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Bizarre Love Triangle: Gaspar Noé on Love

Gaspar Noé (Photo by Henny Garfunkel)

A threesome in 3-D and unsimulated sex in a simulated cinematic hyper-reality: that’s what Gaspar Noé’s latest film Love has been promising for months. At Cannes in 2014, producer Vincent Maraval teased audiences with explicit promo materials, pledging plenty of penis, nipple and onscreen ejaculate. While the film has all three in abundance, it turns out Love is more about loss than sex.

The surprisingly sentimental tale begins with Murphy (Karl Glusman) receiving a desperate voicemail message from an ex’s mother. Murphy’s an American in Paris with a French girlfriend, crying baby and New Year’s Day hangover — a trifecta about which he’s pissed right now, according to his inner monologue, transmitted to us via an atonal voiceover and which more than hints at his blundering selfishness. Vexed by the phone message, Murphy begins to reminisce about his former flame Electra (Aomi Muyock). Through an achronological narrative structure, we start to learn the sordid series of events that lost him the love of his life and saddled him with another woman and child, not to mention that potentially drove the first woman to some self-destructive end.

The film is tender and tame compared to Noé’s previous work, lacking his characteristic carnage, but it’s by no means a total break in form. Love, like his other films, is heavily stylized and technically nimble: the roving camera stalks its characters like in Enter the Void and events are temporally disordered like in Irreversible. Noé’s bold visual language is heightened by his use of 3-D, especially in sex scenes shot from hovering angles and Paris street scenes that evoke a sense of tunnel vision.

The film twists and turns back through Murphy’s relationship with Electra. The dramatic break-up when she spits in his face comes before we learn exactly what happened to cause the rift, while a post-break-up altercation at a nightclub makes more sense later when we understand how codependent the two had become. Somewhere along the way, a lithe blonde girl moves into the couple’s apartment building. Of course, we already recognize Omi (Klara Kristin) from the beginning of the film — she’s the woman Murphy lives with in the present, the mother of his child, but now the backstory is revealed. Murphy and Electra court a young Omi over dinner, culminating in the three making love scored by Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. But later Murphy sleeps with her again alone when Electra is out of town. The condom breaks.

The child from that fateful afternoon in the film is named Gaspar. These tongue-in-cheek nods the director makes to himself are hard to ignore. He also borrows his last name, Noé, for the character of an art gallery owner and dons a wig to play him. Murphy’s character too seems to reference Noé, styled in the same plaid flannel shirts unbuttoned over Cinemetal T-shirts and with similar film-directing ambitions. In one particularly meta-moment, Murphy even pontificates drunkenly at a party about wanting to produce “a movie that truly depicts sentimental sexuality,” to make cinema out of “blood, sweat and semen.”

At the Toronto International Film Festival, I spoke with Noé about the challenges of working in 3-D, his mother’s death and acquiescing to perform the role of the French pervert. Love is in theaters Oct. 30.

In an interview you mentioned wanting to direct a 3-D point-of-view film several years back, but I also heard that you’d been wanting to make a melodramatic porno for a while. When did these ideas merge? The 3-D thing came later. The first draft I had of this script was written before I shot Irreversible. I proposed that short script to Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel, who were in Irreversible. They said, “Oh, yeah, we’d be happy to do an erotic melodrama.” We got financing from Canal+ to do that movie, although they hadn’t read the five-page script at the time. Bellucci and Cassel were very famous — they were the golden couple of the French cinema. It was liking going to movie financiers with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise doing an erotic melodrama: “Okay, it’s financed. Go ahead.”

But, when Canal+ read the script, they said, “No, no, we’re not going to make it.” And I immediately came with this other idea of doing a great kind of revenge movie told backwards. And they accepted it. We did Irreversible, it was commercially successful, so then I could do Enter the Void. And then, after doing Enter the Void, I still wanted to do this erotic melodrama. But I said it was a pornographic melodrama. Vincent Maraval from Wild Bunch, who was selling the project, [thought] saying “pornographic” made it sound sexier. “Erotic” compared to “pornographic” seems softened down.

Once Enter the Void was finished, Avatar had just come out. So Maraval made this announcement that my next movie was going to be “a 3-D porn melodrama,” but it was kind of a joke just to make people look at the movie. But it didn’t really help to get the financing because I carried this image of being a filmmaker who makes violent movies, so if you add the word “pornography” to the words “extreme violence,” most people were very afraid of putting money into it. This movie, though, in the end, has no violence besides some verbal violence when [the couple] becomes jealous and start insulting each other.

So, for me, the announcement [that] my next movie was going to be in 3-D was just a joke. What happened, though, is that I started to take photos in 3-D with a small 3-D negative film set camera I had.

