For over three decades now, Gaspar Noé has made his name as one of filmmaking’s most provocative voices. However, despite the incendiary subject matter of the director’s work, it’s unlikely that Noé would declare himself a provocateur in turn. Sure, he works in the sort of taboo material that lesser filmmakers wouldn’t dare touch, but somebody has to do it. His latest film Climax is a wild orgy of feverish dance, sex, violence, and madness, but as the filmmaker noted early in our conversation with him, it’s also perhaps the best possible end result of “a musical comedy by Gaspar Noé”.
Built from stunning choreography and a host of performances by its almost completely untrained cast, Climax chronicles the story of a dance troupe circa 1996, blowing off some steam after weeks of grueling rehearsal with a wrap party in the small, remote French school in which they’ve been working. When a mystery culprit spikes the sangria with hyper-potent LSD, the troupe quickly spirals into hedonism, despair, and terror as paranoia and barely-repressed cravings begin to take hold. What results is something quintessentially Noé: it’s sexy, it’s sadistic, it’s washed in lurid swaths of color, and yes, it’s even a little bit hilarious.
As Climax begins its US rollout, Consequence of Sound spoke with Noé about what drove him to make a “dance movie”, the trouble with modern mainstream filmmaking, methods of filming bodies in a contained space, and much more.
What about dance, in particular, as a medium captured your eye to the point where it became the focus of your latest project?
I had just done one music video with a young dancer that I really enjoyed filming, but I had never filmed people dancing, although I think it’s one of the most cinematic things ever. Even when I go to an Indian restaurant in Paris, you order your food and they always play Bollywood movies on the screen. And you stop eating and you’re just focused on how the Bollywood stars are moving their hands, their faces, and it’s very hypnotic. I don’t watch sports on TV, I love watching acrobats sometimes, I like watching Thai kickboxing.
But when you go to a party, when there are great dancers who dance in the right way, it’s very exciting for your mind. It’s very life-affirming. So I never thought I would do a movie that could be considered a musical comedy, because I don’t go to see musical comedies. I get bored by musicals, I get bored by contemporary dance, I get bored by classical dance. But in the case of these wild dancers, they have their own body language that is so crazy and they move their arms so fast, for me it’s a pure expression of the joy of living.
Most of my characters in my previous movies were tormented, they were following their sexual needs or their social needs, but in the case of these dancers, when they express themselves as they do, by dancing, it’s really fascinating as a director or as a film critic or as a normal spectator. You can only be envious of their skills, and you want to be part of their team.
You worked from a very, very brief outline when putting this project together. Can you talk about how you worked with the dance troupe to figure out what you wanted to do with them in such a contained space?
It’s not the first time I’ve made a whole feature out of three to five pages. When we started shooting Irreversible, the whole screenplay was a three-page treatment containing all the scenes and storylines happening in only one night, and it was only in Paris. We shot it very quickly, we shot it in five and a half weeks. Then the movie, against all expectations, was a commercial success, and it was in Cannes in competition.
Enter the Void, compared to Irreversible, had a long script, and that’s why the movie is two hours and 40 minutes long, because I could not cut scenes without losing the audience. So it became a long movie. When I shot Love, once again, I had a five-page treatment that was the base for the whole shooting. So I said, “Well, if I have a story written in three pages, it’s enough to make a feature film.”
Especially in the case of this movie, it all takes place in one night in one single location, so once you have the location and once you have the dancers, and once you decide you’re shooting in chronological order, you can even rewrite the storyline according to the desires of the dancers, according to what comes out during the process of shooting. I feel much safer when I can do a movie with lots of doors that are open than when you close all the doors with the finished script and with the preconceived dialogue that would not fit the actors.
When you were working with the actors/dancers on set, were there any scenes in particular that stand out to you as being directly born from that process?
The one who was most surprised by my way of working was Sofia Boutella, because she has already worked many Hollywood movies as an actress, so she was used to a kind of process that I cannot fulfill. I cannot make a movie out of a closed screenplay.
We talked a lot about what the movie was going to be like, and she was absolutely great from the beginning to the end with her improvisations. And I met her one month earlier, and on an instinctive level I thought she was so bright and she was such a good dancer and I said “trust me, I trust you on an instinctive level, I want you to be in this movie and I want you to play the main part of the choreographer.”
When it comes to the other dancers, besides the girl who plays the pregnant girl [Souhelia Yacoub], who studied acting and has already played in a few movies, all the other ones had never been in a film. So they could not tell if the way I was shooting this movie was the normal one or whatever. They were just invited to a playground to express themselves with dancing, and inventing dialogue, and fighting and kissing.
For them, it was like a party that lasted 15 days, and no one was on alcohol or drugs or anything. It was very clean, and they were very excited to play people that were out of their minds. They lose control when they dance, but in real life, they’re all very sweet and sober. It was like an imitation of life, but in the safest way. They’re all extremely happy with the movie.
The way you stage some of the choreography, you simply step back and allow for the dancers to do what they do for several uninterrupted minutes at a time, especially at the very beginning of the film. How did you go about representing them in an onscreen space?
To tell the truth, I was not involved in the choreography. I had cast my favorite dancers for the movie, [and] Sofia recommended who she said was the very best choreographer in LA to do the choreography. I never thought that Nina McNeely, after watching her videos, would accept coming to France with the financial conditions that we had. But she said yes, and she made a masterpiece of choreography.
