Gaspar Noe is responsible for some of the most uncomfortable cinematic images in recent years. (Spoiler alert on Noe’s oeuvre ahead.) Watch Irréversible and its graphic rape scene will linger in your mind for months. I Stand Alone features a girl shot dead in the face by her father. The nausea-inducing Enter the Void might leave you dreaming of fetuses — and of a young man going fetal in a public restroom.
In contrast, Noe’s new film Love — presented in 3D — centers around Murphy (Karl Glusman), an American film student in Paris who wants to make movies about “blood, semen and tears” — the elements of life that matter, by his reckoning. We learn of Murphy’s regret and obsession with his lost love — the mistakes he has made in his relationship with former girlfriend Electra (Aomi Muyock), how his decisions have taken him away from the love of his life, and his current existence wallowing with another woman, Omi (Klara Kristin), who is the mother of his child, Gaspar. Noe also makes an appearance in the film in the role of Electra’s ex-boyfriend, a smug gallery owner.
Though it lacks the violence of Noe’s other movies, Love is graphic in other ways, featuring sex, cum shots, orgies, and other sexual content — all of which work well in three dimensions. I met with Noe to discuss Love, the absence of violence, and the pressure to be “shocking.”
I felt — and this seems to be the consensus based on other reviews — that Love is less difficult to watch than your previous films.
This movie is not violent at all. The only violence there is in this movie is when the couple gets jealous and starts insulting each other and saying things they don’t believe. Just dominating the person for that reason.
Do you feel like, beyond graphic violence, there are aspects of this film that are more difficult or challenging to watch?
I’d say there’s something unusual or atypical in Irréversible. There was something atypical in a different way in Enter the Void. And in this case it’s a much more relatable story. I’m sure that half of the audience identifies watching the movie with the girl or with the boy because we’ve all been through love addictions that were as exciting as painful — and so we know the subject. But still, you’re not used to seeing that degree of intimacy in a movie theater on screen.
I’m curious about how you wanted to portray intimacy. Did you feel like you succeeded in what you wanted to show? And what do you feel is lacking in how intimacy is typically portrayed in film?
Some movies are referential. Some movies you can think of others and you have other movies in mind. For sure when I was doing Enter the Void I had the shadow of 2001: A Space Odyssey in my mind, although the movie is very different. That trippy movie with a climatic visual ending. With this movie I had no particular movie references that I was trying to compete with. I was mostly trying to do something that reminded me of what life is. That’s why I never try to self-censor my project for commercial reasons or financial reasons. I don’t know if I’m a good man, but I’m normal man with all his reptilian sides and mammal sides, but I’m not the worst of my kind. I have nothing that I am ashamed of, so let’s do a movie of that, about what life is — not in my very personal life but in my group of friends. That’s how I’ve been living.
I have never been a junkie — if I had been a junkie maybe I would do a movie about drug addiction. But I have been — in my life, a few times — a sentimental junkie. And I know how exciting that is and how painful it is. It’s painful, even when it’s a platonic love that does not come to a conclusion. But it’s even more painful when you are madly in love with someone. And for any kind of reason the relationship breaks up you feel like a junkie shaking in your bed without your needle.
What part of Murphy do you identify with?
I would say he’s like my little brother. And also, I was giving the actor — he’s very tall, handsome, doesn’t look like me physically — but maybe to relate to the character I was giving him my clothes, my T-shirts. I would say he’s much more like the character in Enter the Void, or the main character in Irréversible, Vincent Cassel. They are all an extension of the same character, which, for me, is like a normal, cool, party-guy who has good taste but at the same time he’s more obsessed with partying than doing anything else in life. They’re not heroes, they’re not anti-heroes, they’re like the cool, random guys who think they’re open-minded but maybe they’re not so much. But filled with lots of testosterone.
Is it difficult, casting-wise, for your films? Finding the person who is right for the part and also willing to go the lengths you want them to go — is that a challenge?
Yes. It’s hard. Initially I thought I would get a couple to do the movie but I could not find the right couple. So I was also considering boys and girls but I was always afraid that if I found a boy or girl who had a boyfriend outside the set, or girlfriend outside the set, the other person would turn jealous. I actually — at one point I met a girl that I liked but she started dating a guy and said, “If I do the movie, we’re going to break up.” In Irréversible I had some guys who said the same thing. I was very lucky to find Karl and Aomi who were not a couple and who kissed for the first time the first day of shooting in front of the camera.
How was it for them on that first day? Did they seem comfortable right away?
We were hanging out a lot together and he’s extremely friendly, extremely positive. He’s not a sex maniac but he’s not shy either. He had never posed nude, he had never shown his dick to a camera. But I would say the whole movie was done in a very joyful way. We all knew it was a serious movie we were doing but also we were doing the movie like a joke, we want to make it funny. I had the same kind of fun while portraying the rape scene with Monica Bellucci in Irréversible. I remember between the takes we would go and see the monitor and she was laughing saying, “Oh! It looks so real. People are going to scream in the audience.” But also, when you shoot love scenes maybe people are going to get mentally excited in the audience or not. You don’t know what’s going to happen at the other end of the experience.
I would say the only moment that I felt Karl was kind of worried was the day we were shooting with the transvestite. He said, “What’s going to happen?” Because it was all improvised. I said, “We’re going to see that until today everyday was Christmas but tonight is New Year’s Eve.” I’m sure that he was thinking, what’s going to happen? Maybe my mother’s going to see the movie, she’s going to be shocked [laughs]. I don’t know. But when we started rehearsing and shooting the scene he knew nothing would go on. And actually, in the script it says nothing will go on or happens between the transvestite and him. But he thought maybe I would trick him [laughs]. And I think that was the funniest day of shooting. They were laughing for hours. And the transvestite was a really funny person.