Like the kind Murphy uses in the film? Yes. The camera that you see in the movie, those are the kind of photos I was doing of my family and friends for many years. Three years ago, for maybe $600, I bought this home-video 3-D camera that you can only see on a 3-D screen, so I had to buy a 3-D screen also to check those images. And it happened that my mother got very sick. She was in Argentina, and she died after six months of a mental disease. And when people you love are dying and you don’t see them, you want to keep images of them. So I filmed her a lot with this 3-D camera.

When I was watching those images when I was back in Paris, I saw the images had something that was really shocking because of the fact of seeing your mother inside a TV screen, but with some depth of field. It felt like she was inside this small box. It was something that was far more real than a 2-D image but also totally artificial and unreal. It was kind of moving and scary. And at that point, I thought, “Maybe I should try to do my next project as one that also deals with the intimacy of a couple in 3-D because it is going to add some weirdness, but also a lot of emotion.”

I thought, though, that it would be impossible technically and financially. I thought 3-D was very expensive, mainly because it was linked in my eyes to big 3-D action movies. But my cinematographer, Benoît Debie, who worked with me on Enter the Void and Irreversible, he did a movie with Wim Wenders starring James Franco [Every Thing Will Be Fine] that was shot in 3-D. He told me, “Oh, it’s not so difficult to shoot in 3-D, especially if you shoot it with the RED carbon cameras that are very small. You should try.”

Two months before shooting the movie, I also ran into this guy in France who is a 3-D technician. He said, “You can get subsidies from the French government to do movies in 3-D. They give you all the money to pay the additional expenses.” So the budget of the movie was maybe 2.2 million Euros and we needed a bit more than 300,000 Euros to pay the difference between a 2-D movie and a 3-D movie. We applied to that subsidy, and we got the money.

I knew that if I was doing the movie in 3-D, I should not do any handheld camera because it’s nauseating. That only movements that I really like in other directors’ 3-D movies were the ones that go not side to side but forward and back.

Those shots almost feel like moving through a tunnel. How [do] you call that? Traveling in the depths? So I rewrote how I would cover the scenes that way. And we found a very small crane that we could put in the room where I was going to shoot all of the nude scenes. And then, we made the movie like that in 3-D. It was time-consuming to do the 3-D, but I’m really happy with the effect.

How different is it shooting in 3-D? How is it more time consuming? The two cameras that you use are tiny cameras, but they’re inside a box with a mirror. The position of the cameras has to be checked — the slight difference between the point of view of each camera has to be the distance between the two eyes. And because you have two cameras, you have to calibrate them to match. The color grading, the grain and everything has to be the same. The 3-D technician was taking almost two hours every morning to fix the cameras for the day. And because we were shooting inside the guild system, the shooting day was eight hours long, or nine hours, so it would take maybe 15 to 20 percent of the day.

Once we started shooting, I would not cut the camera. I would film over and over without cutting so no one would get in the room. I would just say, “Okay, this is number one. Okay, let’s do a second take. Let’s do a third take. Let’s do a fourth take. Don’t cut the camera.” And then, at the end, I had shots that were maybe 15 minutes long with 10 or 20 different versions inside.

Because if you cut the camera, what would happen? People take a break, but also, all the rest of the crew that was on the other side of the door opens the door and they all get into the set. Everybody wants to go to pee or everybody has something to say. And then, like, it takes half an hour to get rid of all the people in the room to do more takes.

The sex scenes are shot from a very particular angle. How were they shot? For the nude scenes, we mostly shot them the first week of the five weeks shooting. For one week, we had two camera systems, meaning we had four cameras. So the nude scenes we could shoot from two different angles, and then in the editing room, I would pick out my favorite angles. One camera system was on a tripod, and the other one was on a crane. That’s why those scenes on the bed are mostly from one side of the bed or from above.

Could you talk a bit about the film’s visual language, about having little lateral movement but more movement into space? Well, ultimately, it’s mostly because I’m a big Kubrick fan. One day, I saw this edit made of all the shots of his movies. You see that almost all of the takes he did were either still images of big spaces or moments [that] follow into or move away from the characters. So I said, “Oh, maybe I should use that language also for this 3-D movie.”

And so, you’ve had this idea, this rough script, for a long time. How do you keep sustained interest and be excited about the story for so long? The story stayed interesting because I know the situations. I’ve been in similar situations, although the names are not the same, and I never got a girl pregnant. But the clothes that the main character wears, the posters he has in his room are the same. I said, “I want to do a movie in which I talk about what love seems to me.” I was creating a world that was mine. Also, I have friends who’ve got girls accidentally pregnant, and from the outside, I saw how much it changed their lives.

