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Gaspar Noé himself at the turntables.
Gaspar Noé taking a turn at the turntables on the set of Climax.

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Gaspar Noé on the Easter eggs hidden in plain sight in Climax

The director breaks down his formative influences as they appear in his latest movie

Gaspar Noé has spoken at length about his love for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but rarely have his creative influences been so clearly on display as in the beginning of his new film, Climax. The movie begins with video interviews with a troupe of dancers whose lives will unravel of the course of the film, which appear on a small TV surrounded by various books and VHS tapes.

Here, as told to Polygon’s Karen Han, Noé explains his decision behind framing the scene that way, as well as breaking down the individual titles visible on screen. They’re influences not only on Climax — which itself is a gripping, visceral experience — but on Noé’s entire body of work, and telling as to his perception of the human experience on the whole.

A look at the TV and titles.
A look at the TV and titles.

[The video interviews were] actually a very last-moment idea. I was almost ready to finish shooting when my line producer [Serge Catoire] told me, “Oh, it’s a pity we don’t see more of the dancers talking.” So three days before the end of the shooting, I said, “Oh, let’s put a video camera in one of the rooms of the school and let’s do interviews of them as if it was a casting session.” But I wasn’t sure we would use it. So while are some of them were getting dressed, or having dinner or whatever, I would bring them to this room, one by one or two by two. I would ask them questions as if I was Kiddy Smile, who plays DJ Daddy, and my assistant director [Claire Corbetta-Doll] would ask them questions as if she was Sofia Boutella.

I reminded them that this takes place in 1995 and they’re playing their characters. The brother and sister in the movie are not brother and sister, so they’re improvising answers according to what they thought of their own character. The only one that I asked to say something more precisely was the German character. I wanted her to say at the beginning of the movie that she escaped from Berlin because her roommate was dropping acid in his eyes. So that’s the only part that I wrote.

Then in the editing room, we edited all those interviews, keeping just one or two answers from each one. I liked it and I thought it was good to put it at the very beginning of the movie as a sort of prologue. The video format in the ’90s, the ratio was 1:33. My movie has a ratio of 2:35, so it had a black band on both sides, and I didn’t like it visually. I thought it was the most poor scene in the movie. Then suddenly, probably three weeks before debuting the movie or showing the movie to anybody, I said, “Oh, why don’t I just bring my favorite books and DVDs from that time that have, in one way or another, a link with the movie?” So I just opened my collection.

The VHS tapes were in the basement, so I went to see which VHS tapes I had. I took a photo of a TV set with books around and VHS around, and then I inserted the video in post production. But I would say that’s the only subjective point of view in the whole movie, which is my presence. It’s my own TV, it’s not the character of Selva. You don’t know whose TV set that is, but of course, it’s mine. It’s as if I was watching the casting tape.

There are some VHS that I should have put, but I did not have the VHS, although I watched it at the time — like Shivers by Cronenberg, or The Towering Inferno by Guillermin — that inspired me in one way or another for this movie. Most of those movies or books or comic books are transgressive ones. Those were my favorite. Whenever I heard that a movie was banned, I wanted to see it on VHS. Whenever I heard that a book was banned, I wanted to buy it. It’s a collection of the transgressive books or VHS tapes from the ’80s, ’90s, that made my life at the time.

The VHS Tapes:

  • La maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore) by Jean Eustache
  • Querelle by R.W. Fassbinder
  • Zombie (Dawn of the Dead) by George Romero
  • Labyrinth man (Eraserhead) by David Lynch

La maman et la putain by Jean Eustache, or Querelle by Fassbinder have the sleaziest language that I’ve ever seen on screen. So for example, when I asked the two black dancers to talk about whatever they want, they said, “Ah, can we talk in a sexual way?” I said, “Yeah, but if you do it, please use the sleaziest words you can find.” And they improvised.