The biggest laugh from the audience — when I saw the film — was Murphy’s desire to name his child Gaspar.
It’s a nice name. I thought that my father, who saw the movie, would cry at the end when the father is hugging his baby and saying, “Gaspar, please forgive me. Life is not easy.” But I was sitting in front of my father at the Cannes Festival and I turn back and he was watching it but this scene did not move him. [Laughs.] I thought he would cry and identify with the guy. But he just said, “Oh, you went too far with this movie,” and didn’t really enjoy the cum shot.
Oh, he didn’t?
And I said, “You said, ‘I went too far,’ why?” And one year later he said, “Yeah, the movie’s okay but that shot with the penis cumming on her face, why did you do that?!” [Laughs.]
Why did you want to make this movie in 3-D? And do you think 3-D would work well for any of your previous films?
Yeah, Enter the Void would have looked great in 3-D. But technically speaking the 3-D would have been impossible to do in that hand-held camera movie because the 3-D cameras are very heavy and at the time they were even heavier. And I shot Enter the Void before Avatar was released so I did not know that the DCP system could make the 3-D look so good. But I would not go back in time to recreate this. If today I was preparing Enter the Void, I would consider 3-D.
What drew you to 3-D in the first place?
This kind of weirdness, that it’s very touching. If you watch still images in 3-D they look more real than 2-D. Unless you’re 3-D blind, or, how-you-say when people have just one eye?
Oh, what do they call that? One-eyed people.
If you’re one-eyed you don’t see the difference between 2-D and 3-D but if you have proper vision then yeah, it looks closer to real life. And in the case of this movie I wanted to create a feeling of intimacy and it adds a layer of intimacy to the result.
The credits look great in 3-D.
Yes, because they are floating. But the one thing I don’t like is when you have subtitles floating between the screen and you, because then the subtitles seem far more unnatural in 3-D than in 2-D. In 3-D the subtitles don’t meld to the space.
Why did you want the actors to improvise? Was there any dialogue you had to cut that, looking back, you wish had been in the final film?
I sometimes regret, because the movie was longer than expected, I cut some pieces of scenes that were still good. There was one quote from a girl telling Karl — you know the girl he f*cks in the toilet — then when he goes back to her place he says something like, “You know what Plato said, ‘Love is a mental disease.’ ” And, also, I had planned to put many title cards with text and sentences about love or other subjects. But then, I don’t know, it became very artificial so I just kept “Murphy’s Law” and got rid of all the other title cards.
It’s interesting, like you mentioned, that when filming uncomfortable scenes there can be a lot of laughter. But later, when watching the final movie, how emotional is everyone?
I know that Aomi does not enjoy watching the movie that much. Some people, whether they’re professional actors or not, dislike watching themselves on screen. I know that Karl likes watching the movie. Aomi doesn’t enjoy watching the movie. She says, “Oh I’m going to watch it.” Then after 10 minutes she leaves to have a cigarette or goes out for a drink, and says, “Oh, maybe next time I’ll watch the whole movie.” Also, I didn’t expect to play inside the movie but finally the people I had in mind were too funny during the video test and I ended up playing that part. But because I see myself in the wig, I dress up as the gallery owner, I look so funny that I enjoy it. I enjoy watching myself. I guess if I was not wearing the wig I could not stand watching myself.
You made a great gallery-owner.
I’m happy the guy had some bottles smashed on his head. The audience really likes when the guy takes revenge on the gallery owner. [Laughs.]
How was it to be in that scene?
It was fine. The only thing is when you’re behind the camera you have headphones and you can listen to what the actors are saying. In the case of those scenes I did not know at all if their performance was good or bad because I was inside the frame. Then I was just asking my crew, “Were they good?”
Is there a scene for you that is most emotional?
There was one scene that was not in the script because I shot a scene — I didn’t expect to shoot a scene with the neighbor pregnant. But one day we had the belly that we were going to use for this dream of getting Electra pregnant, so at a point there was a shot of him touching her belly, but it was not scheduled inside the script. Then we shot this other scene later of Murphy and Electra talking about having a baby so I shot the two scenes separately, both scenes were improvised, but in the editing room I suddenly thought, ‘oh it would be good to have them talk about having a baby and finding a name.’ And then put that other scene in which he said, “I want to call the baby Gaspar.” But when I put them together and those scenes were not a problem, the fact that the guy is mad enough at the girl that they considered having a baby of a particular name and then just two months later he’s giving the same name to someone else, with another girl, I thought that was very cruel. I was shocked by the idea that someone can promise the moon to someone and then be setting the moon to someone else just a few months later. Because the guy pretends he’s sentimental but the guy is not as sentimental as he thinks he is.
In general how do you feel being labeled as shocking? When you start a new movie, does that ever get in your head and inhibit you in any way?
Sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it’s not, what people project on you. But, what can I say—I respect the directors of the past who are doing daring movies. I don’t like the word provocateur, but there have been strong, powerful, daring directors of the past—Fassbinder, Pasolini, et cetera, et cetera—there are thousands of them. So you just want to follow their example. The bad thing of being recognized by fans or whatever is people stop you to have their DVDs signed, or they really want, nowadays, to have a selfie. Then the next day you have 100 photos of you posing with people you don’t know on Instagram. That part is funny. But being photographed with whomever came to your screening, that’s boring and annoying.