Noé Time to Die: Gaspar’s Cinematic Religion

Father (Dario Argento) and Mother (Françoise Lebrun) getting through another day together in Vortex.
Father (Dario Argento) and Mother (Françoise Lebrun) getting through another day together in Vortex.

Gaspar Noé on Lux Æterna, the film he made before a near-death experience, and Vortex, the film he made after, and how cinema has repeatedly saved his life.

Gaspar Noé isn’t entirely sure about his audience. The Argentine-French filmmaker has been petrifying viewers for over two decades, thrusting images of sex, drugs and violence into our eyeballs in increasingly visceral and uncomfortable ways. There are, he knows, a lot of people who hate him. But he can’t quite figure out who exactly likes him either.

“When I see my fans, sometimes I don’t relate to them,” Noé tells me over Zoom from his home in Paris, self-conscious about the lack of film posters on his walls when he sees the Call Me by Your Name one-sheet behind me. He’s got tons, they’re just in boxes, he promises. He thinks there are “generational issues” when it comes to the people watching his films, a topic that’s been on his mind a lot in the last couple of years with the arrival of his new feature, Vortex.

Father and Mother having a nice outside supper with the flowers.
Father and Mother having a nice outside supper with the flowers.

“It’s not because people like your movies that you’re going to like them,” he says, noting that a lot of his fans tend to be between eighteen and 25, and often fill seats expecting “another Enter the Void, with images of sex and drugs, and then they get the story of this old couple”.

Vortex can be (and has been) described as a sharp left turn for Noé—a restrained story in terms of characters, aesthetics, locations and narrative, which maps the final days in the lives of an elderly couple in split-screen, following their joint existence in two separate frames. He, played by Dario Argento (yes, that one) has heart problems and writer’s block. She, a moving Françoise Lebrun, has increasingly severe dementia and, being a retired psychiatrist, won’t stop writing her own prescriptions.

But just because it’s a little quieter—literally—doesn’t mean it’s a stab in the dark for Noé. “I showed the film to my father a few months ago, and he said he thinks this is my most violent movie ever,” the filmmaker says, and I would agree. “The response is different according to the age of the spectator. People over 50 suffer much more. But I don’t think the movie is different in its approach, just the subject. There was no place to make jokes or put in a sex scene or try to shock. What is the shock value of this movie? It’s not nihilistic, but it’s very close to the ground.”

Despite a more subdued approach, Vortex is no less grueling than you’ve come to expect from Noé.
Despite a more subdued approach, Vortex is no less grueling than you’ve come to expect from Noé.

Letterboxd members share the sentiment of shock, and see it very much as a continuation of Noé’s beliefs, if slightly different tonally. “This somehow uses his signature to make something more intimate than anything he’s done,” Karsten writes, adding that “it proves the greater effect his aggressive style can have if he decides to take it seriously”. It’s a kind of aggression that lodges itself in the part of your brain where deep, existential, molecular fear lives, wishing you good luck as it gets comfortable. Dan sums it up best for me with five stars and four words: “I do not recommend.”

I spent the whole year watching movies at home because I almost died.

—⁠Gaspar Noé

Vortex came to be after a tumultuous couple of years for Noé, which included two short films, a global pandemic, and a brain hemorrhage. He didn’t know if he was going to survive any of them. “I spent the whole year watching movies at home because I almost died,” he recalls of the time after he made Lux Æterna, finally released into the world now, and Summer of ’21, two films made in collaboration with Anthony Vaccarello of the Saint Laurent fashion house. It was during this period that Noé lost many close father-figures in his life, after seeing his mother suffer from dementia before her death several years back.

“During Covid I saw three men dying, I was watching all these Japanese melodramas, and then at the beginning of 2021 my producer asked for an idea for a simple movie in an apartment with two or three characters,” Noé recalls. “It was easy for me to do a film about this. I didn’t want to make a drama, I just wanted it to be simple. Since my mother died after I saw her with dementia, I always had this project in mind. I’d seen Amour, other movies with older characters like Tokyo Story or Umberto D. or even Sunset Boulevard. They all moved me, but this one is far more inspired by real life, even though it’s not autobiographical.”

Writer and director Gaspar Noé. — Credit… Quaisse / Unifrance
Writer and director Gaspar Noé. Credit… Quaisse / Unifrance

The film opens with a tender dedication: “To all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts.” Argento, Lebrun and Alex Lutz (who plays their son), as well as Noé, are introduced alongside the year of their birth, as death looms large from the very beginning. Again, the tone is gentle, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying. “When you go to a mental hospital and people with dementia are sitting on every bed, it’s really scary,” Noé says. “It really feels like a zombie movie. That’s why my movie is scary. There’s something of a psychological horror. Are they going to survive? Is the house going to explode?”

The house doesn’t explode, but I had to pause it often, and somewhat distance myself from my laptop, in order to adequately shoulder the material. I wonder how Noé, ever a patron of the big-screen experience, feels about this new-found flexibility we have in a post-pandemic world to choose the circumstances that best help us get through distressing material (a topic already on my mind for quite some time).

