The enfant terrible of French cinema, director of the provocative film “Irreversible,” talks about his long-anticipated new feature: “Enter the Void”
Audience members walked out in disgust during Gaspar Noé’s provocative film, “Irreversible,” at the Cannes film festival back in 2002. Set in Paris and starring Monica Belluci and Vincent Cassel, it has a horrifyingly intimate and protracted rape scene. But this may not have been the most controversial thing about it. It continues to divide critics; some hail it as visionary, others deem it empty sensationalism.
Now Noé’s long-anticipated new work, Enter the Void, is released in Britain on 24th September.
With a cast of mostly non-professional actors, it is a psychedelic melodrama played out against the neon-soaked backdrop of Tokyo’s nightclubs, strip bars and sex hotels. The story unfolds through the eyes of Oscar, a small-time drug dealer who had been shot by police. While his life hangs in the balance, his spirit hovers omnipotently over the city, surveying the streets and passing through the boundaries of various apartments, nightclubs and hotel rooms. Past, present and future merge in a hallucinatory maelstrom, as his life flashes before his eyes.
JUSTIN VILLIERS: Describe the process of bringing this film to the screen.
GASPAR NOE: It’s taken so long. I’d tried to make it before Irreversible, but I couldn’t get it financed. But then, luckily, Irreversible was a sort of bank robbery; it turned into a commercial success and it made this one happen.
It’s been such a long experience that I’m completely exhausted now. We showed an incomplete version at Cannes, then at Toronto, then we showed the final version at the Sundance, before releasing it in France. Now there are two versions—one has an additional reel, and it is 70 minutes longer. It involves a very trippy sequence towards the end of the movie.
JV: You use CGI to “bring to life” the subjective reality of the dying protagonist. Describe using this technique, and how much creative control did you have over it?
GN: I had used some CGI on Irreversible—when the revenge killing happens, for example, it was done with visual effects. And for many years I’d been collecting abstract movies that had images which looked like the visions that you can have on mushrooms or on LSD, or while you’re sleeping—very colourful images. The best of those were made by Jordan Belson and the Witney Brothers: they were the experimental directors in the 1960s who also inspired the last scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I took all their visuals, plus paintings and photographs, to the company who produced Enter the Void and said: can you create something that looks like this?
Those abstract scenes were the most dangerous because if they weren’t done right they could look very quickly like something on a screensaver. In the incomplete version that we had to show in Cannes, they did look like screensavers, actually.
JV: With recent advances in technology, do you feel that cinema is close to being a fully mature medium?
GN: I don’t think it’s fully evolved—it keeps on moving. For example, everybody is talking about the 3D that they used for Avatar, but I don’t think that 3D is an arrival point. Yes, it is the best 3D that has been shown to this day—but that’s not the final 3D. The future, who knows? Maybe it’s going to be holographic cinema but, in the meantime, people will not be sitting watching TV all day long with glasses on. It is frustrating and you don’t really feel much depth, it’s not like in real life at all. Nowadays you can get money to make any 3D movie. But I like flat images. My father is a painter.
JV: Tell me about how your use of the camera as a point of view has developed since Irreversible. You used a lot of wandering camera techniques in that film, a development from your first feature film Seul Contre Tous (1998). Is Enter the Void a further development in your style?
GN: I was working on Enter the Void many years before Irreversible, so I had been thinking about using such a free-flowing camera. It’s been done a lot before, but never in such an expanded way. There are many shots in Brian De Palma’s movies when the camera is flying over someone’s head, there is a similar shot in Taxi Driver, as well as in Lars Von Trier’s Europa or even in Mishima by Paul Schrader. There’s also, in Minority Report, one long shot that hangs above the set. I like those shots, but I’d always dreamed of having a movie where for one full hour you’d be flying above the sets. I’m happy that no one else did it before me.
JV: But now you’ve personified these shots, you’ve made it a character’s point of view (POV).
GN: Yes. People were worried that the audience would not understand that the POV of the camera was the POV of the ghost, of Oscar, though I thought it was evident. Because it’s so often said that when you die your spirit comes up from your body, and you float above the world you have left, I guess people understand this. When you see the camera flying above the living, you know that it’s a ghost.