I was not on the set when she created [the opening dance] in two days with 15 dancers, and there were five additional dancers that just came the morning of the first day of shooting. So she had the morning to finalize her choreography. The crane was already onstage, and I saw the choreography that she had created with these dancers that mostly were not professional dancers.
They were random dancers that enjoyed going to krump battles or voguing parties. I never thought she could do something that would be so powerful and so synchronized with people who are not used to dance. I was operating the crane and the camera for the rest of the movie, but I’m responsible for 10% of that scene. The dancers and Nina are responsible for what it is.
Probably because it’s not a scene that I preconcieved, when I see it I’m amazed that I consigned that piece of dancing. My job was to find the location, choose a wardrobe, to do casting, find the right choreographer. Being a film director, it’s not like being a writer. You don’t decide on anything. Being a film director is like being the captain of a football team. You’re inside the team, you’re playing with them, and whatever happens, it’s probably 10% your responsibility.
In a lot of your work, you’ve returned to the motif of following somebody, of watching at a slight distance as people behave however they might. What keeps you coming back to that idea of following?
I like filming the body of an actual person, than to film the person’s mouth talking, because I don’t believe in dialogue. I think that what happens in life happens beyond words, and then people just try to justify what happens with words, but I really dislike movies that focus on the actor’s face.
Your last few films have also dealt with the euphoria of death, or at least of not treating death as an essentially negative experience out of hand. What about that intrigues you as a theme?
Without death, life would be boring. If life is joyful, it’s also because you know it’s very short and you won’t last and then it’s over. Your own perception of what existence is will disappear at the same time of your death. You cannot make a movie with strong emotions without having the presence of death.
Where do you think the reluctance comes from for most filmmakers to touch that topic?
I know which makers interest me. When people talk about an audience, about film, I barely go to see any comedies, I barely go to see any James Bond movies or the ones that you watch on the plane. I like movies that put you in a state of mind that you’re not used to.
The cinema in the ’70s and ’80s was less conventional than today. When you see all the movies that were getting the Oscars in the ’70s and the ’80s, they were made for mostly an adult audience. Nowadays, probably because the world is turning far more bellicose, people are consuming entertainment. Movies that are very far from life or the subconscious life of dreams and nightmares.
Do you find a more macabre kind of entertainment more edifying?
As a kid, I used to like horror movies and disaster movies like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. Then, when you’re 16, you run to see every movie by Cronenberg, or Eraserhead. Nowadays, the movies that scare me are movies like 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days. I like being in a theater and forgetting that I’m watching a movie, because you’re so moved by what’s going on onscreen, you’re in the head of someone else. I’m much more attracted nowadays to documentaries than to narrative media, because documentaries can explore things that you would not be allowed to narrate in a fictional movie with actors.
With this film in particular, you work with taboos in ways both playful and repulsive. What about that kind of transgression has stayed vital to you, especially now that you’ve worked in film for a few decades at this point?
I don’t feel transgressive when I consider which movies I’ve been consuming since I was a kid. When you see Pasolini’s Salo at the age of 18, when you see Deliverance and Taxi Driver at the age of 12, or Cronenberg’s movies … to me, those were the movies I could replay. I don’t feel transgressive, I just feel a bit less educated in mainstream commercial cinema.
It seems like a Marvel movie isn’t likely in your future.
No, and I even get bored when I see a Star Wars movie.
What do you feel is missing from the popular mainstream cinema of the moment?
I think the imitation of life has been censored by the industry. Not by one particular person, but I think that because we’re living in more fearful times … The Godfather was a mainstream movie that was great. Taxi Driver was great. Mishima by Paul Schrader was great. I have far more DVDs from that period than from nowadays. Once a month, I see a movie that I really like. I remember as a kid, I was fascinated by one movie a week.
To conclude, I wanted to ask you about the film’s soundtrack. How did you put together this omnipresent mix that runs through the entire film?
First of all, the side one track we put on by Kiddy Smile, “Dickmatized”, [and] all the tracks of the movie are music that I was listening to in the ’80s and ’90s. I wanted to get the most danceable tracks for the movie, and even more, I wanted them to be their instrumental versions so the dancers could scream and talk and they wouldn’t be covered by the voices of the singers. I thought that “Supernature” by Cerrone, which kind of started the whole disco movement, could be perfect to start the movie. We contacted the record label, and said “do you have an instrumental version” and they said yes and when I listened to it, [I said] “oh, this is even better!”
The two tracks that made me love techno were … one by Daft Punk in ’95, called “Rollin’ and Scratchin'”, and the other ones was “Windowlicker” by Aphex Twin. I was obsessed with them. We managed to get the rights because the record labels were very friendly to me. I’m happy that at the end, I put all my favorite danceable music from the time in the movie. It really helps the audience to have empathy with the story, because when you hear a track that you already know and you dance on, there’s an unconscious empathy with the story that really works.
Even at the end, I tried other songs [aside from] “Angie”, by the Rolling Stones. There was no instrumental version, so we recreated our own. I tried 100 other tracks, but the only one that was really working at the end of the movie was the instrumental version of “Angie”. It’s very melancholic. Another melody of the same quality, if it hadn’t been that famous, wouldn’t have worked as well.
Portions of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity. Climax premieres in limited release in theaters on March 1st.