A lover of many films, nothing can top the gold standard of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) for Noé, which he watches twice a year.
A lover of many films, nothing can top the gold standard of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) for Noé, which he watches twice a year.

As expected, Noé does still advocate for us to “watch movies in the big temple of the movie theater” but admits that he himself would rather watch bad ones on DVD so he can skip to the next scene, or, even better, watch them on the plane. “I’m not much into commercial cinema nowadays and I catch all the movies I miss on a plane. Sometimes I only watch a quarter.

“For a filmmaker, regular cinema can be very boring. You don’t want to move yourself to a movie you know you’ll dislike after taking a subway for 30 minutes. But if you come to big movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey it would be a damage to watch it on a monitor.”

I push him for thoughts on viewers watching his own movies—a strobe-heavy dance demonic, an erotic nightmare, a nihilistic and fatalistic family portrait—on a monitor. He likens the experience of releasing a film to giving birth and worries about filmmakers forced to adapt to streaming, and crucially, piracy: “You don’t want your baby to be crushed the second he comes out from his mother’s belly.”

I’m thinking about Vortex, but also the 50-minute Lux Æterna, which was initially envisioned as a five-minute short in collaboration with Saint Laurent, then turned into a flickering meditation on witchcraft and filmmaking with some of the most unwatchable yet mesmeric footage Noé has ever put to screen, the last twenty minutes buoyed by metronomic flashing lights making for the director’s most religious (or murderous) experience to date.

The ladies have their shades on for the stake burning in Lux Æterna (2019).
The ladies have their shades on for the stake burning in Lux Æterna (2019).

But Noé keeps the faith. “Some movies need immersion,” he says. “Lux Æterna looks much better on a big screen, the freaking lights are more powerful when they flicker in a dark room. Vortex, because it’s more narrative, you can watch on your own TV. But in both cases I’d recommend watching on a big screen.” Noé’s favorite theater in the world, by the way, is the Max Linder in Paris, but he does admit to enjoying his home comforts as well. “I like watching movies at home on Blu-ray, at night, drinking coffee so I don’t fall asleep—I fall asleep very easily watching movies,” he admits. “I take a double espresso 40 minutes before midnight when I press play.”

You don’t have sex with the movie, but it’s like sleeping with a friend. A good friend on screen.

—⁠Gaspar Noé

But Noé also believes there’s no greater compliment than napping in the company of good cinema. “I would not condemn people for falling asleep watching movies. When the movie is boring you don’t fall asleep, you get angry. Or on a plane, you stop the movie and you’re glad that you have the red button to cut it off. When I fall asleep watching a movie, I’m a very happy person. I don’t feel guilty. I dream about the movie, and then I start again from the beginning the next day. You don’t have sex with the movie, but it’s like sleeping with a friend. A good friend on screen.”

The sign of a true obsessive fan of 3D: Gaspar Noé saw Gravity (2013) six times in theaters.
The sign of a true obsessive fan of 3D: Gaspar Noé saw Gravity (2013) six times in theaters.

Films mean everything to Noé. Over the last few years they have, in many ways, saved his life. He returns to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey often as the gold standard of what cinema can be, and how much it should be respected. He praises it for “its faith in the seventh art”, calling it a “religious movie made by an atheist director”.

In his darkest moments, another film about outer space kept him tethered to life in a more restrained way. “When I was at the hospital with a brain hemorrhage and I was full of morphine and they told me I was going to die in four days, they played Gravity on TV,” he recalls. “I’d seen it six times in the cinema because I love 3D. It was a very small monitor in 2D, dubbed into French, but the situation in which I was, with all the morphine in my veins, it was probably the big psychedelic experience in my life after 2001—which I still watch twice a year. The whole room was spinning and I felt I was Sandra Bullock myself.”

Noé has been a voracious cinephile ever since he first saw Jason and the Argonauts on television as a child while his parents were in New York, and remembers the first film about old age to really move him being Umberto D., which he discovered aged ten at the Cinematheque of Buenos Aires, where he grew up. Those haunting, often cruel films about the end of our lives have stuck with the filmmaker. He developed an obsession with Keisuke Kinoshita just before shooting Vortex, and names the Japanese director’s 1958 film The Ballad of Narayama as his favorite. In terms of more recent lore? He adores Lars Von Trier’s The House That Jack Built: “I watched it, like, ten times on my DVD player.”

Gaspar Noé being a The House That Jack Built (2018) super fan? We could have seen that coming.
Gaspar Noé being a The House That Jack Built (2018) super fan? We could have seen that coming.

This obsessive, ambitious nature is what keeps Noé going: unafraid of what comes after all this, because he’s not really sure he believes in anything having come before. “It’s not about life after death or life before death,” Noé says, reminding me that, in Vortex, “Dario quotes Edgar Allan Poe and says, ‘Life is a dream within a dream.’ Is there life before death? Or is it all just a dream?”


Vortex’ and ‘Lux Æterna’ are both playing in theaters now.

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