Q&A: Filmmaker Gaspar Noé knows he won’t be remembered and doesn’t care

WSN spoke with Gaspar Noé about posterity, Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris,” and how the film industry has changed since the pandemic.

Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer, Arts Editor

A portrait of a smiling Gaspar Noé wearing all black in front of a gray background.
Gaspar Noé is a renowned filmmaker originally from Argentina. (Image Courtesy of © Philippe Quaisse/ Unifrance)

Spoiler warning: This article includes spoilers for “Vortex.”

Everyone dies. Nothing will be remembered. These are the ideas circulating in Gaspar Noé’s head two years after surviving a brain hemorrhage. Then again, death has always been present in Noé’s work. Whether it’s the DMT-driven investigation of life after death in “Enter the Void” or the outbursts of violence among drug-addled mania in “Climax,” death has remained the staple binding Noé’s filmography together.

Noé’s latest feature, “Vortex,” is a far cry from the bombastic style of filmmaking he’s known for. But, in his quiet study of an elderly couple living out their last days, Noé has distilled his thoughts on posterity and biological decay to their finest. 

WSN sat with Noé to discuss his legacy and the lies people feed themselves to keep on living. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WSN: Your entire filmography has been dealing with death and material waste …

Gaspar Noé: My whole life. Being in this world is dealing with death. 

WSN: Agreed, and with death looming, how do you see yourself being remembered? 

GN: It’s not a big issue for me. Why should we consider being remembered as something important? I know for example, it’s easier to think about posterity for a guy who is a writer, for an architect or for a painter because their objects stay; but cinema, the cinema technique is moving all the time. 

Most of the movies, at least the independent movies that are made today, will end up disappearing because the conservation of those movies is going to become very complex. For the moment we have DVD players and Blu-Ray players, but in 20 years from now, when you’re tasked with finding a DVD or Blu-Ray player that works, it’s going to be quite difficult. Look at everybody who had a collection of VHS, now you don’t even have the player to play all that VHS and people are just throwing them to the garbage, so I’m not really worried about posterity. 

WSN: Are you worried about your own posterity and remembrance? Are you interested in your imprint on cinema and what its lasting effect will be?

GN: It’s better to do things during your lifetime that can be remembered during your own lifetime. I had fun. 

Now, the problem with the film industry is that it is an industry. If you’re not making experimental movies like Kenneth Anger did, Paul Sharits did, Jordan Belson did or Maya Deren did, you’re inside an industry that puts money into a project where the people who financed the project want to get their money back. It’s all very commercial. 

I managed to make movies inside the French industry with people who gave me some larger freedom than I would have had if I was making movies in the States, but no director who does narrative cinema is free. You are just doing something that you think is funny and playful, but inside the context of a commercial industry. 

WSN: Could you discuss the casting of Dario Argento, his character’s fixation on dream logic in the film, and the film’s refusal to entertain dream logic despite the fact that Argento’s filmography often resorts to dreams and dream logic?

GN: My producers asked me, “Do you have an idea for a film project that we could film during the confinement in Paris with just one single location and just two or three characters?” and I said “Yes, I have one idea, it’s about an old couple, the woman has dementia and the husband has to take care of her with the help of their son.” I said to them, “It’s a very simple story, but I would like it to look like a psychological horror movie,” and that’s how the whole thing started. 

My two first ideas to play the loving old couple were Françoise Lebrun, the actress who had done a masterpiece in France called “The Mother and the Whore” 49 years ago, and on the other hand, Dario Argento, who I’d known for over 30 years. We are friends even though there’s a 25-year age gap between me and him, and he’s somebody I admire as a director and as a person. He’s a loving person, and I’m great friends with his daughter. I call him almost every year for New Year’s Eve, and when he comes to Paris I have him over for dinner and we talk about the great classics of cinema. 

When I finally convinced him — and it wasn’t that hard to convince him to play in the movie although he’s not an actor — I told him, “You will not have any lines to learn, I will let you improvise your lines, you are the movie director, I will just be one of the two camera operators.” For someone who is not used to learning lines, I think that made him feel safe. 

When he arrived in Paris I wanted to decide what was going to be his profession in the movie and so I asked him, “If you have to improvise your profession, what kind of subject would you like to talk about,” and he said, “Oh, well, before being a film director, I was a screenwriter and before being a screenwriter I was a film critic.” And I said, “A film critic, that would sound good,” and then he told me he had interviewed Fritz Lang and other big directors before he even started writing screenplays, so it made sense to propose he was a film critic in the movie because he read a lot of books about cinema and he wrote a lot about movies. 

