As Love explodes on to our screens this month, cinema's master of excess talks about his earliest sexual encounters, Cannes scandals and challenging film’s final taboo
Taken from the autumn/winter issue of Dazed:
It’s almost midnight, and Gaspar Noé is sitting in the darkened corner of a Parisian bar recalling one of his earliest sexual encounters. “When I was 16, some of my friends offered me an inflatable blow-up doll,” he begins. “One day, when my parents weren’t home, I smoked a joint and was having sex with it when it exploded! I felt like I’d killed someone.”
For Noé, it was an early education in transgression. Given the director’s taste for erotic extremes – he’s even ‘filmed’ sex scenes from inside a vagina – it should come as no surprise that tonight, nothing is off-limits.
We’ve been at this same late-night spot for hours now. Between us, we’ve smoked seven cigarettes and had four glasses of wine. The auteur speaks in intense bursts punctuated by lingering pauses, and it’s unclear whether he’s off in his own world or playing some sort of cryptic mind game. Even in person, Noé keeps you on the edge of your seat – but, despite the sex-doll confession, he’s hardly depraved. In fact, the most shocking thing about Noé is the speed at which he’s just devoured an after-hours dinner.
Noé’s films, on the other hand, are steeped in brutality. Since the mid-80s, he’s traumatised and transfixed audiences with his unflinching depiction of sex and violence. His first feature-length, I Stand Alone (1998), told the story of an alienated butcher consumed by vivid fantasies of incest, suicide and murder. The same year, he was commissioned to produce an anti-Aids commercial. The result was a seven-minute short, Sodomites, featuring a leather-clad minotaur sodomising a woman. It was never released.
Enter the Void (2009) was a pulsating foray into the psychedelic unknown, but Noé’s most controversial film to date is still Irreversible (2002), which features a relentless nine-minute rape scene, captured in a single, unbroken take. “Everyone is terrified about what rape is,” he explains. “I would say the length of that scene makes it more realistic than in other films I’ve seen. But I’m not surprised that, when you see top-ten lists of the most violent movies ever, my movie comes up. Most of the time, number one is Salò – every time I see that film, I’m shocked and shocked again.”
Now, Noé is set to invade people’s minds once more with his viscerally erotic and deeply emotional new film, Love. Shot entirely in 3D, it’s a mind-melting blizzard of orgies, addiction and screen-covering cum-shots. And yet that title isn’t ironic: the film really is about love, which might just make it Noé’s most perverse move to date.
When did you first watch Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (1975)?
Gaspar Noé: It was the night of my 18th birthday. Earlier, I had just been to a porn theatre with my schoolmates, and when I went home my mother turned to me and said, ‘Do you want to know what torture is? Come with me to see Salò.’ So I went to see it with her. We took the subway back home and she said, ‘What did you think of the movie?’ (laughs) I was like, ‘Please, mum, I don’t want to talk about it.’
It must have been torture watching it with your mum.
Gaspar Noé: The torture was the movie, not watching it with my mum! She thought that day I was turning into a man, so she wanted to show me human cruelty. My mother was a social worker and knew all about that, but I was not in the mood to discuss the movie right away. Both my parents loved cinema, but especially my mother. One day, when I was 13 or 14, she got upset because I went to see Fellini’s Casanova with my father. She thought it would push me to turn into a sex maniac just like Casanova!
Gaspar Noé: Well, between 14 and 18, I masturbated a lot. I was like a junkie! I was consuming specialist videos, and one day I just quit, in the same way some people quit drugs. I started promising myself that if I spent one month without masturbating, God would send me the prettiest woman in the world! (laughs) I guess you trick yourself in order to stop your addiction. The truth is, after that I got into a relationship. So I replaced the masturbation with a love story. I was very compulsive at the time. I became addicted to one person.
How old were you when you lost your virginity?
Gaspar Noé: It was with an older woman when I was about 14 or 15... She was sweet, but for sure the least attractive woman I’ve had sex with in my whole life. She was a mature professional. The friend of an uncle paid for us. He brought us to the only woman who was willing to take care of us. It was in Spain during our summer holidays. I remember when I came back to school I told my friends and they said, ‘How was it? How was it?’ The only answer I would give them was, ‘It’s humid inside...’ (laughs)
Do you remember the first time you watched porn?
