Argentinian provocateur Gaspar Noé (Enter the Void, Irreversible) discusses his latest button-pushing opus, Climax, which sees a troupe of hip hop dancers gathered at a remote rehearsal hall descend into savagery when they discover their drinks have been spiked with LSD.
Climax is another typically atypical salvo of subversion from Noé, incorporating his usual themes of sex, drugs, violence, and the gossamer-thin and incredibly permeable membrane that separates ostensibly civilised and humane people from their own atavistic inner selves.
It’s also formally challenging: a kind of horror movie built up out of extraordinary choreographed dance sequences, an allegorical nightmare in which a cast of beautiful, diverse, but nameless characters are tested to destruction against their own worst excesses. It’s been called a metaphor for the failure of multicultural modern day France, a fierce and unblinking examination of the animal urges underpinning human social structures, and – this almost goes without saying – an obscenity (when it screened at Cannes there were walkouts. Noé thought their weren’t enough).
Speaking to the director himself, however, reveals fresh insights into the making of Climax – some personal, some pragmatic, and all fascinating.
It’s been said that you first came up with the seed of the idea for 'Climax' while at a nightclub in Paris…
I was writing some other projects also based on true events about a group of people going crazy, and at the end of last November I went to this voguing ballroom invited by one of the dancers, Lea [Vlamos], who is in the movie. I went with my producer and we had so much fun – it was like a small dance floor full of people, people were like drunk off joy, but there was no alcohol. People were dancing, competing, it was very glad, very gay, very joyful. When we came out I said, “Whatever I’m doing next, I would love to do a documentary or make a music video with these people.”
I started to research voguing in France and I took the numbers of some of the dancers, and also I saw this crump battle event, and I thought wouldn’t it be great to create a movie combining all these different types of dance – crump, voguing, electro. I came up with the idea of the movie at the beginning of January, I convinced my co-producers of my previous movie, I said that my idea for the movie, partly narrative, partly documentary, I don’t know what it’s going to be, but if you give me the money to shoot the movie in 15 days… it all happened very quickly.
In one month we found the location, all the crew that I like working with were free for 15 days, we shot in February and we screened in May, so I didn’t really have time to think about the movie! Of course, I was working 20 hour days. It was a very spontaneous experience.
How did the strict time constraints affect your approach to making the film?
More and more I like making decisions at the last minute. Like when I have to fly for holidays, I buy my ticket the night before. I also like shooting movies the same way. You have conceptions but you don’t have precise plans of what you want the people to do or say, or how you want to frame the set. I was operating the camera but I had no idea how I was going to frame the scenes until immediately before I was on the set. I especially wanted the second half of the movie to be one continuous master shot, but how it was going to be I had no idea.
That’s a fairly improvisational approach, but in terms of narrative did you always have a final destination in mind?
The destination was that the most fragile ones would die at the end! [laughs]. Only the strong survive. In the movie there’s no sense of good and evil – there’s a sense of chaos, order and disorder, the two faces of any person. We can all turn psychotic in a psychotic situation – it doesn’t mean you’re anyone else. You have a civilised face and then you have an uncivilised face.
Once again, you’ve made a movie about people under the influence of narcotics. In your opinion, do drugs reveal or warp character?
Fear! Fear and insecurity drives people crazy. If you’re spiked with anything – even if people make you drink against your will – the experience will be very bad. If anybody spikes your drink with a downer, even if someone puts Xanax in your drink, the experience will be awful. I would say it’s the feeling of being cheated that turns people paranoid and aggressive. And some substances that you can take can wake up pats of your brain that are not civilised and also can suppress the civilised parts of your brain. There are situations where the sweetest couples can become, because the man or the girl are totally drunk, very cruel, and then the next day the one who was the most drunk has a blackout and cannot remember.
I have shown the movie in many different countries to many different audiences and most of the people who come out of the theatre, and say “I better smoke a cigarette and never come back!” are the people who have been partying too much and have had experiences of this kind, partying so far that they broke things.
How do your own experiences inform the film?
I started having blackouts at the age of 40. Before then I could drink vodka like there was no tomorrow. But when I was filming in Japan I was in a club and then I was back in my hotel room. How did I come back? And then you have to be very careful with the vodka, because they say once it starts it becomes repetitive.
You have a cast of professional performers here but, with a notable exception in Sofia Boutella, non-professional actors. How did you approach getting the performances you needed out of them?
I wanted them to dance at their best. It was incredible because most of them had not danced with other people, especially in a synchronised way. They were mostly dancers who go on stage and do their own cray, personal performance, but they never synchronised with other people. I operated the crane while they were dancing and it all went perfect – we were very lucky to get that opening scene.
You’ve often spoken about how you feel our culture has become more repressive over the years, but surely with the rise of streaming, subscription, and on demand services it’s now easier than ever for viewers to find challenging and provocative material if they want it. Do you still hold those views?
I think people these days, compared to 50 years ago, they drink more, they do more drugs, they’re crazier, but then when it comes to mass communication, like cinema or websites, it’s much more centralised than before and some of the images that have been there for centuries, like female nudity, which has been seen in art and in statues in parks and so on, but nowadays Playboy magazine doesn’t show nipples, and on social networks like Instagram they don’t let women show their nipples. But you can show guns, you can show car accidents with people cut to pieces. It’s very weird how anything linked to the most natural portion of reproduction, a sexy woman or sexy man which excites you visually, that part of the animal needs of the human person is being repressed and controlled.
Wednesday 16 December, 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND
Now streaming at SBS On Demand
Genre: Drama, Horror, Music
Language: English, French
Director: Gaspar Noé
Starring: Sofia Boutella, Kiddy Smile, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub