Gaspar Noé Almost Died, Got Sober, and Made His Most Personal Film
On the same day that Gaspar Noé premiered his new movie “Vortex” at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, he posted an alarming image on Instagram. Captioned “Brain hemorrhage – Day 11,” the photo showed the 57-year-old Argentine director in a hospital gown and attached to a ventilator. Fans and friends flooded the comments section to offer their best wishes. “The universe still needs ur movies,” wrote one.
As it turned out, the same filmmaker who excelled at disorienting viewers with the intense psychedelic provocations “Enter the Void” and “Climax” had pulled off another trick: The photo was over a year old. Noé survived the hemorrhage shortly before the pandemic hit, a one-two punch that brought the Paris-based director closer than ever to his own mortality and led him to make his most personal film.
Noé’s very name has been associated with subversive filmmaking gambles for nearly 20 years, going back to when “Irreversible” premiered at Cannes in 2002. Yet “Vortex,” which Noé shot in early 2021, finds the director working in a gentler, more accessible mode. The movie stars Italian giallo master Dario Argento and “The Mother and the Whore” actress Françoise Lebrun as an aging couple enduring their last days in a cramped apartment, as Lebrun’s character slowly loses her mind.
The movie showcases Noé’s usual adventurous formalism by unfolding almost entirely in split screen for its two hours and 22 minutes. However, that device is used to process the couple’s two complementary experiences as their world gradually becomes unstable, resulting in the most accessible cinematic trickery in Noé’s career to date. A few days before the Cannes premiere of “Vortex,” he spoke to IndieWire from Paris about how his recent experiences inspired his intimate new project.
It sounds like you had quite the experience prior to making this movie.
One year and a half ago, I had a brain hemorrhage and almost died. I survived it and miraculously I did not have any brain damage. But they advised me to stay at home. Two months after I was out of the hospital, the confinement started all over the place. So I spent like six month quietly watching Mizoguchi movies at home. I was watching one or two Japanese masterpieces every day. It was probably the most peaceful moment of my whole life.
You must have felt lucky.
I could’ve been erased and suddenly I had a second tour. There are some things you care less about. But there are some things that can seem less valuable. I haven’t done a single drug since I had this brain hemorrhage. I stopped smoking also. I stopped putting salt in my food. I don’t even miss salt.
Which explains the lack of psychedelia in this movie…
Once you’ve done it, it’s a bit boring to repeat yourself. You can surprise other people, but first of all, you have to surprise yourself.
How quickly did you put the movie together?
I had been thinking of the movie for a while that I wanted to do a movie with older characters. I had that in my head for the last three or four years. When I went to see my father in Argentina for New Year’s Eve, I knew I had to go back to make this movie. I wrote 10 pages and hoped to get some state subsidies. Canal Plus pre-bought the script when it was only 10 pages long. In March we found the location. Our incredible production designer, Jean Rabasse, created this room that looks like a house. I shot the movie in April and May. We started working on the editing in mid-May.
To what extent was this a familiar scenario to you?
My father is 88 and in close possession of his mind, probably more than ever. He’s painting, writing. He had COVID last year and survived it. However, there are things here linked to my life. My mother lost her mind eight years ago, and then she died of it; so did my grandmother. It’s just a magical process that some of the brightest people on the planet are some of the first to lose their minds. I wanted to dedicate the movie at the beginning to all of the people who lose their minds before their lose their hearts.
You have played with split screens in other films before, most recently with “Lux Aeterna.” Where did you get the idea to make a whole movie that way?
These are two forms of life that are not shared but they are complementary. Each one is living in their own tunnel, but each one is interlaced with the other one. Life is a bit like that. The only true reality is the addition of all the perceptions of it. Originally, I didn’t think I’d do the whole movie with a split screen. I started shooting with two cameras and then with only one single camera. Then I realized “what the fuck, I should’ve shot with two cameras if I wanted to keep it with the split screen for the whole movie.” So we had to reshoot some scenes and the missing parts. I’m very happy we did that.
What was the intended effect?
You may be surprised by the first takes of the split screen, but after a minute, you forget it. Your eyes are moving from the left to the right all the time. People have told me the second time they see the movie, they’re rediscovering it.
How did you wind up casting Dario Argento?
I’ve seen him onstage at the French cinematheque and he can talk for an hour without a single question because he’s talking so fast. It’s like a one-man show. And everybody’s loving it. Thankfully, his daughter Asia helped me to convince him to do the movie. On the set, I told him, “Hey, Dario, I’m going to take care of one of two cameras. I’ll take care of the location. What do you want for your character?” He said, “I’d like him to have a mistress.” OK, so we had the wardrobe girl play the mistress. Then I told him, “Don’t worry if your French is not perfect. You’re an Italian living in France. Just express yourself as if you’re a film critic living in France.”
The whole thing was improvised off a 10-page outline. What sort of challenges did that create?
Every actor just lived in the moment and created their dialogue collectively. Françoise asked if I had lines for her. I said, “I could write them down but let’s just invent them on the set. In your case, you have to mumble them. I don’t care if we understand the words that come out of your words. I want people to kind of guess what you’re saying with your eyes.” I think it was a bit frustrating for her at the beginning because she likes talking a lot, she likes words. I said she had to do a kind of instinctive animal acting in which words have partly vanished. She accepted the game and she played it. This is a real performance. She’s lively, happy, the total opposite of how you see her in the film. Her mother who is 100 years old is still in a perfect state of mind.
It must have been quite a challenge to put all this footage together.
I never thought the movie would be two hours and 22 minutes long. I thought it’d be 80 or 90 minutes. But I had all this good material on two screens. If you put all that material it’s almost four or five hours of movie, but it’s on two screens. Whatever was truthful and emotional, I’d keep it. If it wasn’t, I’d cut it.
Your movies often deal with sex, drugs, partying, and other salacious activities. How cognizant were you of making a movie that set all that stuff aside?
I’m not going to do an X-rated movie about aging. It’s kind of a survival movie. It’s about two older persons in danger. I don’t know which film genre it would belong to.
Obviously, “Amour” comes to mind.
The movie “Amour” was so successful that everybody — when I say this film is about an old couple and one of them starts to get senile — of course you think of “Amour.” But the truth is that there are very few movies about a subject that is universal in almost every single family.
What did you learn from the experience of telling this story?
The problem with this kind of psychosis is that people are ashamed and they keep it as a secret in their family. When they start to understand their parents have Alzheimer’s, they think they have to carry this cross and don’t want to spread the word. It’s very weird. I discovered through doing this movie that many people are caring for their parents every day and never talking about it. It’s part of my life, my father’s life, my cousin’s life, even my mother’s life when she had to take care of her mother losing her mind. Of course it’s cathartic when you can discuss it with people.
How do you feel about the distribution prospects of this movie? Your last one, “Lux Aeterna,” never came out in the U.S.
You shouldn’t only do movies to make money. Some people do it to buy swimming pools or drugs. But you can also think of cinema as a tool to communicate in life and share whatever is good and bad about it. The intention of this movie was not commercial. However, it doesn’t have any ratings issues. It’s for general audiences. But the truth is that the content of the movie is sad, existentialist, quite tough. It’s the opposite of a hype movie.
How are you feeling about the next phase of your career?
I was talking a lot about doing a movie about religion two years ago. Now, I’m not really into doing a movie about the Inquisition or the Occult. I’d probably like to do a documentary in Cinemascope. Instead of writing a script, finding the actors, convincing the people to do it, I’d like to do a strong documentary with all the tools that cinema can offer. I want to make an epic movie without a script.
Given what you’ve been through, do you feel like you’re racing against the clock?
I just know I’m going to die and then I’ll be erased. The dream within a dream is going to be over.
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