Then, [shooting] 3-D really excited me because it was like getting into a new game that I hadn’t played before. I felt like a kid operating a new toy. And I would say there’s something about Karl and Aomi that made me feel safe as a director. Plus Klara, plus my usual cinematographer, Benoît Debie, it made me feel like I was home. And you know something? Sometimes you feel the energy is sunny. It’s like the wind changes and it feels like now everything is almost perfect and we can have fun. You can tell, when you see the results, that the people had fun creating those images.

You had this story in mind before, and then you returned to it many years later. Did you find you were looking at it in a different way? The main thing that changed was the mood of the movie. I first wrote it in a moment of my life in which I had never been confronted with death. And then the fact of seeing my mother’s death — since losing someone, I have a more tragic sense of time. Death is a world that cannot be removed. It did not change the script, but maybe it changed my perception of the script and my use of images and music. The movie is more melancholic than it would’ve been if I had shot it 10 years before. There’s a sense of tragedy that comes through, not only from the actors and the images and the story, but also from the use of the soundtrack. I think maybe it appeals to people who are over 25 and 30, more than to the people who are 15 or 20 that might want to see the movie.

Do you think, as you get older, you’ll want to create stories that are not about young twentysomethings? You know what? When I saw Michael Haneke’s movie Amour, I was very scared. When that movie was announced and it was going to Cannes, I said, “Oh, shit, he stole my title.” But then the movie was released in the whole world, even in the English-speaking territories, with the French title. So the title that I had in mind for my movie, Love, I could keep it, because Amour was worldwide as Amour and not as Love. Mine is going to be released worldwide as Love and not as Amour. 

But when I saw that movie, my mother was in the middle of her agony process, and we wished that these things could go faster because she was suffering a lot. When I saw the movie, I said, “Wow, how does it come that no one ever did a movie about that subject?” It’s a subject that touches maybe one family out of two during their lifetime. I’d seen people losing control of their brain, of their body, suffering. These are moments of big pain and also, I’d say, a big understanding of the human experience. That’s a movie, if it hadn’t been done, and someone today would bring me a plot about an old man taking care of his old wife in such a way, I would love to shoot such a movie.

Do you feel pressure to live up to this idea people have of you as an enfant terrible or provocateur? It’s too easy to provoke people. It all depends if you know what you want to put on the screen and why you want to put those things on the screen. You’re mostly keeping the door open for what started in the ’70s. Deliverance and Taxi Driver, in terms of violence, nothing has topped those movies since.

I never felt provocative besides maybe the length of the rape scene in Irreversible. But if people want to call you a provocateur or enfant terrible — and I don’t know why they always use French words to say that — I say I can play the French pervert in the room. If you’re looking to say, who’s the French pervert in the room, okay, I’ll play the part. But from the inside, I don’t think I relate to those words, especially in this film. It’s more like I’m just trying to be honest.

Yeah, it’s very sentimental, and there’s no violence. I was more surprised by the reactions I got with this movie than with reactions from any movie before. I just noticed how much sexuality affects people in a psychotic way. Serious newspapers, like the Le Figaro, were saying, “No, this is not a movie. This is just obscenity.” People turned against the movie because, maybe, they felt in danger because you see the erect penis of a handsome young American boy.

You mentioned before there are lots of autobiographical details of yourself in the film. Honestly, it’s more the context. I know that space. I know those kinds of people. I am these kinds of people. I know a girl who’s a painter, a guy who’s a film student. They’re young. They do drugs. They party in the clubs where I used to party. They like the movies and books that I like. But they’re open-minded, and it’s very common that inside a relationship, a heterosexual couple says, “What can we do to not to be a monogamist couple? Let’s bring a girl in, and let’s have fun, but this is just for one night and not for two. Let’s refresh our love story by showing ourselves how open we are.” But then, the freedoms are funny. If they turn into a relationship, it becomes very complicated.

But there are explicit references, like, your name is in the movie, and your friends and you are playing small parts. Instead of getting actors, I put my best friends in the movie. My cinematographer plays the shaman who steals the first girlfriend. My producer, my beloved connoisseur producer Vincent Maraval, I added those scenes of him playing a cop — a cop who wants to bring the young Murphy to a swingers club. I felt safe by putting all the people I like the most inside the movie. And also, I felt at home using for almost all of the characters’ names that were coming from my family or even from myself. My whole name is Gaspar Julio Noé Murphy. Murphy’s my mother’s name. So when I was a kid and my parents were living in New York, and then moved back to Argentina, I would tell my friends, “My name’s Gaspar Murphy.” It sounded better to my ears than Gaspar Noé. So, I related to Murphy, but also, I liked that this guy called Murphy was in conflict with his son Gaspar, with his best friend, Julio, and with Noé, who is a gallery owner, who I play. I was not supposed to play in the movie, but it was a last-moment decision. The moment I bought a wig and I glued it on, I said, “Oh, it’s funny to have myself with a wig.”

