Tuesday 23 January 2018

Shock king Noe fills void in Japan's psychedelic jungle

Gaspar Noe's latest offering will provide his critics with ammunition, but he insists to Evan Fanning his films are not damaging

OUT OF BODY TRIP: A scene from 'Enter the Void', as the ghost of Oscar observes the Tokyo police at work
OUT OF BODY TRIP: A scene from 'Enter the Void', as the ghost of Oscar observes the Tokyo police at work

Evan Fanning

'I THINK I'm the most normal person in the world," Gaspar Noe states, sitting at a very plain table in a very ordinary office on a grey September morning.

With his shiny bald pate and black moustache he does seem slightly out of place in such anodyne surroundings. Dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, Noe is small and shifty with a nervous, shy manner. I was expecting a larger-than-life character, but he's barely audible at times.

There are many who would disagree with Noe's statement about his normality. You need only to look at the accusations that have been levelled at him throughout his career to see that it's not something many associate with the 46-year-old director. He's been labelled fascist, a misogynist, racist, homophobic, a purveyor of filth and pornography and a deranged filmmaker.

The film behind much of the bile is Irreversible, a film from 2002 which featured a nine-minute rape of Monica Bellucci's character -- a scene regarded as one of the most shocking in cinema history.

If Irreversible made Noe's name internationally, his latest film, Enter the Void, is the project he carried around for most of his adult life. Noe describes the goal as "trying to do a movie that was like a drug or mushroom trip". It's safe to say he's succeeded.

The film is shot almost entirely from the point of view of its central character, Oscar, a twentysomething American living in Tokyo who likes to get high, go to clubs and sell drugs to fund a lifestyle which Noe can relate to. "When people say 'you're portraying the margins of society', I say, 'No, I'm portraying the centre of society'. For me, people who are working in Wall Street are the margins of society."

Oscar gets shot by the police in a drug sting and sees his soul leave his body. The remainder of the film plays out like an acid-fuelled rollercoaster ride as we trawl through Oscar's traumatic past and follow those close to him in the aftermath of his death, all from the point of view of his out-of-body experience (his face is seen only sporadically in the movie). Along the way there are long close-ups of an aborted foetus, horrific car accidents, suggestions of incest and a moment of ejaculation shot from inside the female body. This is certainly not a date movie.

Despite, or perhaps because of, all that, Enter the Void is an extraordinary film. It will leave you feeling a little nauseous, possibly repulsed, maybe rejuvenated, but most of all it's two-and-a-half hours that you won't forget in a hurry. It makes the Prodigy video for Smack My Bitch Up seem as quaint as a Jane Austen period drama.

The inspiration came from a childhood love of Stanley Kubrick. "My favourite movie ever is 2001: A Space Odyssey," Noe says with an enthusiasm that time hasn't diminished.

"Then I saw movies like Videodrome, Altered States and Jacob's Ladder -- movies which were trying to reproduce a hallucination. But still the only movie I can watch over and over and over is 2001: A Space Odyssey. That was my first drug trip ever watching that movie. It put me in a state of mind that blew me away. Even when I started smoking joints at the age of 13 or when I did acid trips at the age of 15 or 16, I was always hoping that I would see the images from the movie in 3D, but I never got the visions."

Born in Buenos Aires, the son of famous Argentine painter Luis Felipe Noe, he moved to New York in his infancy and, having returned to Argentina for a time, settled in Paris at 14. He enrolled at film school at 17 and the seed of the idea for Enter the Void began at this point, nearly 30 years ago. "It happened that one day I was on mushrooms and I went home and they were playing The Lady in the Lake on television," he says. "I had in my mind it would be really funny to see a movie from the point of view of someone who was stoned."

After film school he worked as an editor, before making short movies with titles such as Sodomites. His first feature, I Stand Alone, which had a sub-plot of an incestuous relationship between a father and his daughter, became his first dalliance with controversy.

Of all the films he has made, Noe feels that Enter the Void -- written with his partner and collaborator Lucile Hadzihalilovic -- comes closest to portraying characters and certain events close to his own life. "There are elements in the movie that are autobiographical. Not that I am the character of Oscar, but that I know the kind of people who are portrayed in the movie."

A car crash, which is a defining moment of Oscar's life, is one element that is partially Noe's own story. "I was in a cab with my mother and my sister. We were in the back and our mother was in the front. It wasn't a big crash but our noses were bleeding. I remember the other car coming towards us and the feeling that we couldn't stop. It left an impression on me."

Perhaps it is a nod to the method actors, or perhaps it's just Noe's means of recreation, but his attempts to get inside, not so much the mind as the soul, of the characters are commendable for his endeavour if nothing else. "I did my best to have an out-of-body experience by doing self- hypnosis and by ingesting drugs that were supposed to make you come out of your body," he says.

Whatever he did, it didn't work. "In the end I had to make a movie to see what being out of your body would feel like." Nor does he believe in the concept of the soul existing after death, although he argues, persuasively, that it shouldn't matter to his film. "The moment you're dead you're dead. Some people who don't believe in Martians will do a movie about flying saucers, so I did a movie about life after death."

What is clear, however, is that Noe takes some enjoyment from playing the enfant terrible role and winding up critics and the public. He recounts a story from a question-and-answer session at the end of a screening of I Stand Alone. "I was asked what inspired this story and I said, 'Well, it's my personal relationship with my own daughter'. I don't have any kids but it was funny to say that. I could see all these people standing up and escaping from the theatre. I kept silent until they were gone and then I said, 'I didn't have kids and I would never do such a thing, but at least we got rid of scum'."

Some say Noe's work is to be endured rather than enjoyed. Others feel that he is merely grabbing headlines. Whatever the truth, Enter the Void is, as he puts it, "an experience", albeit one that won't sit well with many people. Ultimately for Noe, however, Jimmy Greaves's mantra that "it's only a game" is one that could be applied to his films.

"Making movies is having fun with life, with the audience. Watching movies is a very safe thing. That's why people enjoy watching tough movies or radical movies. Nothing is going to happen to you. You're in a very safe place, in a safe neighbourhood. Movies are not damaging. Life can be damaging."

'Enter the Void' is at the IFI in Dublin from Friday

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