Because I know he’s one of the great directors when it comes to showing dream-state sequences, we decided that it would be great to have him write a book about how to present dreams in movies for the film. From that point on he improvised the dialogue and he came up with that sentence, one of the first lines in the movie, “Life is a dream within a dream,” because he wanted to quote Edgar Allan Poe. He created his own film critic character and it’s perfect. 

WSN: It’s perfect for the movie that his entire work gets flushed down the toilet. 

GN: Some pages of his work. But, also, in the end of the movie you see the pages that survived the toilet flushing are on the floor ready to go to a garbage can. The paper says “Psyche” [the title of the manuscript Argento’s character is writing throughout the movie] and so you guess, whatever his artistic testament was is going to be lost in a garbage can.

WSN: That’s reminiscent of that quote from the press packet where you explained death as “the objects of a life you leave to others and that disappear in a garbage truck as quickly as memories that rot along with the brain.”

GN: It’s funny, all religions are so big on building in the fear of death in people, selling you an afterlife or reincarnation, but even among people who don’t believe in those lies, people still believe in posterity. They think, “I’ll survive through my kids or through my work.” I mean, come on, nobody is going to survive anything and your kids are not yourself. 

WSN: Posterity has chased us forever. Hamlet’s yearning for his story to be told comes to mind, but why does he care? That play could have just as easily been burnt.

GN: [Laughs]. The pyramids are similar, they are still there, but we do not know who made them. [Laughs]. No one will ever know the face of their creator.

WSN: That said, there is a moment in “Vortex” that seemed transcendental. It’s the moment where Argento is lying on the floor, dying and Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” is playing in the background. Did you pick that shot?

GN: That’s “Vortex.” When I think of the word “vortex,” which I knew I wanted to title the movie, for me, that image from “Solaris” is the first image that comes to me. I remember when I was a kid my mother brought me to see “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and like two years later she brought me to see Tarkovsky’s “Solaris.” She was like, “It’s like the Russian ‘2001,”’ and I was like, “I like the original better, but this one is just almost as good.” But, the first image that comes to my mind when I think of the movie “Solaris” is that very simple image of a vortex, and that can represent what life is, this illusion called existence is a bit like that, like a vortex. The worst thing is that we wanted to use that excerpt but the excerpt contains some classic music by Bach played on an electronic organ and it made the whole scene look very religious, so I got rid of the music and made it silent. 

WSN: What was the intent behind shooting your film in split-screen and how did it come to be?

GN: It makes sense, no?

WSN: The parallel lives?

GN: Well, more that they’re disconnected. I had done two short films recently, one called “Lux Æterna” and another one which is online called “Summer of ’21” that I made for the same fashion brand that financed “Lux Æterna.” People said that last one looked like a Dario Argento movie with a split-screen because it has this “Suspiria,” “Opera” feeling. After that movie I went for holidays to see my dad in Argentina and when I came back, that’s when my producers said, “Do you have an idea for a feature film that could be shot in one apartment?” Since the last thing I had done one month before was a short film using split-screen, it seemed evident to me that split-screen would suit this kind of story that I was writing.

I ended up writing 10 pages and then the whole project was financed with 10 pages, no dialogue. In those 10 pages it said in one line, “I will probably use a split-screen during a part, or the full-length, of the movie.” Then, on the first day of shooting, we shot two scenes: one of them with two cameras and the other one with one camera. The following morning I checked the material we shot on the first day with my editor and it was evident the material we shot with two cameras was way more exciting than the one with one single camera. I immediately re-shot the scene I shot with one camera using two cameras and then the whole thing, from that moment on, the whole process of shooting the movie I always managed to have a double point of view on every situation. 

WSN: It’s incredibly effective, the most haunting moments being when half of the screen is overcome by emptiness.

GN: That idea was not scripted. That idea came during the process of editing the movie. Initially, I had material to show, but it became evident during the process of editing that it was good to show the absence of the people who are there by having a hole on one side of the screen. 

WSN: Are you working on anything now? What’s next?

GN: No. The whole distribution system for narrative cinema has changed so much during the last few years that now the financing makes the movie. As I said, it’s an industry and whoever finances your movie has a style also, so I don’t know which way I could make a free movie in the upcoming years. For example, this project was so easy to finance because it’s a general audience movie. I mean, the movie is very cruel, but there’s no sex involved or no drugs involved, but if you want to do a movie about the Inquisition for example, it would be very hard because if you were to show how the most religious people were tormenting women in the Middle Ages. It would be very shocking and people would freak out.

Contact Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer at [email protected]