Cannes: Gaspar Noe on the Sleazy Paradise of 'Climax' and Why He Decided to Make a Film Without Penises

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

The controversial Argentina-born, Paris-based director made a triumphant return to Cannes with 'Climax,' which scooped up Directors' Fortnight's top prize.

After its buzzy world premiere in Cannes' Directors’ Fortnight lineup, where it won the sidebar's Art Cinema Award, Gaspar Noe’s fifth feature, Climax, looks set for a solid international run.

A24 acquired U.S. rights for the controversial Argentina-born, Paris-based director's latest film midway through the festival.

Happy as a clam about the movie's reception, Noe sat down with THR to talk about what made him decide to do a dance movie, how he shot some of its best scenes and why he never stresses about Cannes.

At the very first Cannes screening of Climax, I noticed you were standing in the back of the theater and really enjoying the show. You’re not stressed when your movie plays for the first time at such a huge festival?

No, not at all. I’m not stressed when I prepare my movies, when I shoot them or when I screen them. The only time I’m stressed is when I have to take a long flight abroad. I suddenly get homesick and I’m afraid something bad is going to happen to me. So before I leave, I always make sure I’ve paid all my bills and that I call all my friends I haven’t spoken to in a while. It’s very weird, but it’s a kind of manic obsession I have.

But being in Cannes can be stressful for a filmmaker, especially if your movie isn’t well-received.

Whether the reviews are good or bad, I’ve been to Cannes so many times I’m used to it by now. When I showed Irreversible [in 2002], about 60 percent of the reviews were bad. On the next one [Enter the Void in 2009], probably 70 to 75 percent of them were bad, and on Love [in 2015], it was 85 percent. So for Climax I would have been happy to get 90 to 95 percent bad reviews, but that’s not what happened. Something must have gone wrong, because people thought I finally made a good film.

Perhaps that’s because in some ways, Climax seems tame for a Gaspar Noe movie.

Compared to my other films, which were problematic starting with the very first scene, this one has a happy aspect to it. It starts with a melancholic death scene, but then you see all these young kids dancing, and it puts you in a really good mood. You want to get drunk and dance with them, and the first half of Climax is really about the joy of living. But the second half is about the nightmare of living. I’m an atheist, and I don’t believe in the afterlife, but I do believe that paradise and hell exist. They’re right here, right now, and I wanted to portray the best and worst of the human experience.

I’m not sure everyone would find even the first part of the film to be such a paradise.

Well, it’s a sleazy paradise. Everyone is obsessed with sex. They want to fight and to fuck, and then in the second half of the film they just lose their minds. They can’t even have sex because they’re so mentally fucked up by then.

What made you decide to make a film about dancers?

I never thought I’d make a dance movie, but back in December I was invited to a vogueing ballroom in Paris and I was blown away by the energy there. Most of the people were either black or Arab, gay or lesbian, and the crowd was dancing in such a crazy way that I thought it was the best party I’d ever been to. So that was the starting point. Then I began looking for dancers and found the Russian girl (Sharleen Temple) who plays Ivana, the Danish girl (Thea Carla Schott) who plays Psyche, and a contortionist in the Congo who we got a visa for so he could come and do the film.

What about Sofia Boutella, who plays the main character, Selva?

I’d never seen a movie she’d been in and only knew her as the best hip-hop dancer in France. She’s a real hero there. So I reached out to her to both play in the movie and be the choreographer, but she was only available four days before the shoot. For the choreography, she recommended I work with Nina McNeely, who came in to improvise the opening scene at the very last moment. Street dancers usually dance alone, but I thought it would be great to have them all working in a group with their different moves. When I see dancers together like that it absolutely hypnotizes me.

In the interview sequence early on in the movie, we see a bunch of VHS tapes for films like Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom. Were those inspirations for Climax?

There’s also a VHS for Zombie – which is the French title for George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. It’s actually the first VHS tape I ever had, and I really loved the fact that the whole movie takes place in a shopping mall. Climax all takes place in a school, and the second half of it is very close to Dawn of the Dead. One by one the dancers all kind of turn into zombies, and I really wanted one of them to have an epileptic seizure. Giselle Palmer, who plays the character of Gazelle, was happy to volunteer.

The main credits in Climax — which include an emoji for each name — pop up about midway through the film. I’ve never seen that before.

If you make movies you’re not going to copy what someone else has done, although in Climax I did copy myself for many things. You can call it a “worst of Gaspar Noe.” [Laughter] But on a practical level, the movie is divided into two parts, and I really wanted to have a break between them, so putting the credits was one way to do it.

That opening dance sequence is really mind-blowing. It’s done in one long take that seems to last for 10 minutes, with the camera spinning up in the air to capture the scene. How much did you prepare that scene?

We worked on it for three days, but only 15 out of the 21 dancers were available for rehearsals. On the day of the shoot, everyone showed up at 7 or 8 in the morning and then we began shooting around noon. We shot 16 takes of it, and each one would be better than the last. We ended finishing up at midnight, and it’s the 15th take that we wound up putting in the movie. We shot with a short lens and a very wide frame, and then we reframed some of the shot in post to focus on specific dancers in the scene.

I heard that Climax was shot in only three weeks. Is that true?

Yes, it was done in 15 days and shot in chronological order. I really wanted to make a quick movie the way that [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder used to do, and so I approached the producers Edouard Weil and Vincent Maraval, who put some of their own funding in it at first. They told me I only had two weeks, but I turned that into three weeks, or 15 days in all. We shot the whole thing in an abandoned school out in the suburbs of Paris.

The film marks another great collaboration between you and Belgian cameraman Benoit Debie. Do you have a particular working method?

We’ve done so many movies together that it’s like I’m in his brain and he’s in mine. Benoit is not only the best DP but also the best person to have on set because he’s such a good guy and puts everyone in a great mood. I’ve never seen him argue with anyone. For Climax, he arranged all the lighting beforehand and then was able to manipulate the colors remotely with an iPad. I operated the camera for the entire movie, because it’s so instinctive and I really wanted to follow the actors myself.

It was announced the other day that A24 bought the U.S. rights to Climax, which means this could be your biggest ever release there. Do you think it’s because this film is less violent and graphic than your other ones?

Maybe it’s because after all the stupid questions and comments I got about showing penises in my other movies, I decided that for at least one film there would be no penis. [Laughter] But I think it could come back for the next one!