Gaspar Noé: I think I was 15. Canal+ started broadcasting one porn movie every month on pay-per-view, so I went around to a friend’s place and we watched one together. And later, on the day I turned 18, I went to an X-rated movie theatre to celebrate my birthday. A year after that, I went on my own, but I got scared because there were lots of old weirdos in there trying to sit next to me. So I left. (laughs)
People are calling Love pornographic – how does that make you feel?
Gaspar Noé: Love is not pornographic. The term pornography is used to represent an emotionless sexual act. In ‘pornography’, you have two words – ‘porno’, which means prostitution, and ‘graphy’, which means representation. That is not what the movie is about. When you have sex with someone you met in a bar – or someone you’ve dreamed of making love with – you don’t think that you’ve just done a porn scene the next day, do you?
Gaspar Noé: You think you’ve just made love to someone! When things happen in life, why shouldn’t you show them in a movie? Most of the time love scenes in movies are totally detached from love. We’re afraid of showing the essence of desire on screen. Despite us living in a non-religious society, there are still elements of religious society which constrain the people around us. Which is why it’s so hard to portray love or sexual passion for what it is. You never see people kissing in X-rated movies; you never see a woman getting pregnant; you never see a woman having her period; you never see people promising love or a future life, because that would kill the excitement of the reptilian brain.
Despite the controversy, some critics have called Love your tamest film to date. What do you make of that?
Gaspar Noé: Irreversible was very violent. It was about rape and revenge. If you have a violent subject matter, you do it violently. But with Love, the violence was the violence of someone’s addiction to another person, so how do you portray that? You don’t need to add a rape or S&M scene. I’ve never been attracted to S&M, so why would I need to show that on screen? You are only curious about the things that excite you.
The swingers scene in Love is great – have you been to many swingers’ parties?
Gaspar Noé: I have, but it’s not my thing. I don’t take hallucinogens on my own, but when I was preparing for Enter the Void I tried all kinds of psychedelics. When I was shooting I went with my assistant director to check out gay clubs to shoot the opening scene of the movie in. The good thing about being a director is that you can find excuses for all your curiosities! But I’m not at all the swinger type.
Where did you shoot?
Gaspar Noé: In a real swingers’ club in Paris called Quai 17. I’ve heard some couples say, ‘We have to risk ourselves and get into it in order to open ourselves up.’ But often things fall to pieces with couples like that. Unless you are more fuck buddies than a sentimental couple. But if you didn’t meet as swingers, tensions can arise.
In reality, I’m not sure swinging would be as sexy as it’s often made out to be on film...
Gaspar Noé: Mostly it’s middle-class people who aren’t very happy in their emotional lives, so they want to take more risks. Sometimes men hire call-girls to pretend they are their girlfriends, so they can get access to the club and get other girls. If you are single, why wouldn’t you go cruising to a swingers club? But if you fall in love with a person you meet at a swingers’ club, it’s risky. If the person likes that world, you might need to be able to handle that.
I’m curious, have you ever had an out-of-body experience?
Gaspar Noé: I’ve tried my best to have one! I’ve tried all kinds of psychedelic drugs. I even had hypnosis lessons to see if I could see myself coming out of my body, but it never happened. People say the easiest way to have one is to take ketamine.
Are there any drugs you still want to try?
Gaspar Noé: I’ve never tried morphine. I’ve never tried 2C-T-7, which I hear is a very intellectual psychedelic – you don’t have visions, but you analyse your own stream of thoughts in a philosophical way. Some people have recommended it to me. One day!
“You never see people kissing in X-rated movies; you never see a woman getting pregnant; you never see a woman having her period; you never see people promising love or a future life, because that would kill the excitement of the reptilian brain” – Gaspar Noé
A lot of people don’t know about your upbringing in Argentina. The 60s were a tumultuous period for the country, was there a lot of civil unrest out on the streets?
Gaspar Noé: Yeah, there was. My parents were very leftist so they would bring me to the riots. It’s funny when it turns into mayhem – you hear explosions, everyone’s crying. It’s like a quick, short war and then the next day everything seems OK again. Then, when the dictatorship arrived, they had to leave the country very quickly. I came with them to Paris because they didn’t want to end up in a torture camp, but they lost a few of their friends during that period. It was fun to land here.
The posters for Love were so explicit, with the ejaculating penis and the three mouths dripping with saliva. Did you want it to be a tease?
Gaspar Noé: The posters were never intended for the audience, they were just to convince the foreign distributors to fund the movie. I actually just shot these photos myself one afternoon months before we’d even started shooting. But when the movie was selected for Cannes, I texted the image of a penis cumming to Vincent Maraval, my long-term production partner, saying ‘Love from Cannes: champagne!’, and he asked me if he could tweet it. Of course, I agreed. Then, perhaps because there was nothing close to a scandal at Cannes this year, Love became the scandal of the week. Cannes always needs a scandal, but my movie wasn’t scandalous at all. People felt lost, because they expected it to be like Caligula – something very dark and excessive – but it was a love story.
People are almost expecting you to cause a scandal...
Gaspar Noé: (laughs) Maybe there is something about this movie that misbehaves compared with my other movies.
When Irreversible came out, it was reported as the most walked-out on film of that year.
Gaspar Noé: Yes, yes. But people haven’t walked out of this movie. The very few people who did, walked out during the opening scene, thinking they didn’t need to see the rest! So they escaped. But they missed the fact that the rest of the movie is much softer than the first scene.
Your father was at Cannes with you. What was his reaction?
Gaspar Noé: That I went too far. (laughs) I didn’t know what he meant, but I think he was shocked by the dick cumming on the screen. Or maybe I went too far because I used all of my family names for the film... Besides the characters called Noé or Gaspar, even the shaman had my father’s name, Yuyo. Murphy, which is my mother’s family name, fucks a girl called Paula in the bathroom, and Paula is the name of my sister.
Why was it important for you to show real sex on screen?
Gaspar Noé: When you make a movie, not everything is real. In this case, I mainly wanted it to be emotional – maybe it’s not supposed to be arousing. Maybe some people got aroused, but (most) people told me it made them want to cry rather than give them an erection.
I think you achieved both. That’s what made it unsettling.
Gaspar Noé: As long as no one touches your knee during the screening! Which scenes did you find arousing?
The opening scene, because it felt so real.
Gaspar Noé: Some scenes with Murphy and Electra were real, but other times it was not needed. We could have hired body doubles, but it would have become so complicated. And if the actors are going for it then why not? But most of the scenes were simulated because we could simulate them well. The image at the end looks like real life. It wouldn’t be any good promoting the movie on the basis of whether the sex scenes were real or not – that’s not the subject. It would kill the arousal if people came to see the film knowing that we hired body doubles and the sex wasn’t real. Good magicians never reveal their tricks. I like to keep things a mystery. (laughs)
“When I see images nowadays of girls who are shaven like plastic dolls, I don’t think it’s as pretty. Back to the bush!” – Gaspar Noé
Why did you choose to shoot Love in 3D?
Gaspar Noé: As a director, it’s like a new toy you are given. I like toys, but I pushed the limit so far on Enter the Void that I didn’t want to play the same game. I thought, ‘What else could I do to feel excited when I get on set?’
Do you think the post-internet generation has become desensitised when it comes to seeing sex portrayed on film?
Gaspar Noé: I think new generations are much less shockable than mine, because you had to go to particular shops to buy a VHS or magazines. Now, you take your cell phone and just Google any word you can imagine. You have access to all the images that are banned in one second. The worst thing is that those images are not fake. Mostly they are real. For example, if you Google the phrase ‘making love’, I’m sure all of the images you’ll get will be of people who are fully shaven or bodybuilders performing sexual acts. That’s not making love for me.
I liked that Electra and Omi weren’t shaven.
Gaspar Noé: I like pubic hair! I think it’s much sexier. I was raised in the 70s watching images of women with the full triangle. When I see images nowadays of girls who are shaven like plastic dolls, I don’t think it’s as pretty. Back to the bush!
Are there any taboos left when it comes to sex on film?
Gaspar Noé: I noticed that showing a simulated rape scene can be very shocking to many people. I’m not attracted to the idea of censoring images for a younger audience, but I heard that Irreversible – which was shown on TV – had been seen by kids who are 13. That’s a weird way to visualise sex for people who don’t have a sexual life, but you can’t control everything. Anything can be downloaded on the internet.
Did your parents watch Irreversible?
Gaspar Noé: When she was still alive, my mother came with me to Cannes and she enjoyed it. And two years ago, I told her I was going to do a movie that was very sexual (with Love). She said, ‘No, you’re better at violence. You should do another violent movie.’ I said, ‘No, mum, I want to do a movie about love.’ So that’s what I did.
Love is out November 18.
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