In literature, a lot of people make novels that are inspired by their lives in an open way, or write fake stories and pretend they’re true. But in cinema, maybe the one who most made movies that were kind of personal was Truffaut. He was always using Jean-Pierre Léaud, who looked a bit like him when he was young. That character was like his alter ego. It was a way of talking about himself or about life in general, as he knew it, through someone else.

But having all these characters in conflict with each other all named after you, is that suggesting something? The man who plays the shaman who steals the first girlfriend of Murphy is called Luis and that’s my father’s name. And when the guy cheats on his girlfriend, he cheats on her with a girl called Paula, and Paula is my sister’s name. So when my sister sees the movie, she says, “Well, what do you mean by all that?” I say, “Don’t try to find any sense.” It’s just like if you played dice with the names. You distribute the names to any character without any particular significance.

Why did you want to make Murphy’s character American? I wanted the movie to be all in English because if the movie’s in English, you can watch it without subtitles, if you speak English. I don’t like the subtitles on a 3-D screen. Subtitles kill that strange intimacy that the 3-D creates.

It’s maybe also because I was raised in France since I’m 13, but I don’t feel French. I like the French culture. I love being in Paris. I love the French cinema, but I don’t think the French language is more natural to me than the Spanish language that I’ve spoken my whole life, or the English language that I learned when I was raised in New York until the age of five.

The bad thing about making a movie in English, while being produced in France, is that you lose a lot of subsidies. Also, the TV channels give you a fourth or a fifth of the money that they would pay you if the movie was in French. So it was harder to get money because I wanted to do the movie in English. But maybe now it’s going to reach a much wider audience.

And then there’s that conversation Murphy has with the cop played by Maraval. The cop says, “Your idea of possession is so American.” I think Vincent Maraval improvised all of that scene. So he came with his own ideas about what a cop would tell an American guy with a pretty girlfriend. [Laughs]

In an interview you said you liked this porn movie from the ’70s that had a really strong narrative. Defiance of the Good? Yeah, have you seen it?

I haven’t. You should.

What’s it about? It’s about a teenager, a pretty teenager, with her schoolmate, another girl. They’re in her room with teddy bears and they do coke. And the parents are around and they see the two girls doing coke, so they decide that their daughter is a drug addict and that she has to be treated. So they bring the girl to a mental hospital or some kind of mental institution. And, of course, the girl who is young and pretty is accepted, and the director of that mental institution is a real pervert, and even all of the nurse team is made up of male perverts. So instead of being treated, she becomes the object of desire for the whole hospital clinic, and she gets fucked over and over. And then, the director, to save her, tells her that there are parties, special parties — actually, they’re orgies. And at the end, she’s initiated to these kind of orgies and becomes, at the end, like the main goddess of them. She finds her way in the decadence. It’s like a witch story as told by the Marquis de Sade; if you’re good, everything goes bad, and if you misbehave and you’re bad, everything succeeds. But for a porn movie of the ’70s, it was extremely narrative — quite different from all the other explicit movies of the time. And, yeah, it’s considered erotic. There’s another one I liked at the time called Night Dreams.

Speaking of other narrative pornos from that era, the ejaculate scene in Love reminds me of that scene in Behind the Green Door. Oh, yeah. Yeah. I like other films, too. The first Devil in Miss Jones was pretty good. Have you seen it?

No, is it the same director? No, but it’s a movie that came out at the same time as Behind the Green Door. First, we had Deep Throat, and then Behind the Green Door and The Devil in Miss Jones were maybe the biggest successes of that film genre that has totally disappeared since.

That was like “the Golden Age of porn.” So even before you thought about making a narrative porn, I guess, you had watched these kind of movies for a while? Yeah, I was addicted to these movies as a teenager. I was addicted to all these erotic magazines. I spent so much time just watching girls naked.

And do you think there’s a chance now for more of this kind of combination of porn and real narrative? No, I think the erotic genre is vanishing. You rarely see sexy images nowadays, movies like Emmanuelle. That was a huge success of the French cinema. The only erotic images you can find nowadays are things that are made in the Larry Clark style or that are in museums, but in the end, they are not really sexy. And for sure, there are adult videos that you find by Googling just some words, but I don’t think they’re sexy. In many ways, the ’70s and ’80s were more open to images that would create a desire than nowadays.

What are you working on right now? Nothing yet. I’m reading books in two different subjects, and, also, maybe I would like to do a documentary one of these days. I have to find a new game. If I feel I’m going to do another movie like the ones I’ve done before, it’s not going to be fun. So which new game can I play that I haven’t played?

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