Some people complained that the movie was too evident and too narrative and, like Titanic, everything that would happen later was announced at the beginning of the movie—but in the end it’s functional. There are many scenes that suggest that this isn’t an out of body experience, but a mental dream, like Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder.
JV: Would it be fair to say that your films all end at the beginning?
GN: That is one opinion, but I would say that this film is not on a loop.
JV: Despite the horrific events that occur in Irreversible, I couldn’t help but think that it ended on an optimistic note. I feel the same way about this one, and some of your other films, Carne (1991), and Seul Contre Tous (1998). Do all your films have happy endings?
GN: Enter the Void is not pessimistic. It tries to be realistic. I don’t think that the morality of a movie has to be inside it; sometimes the morality is outside the frame. So if you do a pessimistic movie, it will help people to enjoy life here and now. And the fact that this movie has so much passion that you can read on every single level—from the sound to the image to the visual effects and the energy that actors put into it—makes it an optimistic film. It’s like a dreamed movie that could not happen, but did. It makes you believe in things. If I were not a director, I would still really enjoy this movie, it would make me happy to see that this type of film has been made.
It has received both the worst reviews and the best reviews I have ever had. People who dislike it say they hate it more than anything else, that this is the worst piece of shit ever seen on the screen; others say it is a monument. I suppose it delves into ground I’m not used to, because it has experimental elements: the characters are not cool, they are not heroic or anti-heroic, they’re just complex human beings with good and bad aspects. Oscar is the biggest loser you can imagine, and this disturbed a lot of people. But it’s not a film for people who want to be entertained and distracted. It’s asking a lot from the viewer.
With my first feature film, Seul Contre Tous, people liked the energy of the movie and there are many elements of black humour in it. It’s not just a documentary of a guy who hates the world and wants to kill everybody, or who thinks that the only way out is to fuck his daughter. I made that movie as almost Dostoevsky movie, half comedy, half cartoon. Then Irreversible is in some ways less serious and more serious—but Enter the Void is different. There are some funny moments—[Noé’s name is the same as the head drug dealer, and there's a shot of the head of the penis looming large and ejaculating over the screen]—but there is nothing much in this movie that could be considered as comedy. The movie has its own unique tone, energy and soul. It turned out to be more anguishing than I expected; the original script was softer, more like Dickens or a fairytale. Maybe all those weird visual effects turned people off …
JV: It was a melodramatic story, like many of those made by Lars Von Trier—was this deliberate?
GN: I like Von Trier, but sometimes his work is too melodramatic, he can’t stop adding layers of cruelty to get a response from the audience. But yes, what could be worse for the characters than to lose their parents in front of their eyes; what could be more terrifying to see them dead? I accept that if you put that scene in a film you’re in a huge melodrama—like the graveyard in Hiroshima Mon Amour. So that’s why I decided to use a brother and a sister, and not a couple, because I want to have that strong link between them, and for them to know about death at a young age.
JV: How did you cast the film? These weren’t professional actors, but people from the street and bar tenders…
GN: I wanted to find unknown actors, but not necessarily amateurs—for example I needed to have a girl who was able to scream or cry on demand. I looked among young actresses, non-professionals and models. Then, in the US, I found Paz de Le Huerta [a model, artist, actor, designer, and writer] who I liked more than the others. After that, I needed to find a brother who physically resembled her, because I cannot tolerate movies where the brother and sister don’t look alike. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and Alex (Cyril Roy) aren’t actors at all. They were completely natural, and enjoyed their time in front of the camera. While Paz was definitely conscious that she was interpreting a role; I don’t think there was any moment when either of the Nathaniel or Cyril felt like they were working.
JV: Do you prefer working with non-professionals?
GN: No. If I need acting skills where people have to cry on demand, scream on demand, you need people who can achieve this in a moment. But for Alex and Bruno—the drug dealer characters who don’t have to shout or cry or whatever—it’s sometimes easier to take just real people that you want to have on the set and enjoy their presence. With Oscar, I always thought it would be better to have a non-actor because I wanted to shoot mostly the character from the back of his neck, and a professional actor would have had a narcissistic crisis about this.