst reviews too. I had so many bad reviews in my life, I’m amazed by the bad reviews as much as by the good ones. My father, who lives in Argentina, is a painter (actually the paintings you see by the character Alex in the film are by my father) and he does drawings for the leftist national paper in Argentina, so he reads that paper every morning. He comes from a generation where the written press means something. Some people go to church, or the synagogue or the mosque and believe what’s said to them there, some people are raised to believe what the press say, and that recognition by the press is important. He came to Cannes for the screening of the movie as a work in progress. The following day he said, ‘Oh, your movie’s a masterpiece’, and then he read the review in the Argentine paper he draws for, which said, ‘This is the worst movie ever shown in any Cannes film festival, everybody in the streets, everybody at the parties and bars are saying, â€œthis is the biggest piece of crapâ€’ and ‘how can the son of this painter…?’ The same day there was a great review in the New York Times: ‘Gaspar Noé is trying to reinvent cinema.’ So when the biggest paper that counted for my father gave me the worst review I’ve ever had I was happy, but he was saying, ‘Hey buddy, don’t worry, give me his address, I’m going to talk directly to this man, he’s gonna pay for this’ (laughter). I just thought it was funny. I imagine this Argentine film critic, every time the bell rings he’s thinking: ‘Maybe this time it’s Gaspar’s father, here to avenge the honour of his family…’
Did I read Throbbing Gristle on the credits?
Yeah, when Oscar enters the bar where he gets shot, the music is ‘Hamburger Lady’. There is also a sound I used when Oscar dies and the camera goes through the wall, which is from a piece Peter Christopherson made for a record called ‘Cold Hands’. I love his music. I met him and asked if I could use that piece, and he liked the film and gave me the rights to use it. I also asked about using ‘Hamburger Lady’ and he called his partners from Throbbing Gristle and I got the rights for not much. I was so happy because it’s so right and I’m a big fan of Throbbing Gristle.
I read the name on the credits and wondered, because of their history, if there’s anything subliminal in the noise or in the strobe. I know that people are going to drop acid and search the film for hidden messages…
It hasn’t happened as much with this one but people were telling me that Irreversible had a Throbbing Gristle feeling…
It’s the low bass frequencies… Genesis lived round the corner from my sister. Weird, charming bloke, I didn’t know him, but whenever I saw him live he dived into the crowd and started dancing with me… You know he’s got breasts now?
He’s still got a dick. He said he just wanted to get closer to his girlfriend.
He was supposed to go this way, she was supposed to go that way…
But he always said, I think, that he’d always keep his dick on.
Well, y’know, he’s attached to it…
Some people have extreme lives and straight people think they’re gonna be punished. But actually, having a very personal life is very rewarding, as long as you don’t fall too much into drugs. Some drugs open your mind, others are mental cages.
The psychedelic experience is commonly associated with feelings of euphoria. But Enter the Void is pretty much a solid bad trip.
It starts as a weird trip and then turns into a bad trip. But after having done some mushroom and LSD trips what you notice is that when it’s fun, it’s fun for a while, but there’s always a point around 7am when you want to stop the trip and you can’t.
You think it’s all over, you pick up a book and the words start swirling round…
The last time I did acid I mixed it with some other things. At the end of the night I was really wasted and somebody said, ‘do you want to see some colours?’ I think if I hadn’t been drunk I would have been more careful but… I took some liquid acid. When I got home it was like in Altered States, I would look at my arm and it was moving. I thought my arms were three times larger than normal. I kept thinking, ‘Don’t watch yourself in the mirror’. I was scared of seeing myself as those visions in Altered States. So ‘Don’t watch yourself in the mirror, don’t watch yourself in the mirror…’ I lay in my bed and I was watching my father’s painting, and the paint became 3D, it came out in four different layers, the colours at different distances from the canvas. I tried to make a phone call, but I couldn’t understand how the mobile phone worked, it took me two hours to work it out… I’m happy now I’ve had all these experiences because they’re all in the movie. So in the end, it was all professional research.
I’m bloody glad Enter the Void is not in 3D, you’d need a shower afterwards… There’s about 20 minutes difference between the cut that played at the last London Film Festival and the one I just saw, what did you change?
The one that screened at the festival was the full-length version, we had to transfer from high definition and remix the sound. The only difference is we changed the music on the credits. In England they are releasing two versions: the French/European version that was shown almost everywhere that’s 155 minutes, and the shorter version, which is 17 minutes shorter – a whole segment, or a whole reel of the movie is pulled out. That sequence is after the abortion scene. There were some additional astral visions, and then he dreamt that he wakes up at the morgue and he believes he’s alive and then his sister and his friends say, ‘he’s a zombie, we don’t want to take care of him’, but his friend Alex says, ‘you didn’t wake up, you’re just dreaming this, you’ve been burnt, you’ve been incinerated’. And you go back to the astral vision and see his sister throwing the ashes over water into a sink. That’s where the following reel starts. So I managed to have two different versions that were edited the same way but I pulled out the whole reel.
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I was going to say because the film is shot to seem like one continuous movement, I couldn’t see how the hell you’d cut anything out.
I managed to have a good cut between reels number 6 and 7 and 7 and 8, so you could go directly from 6 to 8 without noticing that a reel was missing. In most cinemas they’ll be showing the shorter version. And you can be sure that on DVD they’re gonna call it the ‘director’s cut’, but it’s really just the long cut and the shorter cut.
You’ve been working on Enter the Void, in different forms, for about 15 years. Were you waiting for technology to catch up with the visions in your head?
I was pushing hard to start the movie for years and years, and now I’m glad it was postponed many times because when we started preparing the movie for real I think it was the right timing. I had gotten used to Japan. I had found the right actors. I had found the right partners to make my movie, the people in the Wild Bunch and the digital company that could take care of the visual effects. Working with Pierre Buffin, who’s the VFX artistic director was amazing. Being able to shoot in Japan, although it was risky for the producers, was great. Things like the floating camera make me glad the movie was held back for years. Even though my main dream as a director was delayed for so long, once I started prepping the movie and started shooting I thought I’d been really lucky that I didn’t start before because the new technologies made it possible to make it look as it looks now. If I’d waited another two or three years I would maybe have had the opportunity to shoot it in 3D…
You’ve essentially made a film in which you’ve killed the audience and re-incarnated them…
Oscar dreams the whole trip. His soul really doesn’t come out of his body, at the end the Tokyo you see is not the real Tokyo, it’s the sculpture/model. The whole dream becomes more and more dysfunctional. When he sees his sister he sees the face of his mother. When he gets into the plane he sees himself as a baby with his parents. When he sees a vision of the future there are old Linda and young Linda in the same room, with the Twin Towers outside, which is not possible. At the very end, when he comes out of his mother’s womb, he’s remembering his birth, or he’s getting into a loop, he’s starting his meaningless life once again. His whole trip is based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but the movie does not promote the idea of reincarnation. You could say it’s an atheist movie.
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Where the hell do you go from here?
The dream I’ve been carrying for years is to do a good erotic movie. A good sentimental erotic movie.
Good luck. Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie have just spent about 10 years of their lives trying to produce a decent piece of pornography.
It’s weird because it’s a huge genre, pornography. And you have so many good horror movies, good science fiction movies, so many good murder movies, but sex is the closest thing to real life. And sex, whether you’re in love or not, is pornographic. It’s something that happens every week, so why should something that seems so essential to me, to most people around me, why should it be something that’s never properly portrayed on screen?
Interview by Mark Stafford