You see the movie called Zombie, which is actually the French title for Dawn of the Dead, and Labyrinth man, the French title for Eraserhead. Dawn of the Dead takes place in a mall center, and it’s about people turning into zombies one after the other. My movie’s a bit like that, like a living dead movie, because they are turning crazy over the course of the movie.

Isabelle Adjani with blood coming out of her mouth, and Sam Neill standing behind her, both looking distressed, in Possession.
Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill in Possession.
Image: Metrograph Pictures
  • Possession by Andreszj Żuławski
  • Salo, or the 120 days of Sodom by P.P. Pasolini
  • Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel and Savador Dali

The only director I wish I could see through his eyes, even if it’s for a short moment, is Luis Buñuel, because, like me, every time he wanted to do a romantic movie, it ended up being funny. I wish his perception of the first screening of Un Chien Andalou had been recorded through his eyes. That was probably the most radical movie ever made.

  • Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome by Kenneth Anger

That’s the first really good psychotic movie ever. Kenneth Anger was in Paris when he conceived it. He had taken some LSD with Aldous Huxley, and Aldous Huxley brought it directly from Albert Hofmann, the Swedish doctor who invented LSD. So he did this, like, ayahuasca movie because they were supported with everything yage, and yage is another name for ayahuasca, this magic dream plant from the Amazon that contains DMT. But he described it, and he made the first LSD movie ever, and probably the very best one ever.

Kenneth Anger, once, when all his footage of Lucifer Rising was stolen, he bought a page in the Village Voice announcing his death. One day I asked him, “Was it a prank? I think it’s such an artistic thing to announce your own death, when it’s going to happen.” He goes, “No, no, I really thought I was dying, because it was my world. I was extremely depressed, it was not a joke.” He made it as a serious statement. He kept on living, but, yeah. There are not many directors of shorts or feature films who can really claim to be artists, but when you see Un Chien Andalou or when you see Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, they’re really big pieces of art.

  • Suspiria by Dario Argento
  • Schizophrenia (Angst) by Gerald Kargl
An old issue of Hara-Kiri.
An old issue of Hara-Kiri.
  • Hara-Kiri, bête et méchant #1

There’s a tape called Hara-Kiri, and that tape is not the Japanese movie. It was my favorite French magazine when I arrived in France when I was thirteen. It was a kind of a very, very hardcore version of National Lampoon or Mad magazine, but far more extreme. It could contain a lot of porn images, and was very anti-religious, anti-military. It was, for me, the best humor I had ever seen in my whole life, so I was addicted to that magazine, I would go every month to buy the new issue. They released two videotapes. They were putting their jokes into video format, and they’re really hard to find, so I had the tape.

  • Vibroboy by Jan Kounen

Jan Kounen is my best friend. When I finished my first 40-minute movie, called Carne, I was inspired to do a sequel. I wanted to do an additional 40 minutes and make the long version of Carne. But it took such a long time that the sequel, instead of being included or added to Carne to become the feature version, the second part became a movie by itself, I Stand Alone. It’s better to see them both, not just I Stand Alone by itself.

I met Jan when Carne was finished, and he had finished Vibroboy, which I thought was really funny. He was the only director I could really relate to as a brother. Many festivals put the two [movies] together, so we traveled a lot together and we had fun, we had drinks.

At the time, as I wanted to do a feature version of Carne, he wanted to do a feature version of Vibroboy. People were saying, “No, no, you can’t do that, why don’t do you a movie about a bank robbery, like Tarantino’s first film?” I was getting that all the time. All the French producers wanted to to produce the French Reservoir Dogs. And I didn’t care. Money has never been an issue for me, and neither for him, so the idea of making a movie about people stealing money, it’s like making a movie about another culture.

