Gaspar Noé is a man with few limits. In his 1998 feature directorial debut, I Stand Alone, the 46-year-old French auteur tackled squirm-inducing topics such as incest, suicide, and rape. Turns out he was just getting warmed up. With Enter the Void, which opens today, Noé serves up a buffet of less-than-appetizing scenes, from the backseat view of a head-on car collision to an inner-vaginal view of a penetrating penis. Not surprisingly, his work has been lauded and derided in equal measure.
Enter the Void, the story of Oscar (newcomer Nathaniel Brown), an American drug dealer in Tokyo, is no exception. Whereas Manohla Dargis of The New York Times called the film, which also stars spitfire Paz de la Huerta, “exceptional,” Variety’s Rob Nelson thought it was “tiresomely gimmicky.” As became clear early on in our conversation last August, Noé wouldn’t have it any other way. From the Bowery Hotel’s back terrace, the enfant terrible of experimental cinema discusses the upside of drug abuse, 3D porn, and the anaesthetization of New York City.
Your films are divisive, to put it mildly. Do you thrive on both positive and negative responses to your work? I didn’t expect Enter the Void to be controversial. I thought this would be the movie that everyone could agree on, but now they’re disagreeing. I’ve gotten the best and the worst reviews of my career for this movie. I guess there is something about losing control of your perceptions, as an audience—the out-of-focus effects, the dreamier aspects of the film—that causes some people to freak out. Some people have been repulsed by the movie and hate it with all their guts. I can’t help thinking you get off on that repulsion. I’m not willing to be loved. I’m not willing to make commercials. I’m not willing to go to Hollywood. I’m only willing to make movies that I would want to see, and the movies that I watch most are divisive: Deliverance, Kenneth Anger films, 2001: A Space Odyssey. They’re movies that weren’t driven by money or recognition.
Is it difficult to raise enough money to create the type of movies that you want to create? We used commercial successes like Mulholland Drive and Trainspotting as references for the producers of this movie. [Noé’s last feature film, 2002’s] Irreversible made money, and so I said, Let’s gamble again. We won once, so we might win twice. But I actually don’t know if they’re going to get all of their money back [on Enter the Void] because the movie is more experimental than I expected. Some people told me that after they came to see the movie, they went back to their hotel or their house and they cried because of some weird post-traumatic stress.
I’ve spoken to similarly experimental filmmakers like Michel Gondry and Lars von Trier, both of whom work through personal mommy issues in their films. It seems like something on which you’re also fixated. For someone who has never had a baby and has never gone through an abortion, I have an obsession with pregnancy. [Noé’s 1998 film] I Stand Alone is about a pregnant woman. And in Irreversible, Monica Bellucci is pregnant when she gets raped. In this one again, you see the birth of a baby—maybe I’m struggling to repress the natural law of being a father. But if Lars von Trier is obsessed with his mother, maybe I’m more obsessed with the idea of time: What is the present? What is memory? I started thinking about this movie back when I was a teenager, when I was worried about dying before having done anything. Now that I’m 46, I’m concerned with death because I don’t think there’s anything after it. There is life in the present tense, but then the present dissipates into the past, and what’s left? Nothing.
Although it’s morbid, Enter the Void does in some ways feel like a celebration of a young man’s life. It hasn’t been my experience, but I know a lot of kids [like the film’s ill-fated protagonist, Oscar] whose only goal is to do drugs and fuck girls, or fuck boys. And, if I’m being honest, in my twenties, besides directing short movies, my main goal was to get laid and get drunk.
Do you see a lot of yourself in the character of Oscar? I almost wanted to call the character Gaspar. Although I’ve never dealt drugs, there are many aspects of the movie that are biographical.
Have you had many frightening experiences with drugs? I always played it safe compared to some of my friends, who were taking acid and mushrooms without limits. I can’t really smoke marijuana because I’m kind of already too paranoid without it. Each time I dropped acid or ate mushrooms, I’d consider the things I was hallucinating from a cinematic perspective, most likely with this film in mind. I always wanted to make a movie from the perspective of a stoned main character. So each time I got stoned I’d think, How can I reproduce this? But when I started production on this movie I really stopped doing anything, even on weekends, because it seemed dangerous to my social behavior.
Most people would assume that you’d need to be high in order to make a film that replicates the experience of being high. Not only did I abstain from drugs over the course of the shoot, but I also asked all of the actors and crew to abstain. Some people can work on cocaine, but most people who take it argue and get into fights, while marijuana can turn people stupid. My main actress [Paz de la Huerta] is kind of an alcoholic, so after working 14 hours every night I had to go get drinks with her, but I found myself drinking too much vodka, so I had to slow down.
Have you stayed sober since the film wrapped? The next project I would like to do is an erotic movie, so I’m not into burning my brain right now.
There’s been speculation that this erotic film might be shown in 3D. Are you considering that possibility? If you want to see non-professionals naked, you need a small crew, and I don’t know if 3D cameras require a lot of people to operate. If they do, then I’ll just stick with two dimensions. Another problem with 3D films is that they’re often shown in multiplexes where daring movies can’t be shown. Once I start pre-production on the movie, I’ll check to see if 3D might be an option. If it’s not a problem on set, then why not?
With a few exceptions, there aren’t many mainstream filmmakers willing to show actual intercourse on camera. It’s going to be a mix of real sex and simulated sex. Sometimes it’s easier to simulate because if the guy doesn’t have a hard-on that can make things difficult. But there are other issues, too, like maybe one of the actors has a boyfriend or a girlfriend. For real couples, having sex is an intimate thing, and so they don’t necessarily want people watching their intimacy. So I’ve decided that the best way to show real sex is to cast two single people who used to be a couple. I’m not a voyeur or a peeping tom, but I’ve seen people having sex in front of my eyes and it’s fun.
You don’t seem easily shocked. When you were filming in Tokyo, was there anything that surprised you? The limits of what can and cannot be done in Japan are very different. They’re much more into S&M, but in a playful way. The Japanese have a very different perception of what sex is and what sex should be. When I visit a new city I always ask, What’s the strangest place you can bring me to? Maybe they’ll bring you to a rollercoaster and maybe they’ll bring you to a restaurant run by transvestites.
What was the weirdest place in Tokyo? I went to a few of them. I went to a host bar, where all these rich ladies came in with their Chihuahuas and had young men serving them drinks.
Do you feel like New York is much more tame by comparison? Tokyo today is what New York was in the ’70s. There are few cities today that are as wild as Tokyo—maybe Paris and Berlin. New York is very restrained compared to what it used to be. It’s started looking like Switzerland. Where are all the sleazy areas that we used to see in movies like Taxi Driver?