A few years later, he started making features, and when he was preparing his shamanic Western called Blueberry, he read some books of Castaneda’s. Some thought Castaneda was a big crook because he was inventing everything he was writing. But it pushed him and also me to do mushrooms. When he went to Mexico to do mushrooms before doing his shamanic Western, he was also advised to try ayahuasca in Peru. He went for the trip and he came back to Paris, and he was describing his ayahuasca treatment in the Amazonian jungle, and I said, “Oh, next time you go, I’ll come with you, because I’m also preparing this psychotic movie, Enter the Void.” And he said, “Oh yeah, come with me!”

So I went there on his second trip, and also I went there with Marc Caro, the co-director of Delicatessen, who later accepted to be my art director during the Japanese shooting of Enter the Void. So we spent a lot of time, the three of us plus some other people, in Pucallpa, a small city in Peru, doing DMT every night. He’s a brother. And also, the dialogue [he writes] in Dutch is so sleazy. Especially nowadays, people have to be politically correct and morally correct. Actually, for me, the best jokes ever are the heavy jokes. Light jokes are not funny. Sometimes there are people who make jokes about cancer and so on, you know, when you talk about the biological nature of human beings in the sleaziest way, how you’re rotting from the inside by the microbes, the virus, it’s really funny.

Anything that is linked to death, or suffering, or cruelty can be very funny. That’s why I also like Fassbinder. Even when he tried to be serious, you can’t stop laughing. When you see Fox and His Friends or Fear Eats the Soul, they’re incredibly funny because they’re so dark that you can’t prevent yourself from laughing.

  • Le droit du plus fort (Fox and His Friends) by R.W. Fassbinder

The Books:

  • L’herbe du diable et la petite fumée (The Teachings of Don Juan) by Carlos Castaneda
  • Suicide, mode d’emploi by Claude Guillon and Yves Le Bonniec

There’s a book that was banned for many years in France called Suicide, mode d’emploi, or How to Succeed at Suicide. It was a book explaining what was the route if you wanted to hang yourself or jump from a window, and at the end of the book, if you’re going to commit suicide, you have to hang yourself this way or the other way. And because the movie, at the end, there is a suicide, yeah, of course I read it — as with all teenagers, when they misbehave, the nice way out is committing suicide.

When I read Suicide, mode d’emploi, it was because there was a lot of press about this book. Should it be released, banned, or not? And actually, it was released, then it was pulled from all bookstores. They said, “It’s going to push people to commit suicide.” But at that time, I had also read this book by Goethe on my 20th birthday. I read it with my girlfriend, we read The Sorrows of Young Werther. It’s about, “Oh, when you’re 20 years old, suicide seems very romantic. What if we commit suicide together, or one day I’ll probably commit suicide?” I remember I read that book three times in a row. It’s very precise about how you must make it if you want to succeed.

  • Par-delà bien et mal (Beyond Good and Evil) by Friedrich Nietzche
  • Mi hermana y yo (My Sister and I) by Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Nietzsche by Stefan Zweig

Being so cynical, I studied philosophy for one year and a half and my favorite philosopher-writer was Nietzche, so I read every single book by him. There is one that’s funny called Mi hermana y yo, which is an Argentinian edition that I got, which no one knows if it’s a real book by Nietzche or not. He was crazy because at the end of his life he had syphilis, and it went up to his head and he lost his mind, but [the book] tells this incestuous story with his sister. Many people say that it’s a fake, like there were some fake books by Hitler or whatever. But in any case, I read it, and I always thought it was a true one even though nothing proves that it’s a true book by Nietzche.

The Nietzche title card in the 1982 Conan the Barbarian.
The Nietzche title card in the 1982 Conan the Barbarian.
Universal Pictures

[Nietzche] was playful. Every single time that I was put in a situation that was hard to handle, I would remember the sentence that, actually, one girl dropped into the movie. I didn’t ask for her to say it, but she just used this major quote of Nietzche’s that also opened the movie Conan the Barbarian. “Anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” So for example, if you’re going through a bad trip, you just think of that sentence and everything becomes clear.

  • Les paradis artificiels by Charles Baudelaire
  • De l’incovenient d’être né by Emil Cioran

That’s an edition of the book that my mother gave me for my 20th or 25th birthday, it’s called De l’incovenient d’être né. The title is about the bad luck of being born. I liked the title so much that I wanted to include it.

  • Contes by Andersen
  • La métamorphose by Franz Kafka
  • Luis Buñuel
  • Mon dernier soupir by Luis Buñuel and J.C. Carrière

There is one that I was obsessed with called Mon dernier soupir, which is the autobiography of Luis Buñuel. It’s a discussion he had with the screenwriter J.C. Carrière, and he tells all these stories. And of course, I’m obsessed with Un Chien Andalou and Buñuel’s work.

A still from Un Chien Andalou.
A still from Un Chien Andalou.
Les Grands Films Classiques
  • Plein gaz (The Gas) by Charles Platt
  • Novelas y cuentos by Osvaldo Lamborghini
  • Cinemas homosexuels
  • Le meilleur de moi-même by Vuillemin
  • Frisson de bonheur by Vuillemin

There are two comic books by a guy that I really admire in France, who used to do drawings and comics in Hara-Kiri. His name is Vuillemin, and still nowadays he’s the biggest punk that exists in France. But he’s been sued so many times, accused of this and that, and so he’s hiding his house and he keeps on doing drawings against religion, against the army, or very, very trashy drawings or jokes about anal sex and this and that. He’s probably the last Mohican of the hardcore French humor of the ’70s.

  • Baise-moi by Virginie Despentes
  • Histoire de l’oeil (Story of the Eye) by Georges Bataille
  • Mon voyage en enfer by Patty Hearst

Actually, I saw the movie [Patty Hearst] by Paul Schrader first. At a point, I was considering doing a movie about modern spies, and I was spending all my nights on the internet checking things about the CIA and the KGB, and all these conspiracy theories about America in the ’70s. There are many conspiracy theories about the Patty Hearst story. Also, the Black Panthers had been infiltrated and, in some ways, it was linked to the murder of Ted Kennedy. So, after a point, I got the book and I read it, also. But I’m sure that even the movie that Paul Schrader made is very softcore compared to what really happened.

There’s a quote by William Burroughs that I love. It’s to the effect of, the big lesson of the ’70s is that the paranoids were right on every single point.

All these conspiracy theories link to the ’60s in America and elsewhere. Actually, they’ve almost all been proved to be right, besides probably the fake landing on the moon. That’s the only one that hasn’t been proven yet. I wish Kubrick had done the footage. The day I met [special photographic effects supervisor] Douglas Trumbull, of course I asked him about that. You know, Enter the Void, and I was obsessed since I was six years old — 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie that changed my whole life. After talking for an hour and a half, I said, “Oh, do you know those theories about the fake moon landing?” And he said, “Oh, no, we didn’t do it.” He didn’t seem worried about the question or answering it at all. But I wanted to believe that Kubrick really had made a deal with NASA.

I’m fascinated by the theories because they seem logical, and you see all these theories about The Shining that includes all these references to Apollo 11. It all make senses. There are so many coincidences that even though Douglas Trumbull was telling me, “No, no, no,” in the coolest and more sure way, “we didn’t do it,” I still like believing the stories.

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
Columbia Pictures
  • Taxi Driver

The book of Taxi Driver is there. Actually, I haven’t read it, but it’s the original novel that inspired the movie, and I was very inspired by Taxi Driver. I always wanted to be, one day, either David Bowman, the astronaut of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Travis Bickle, the character that De Niro plays in Taxi Driver. Now, when I’m talking to you, I have the same military jacket that he wears in Taxi Driver. I bought a bigger copy of it for Karl Glusman when he was in Love because, for me, it meant the solitary, cool, psychotic guy.

  • L’inconscient - Que sais-je ? by Jean-Claude Filloux
  • Psychopatologie de la vie quotidienne by Sigmund Freud
  • Les forces occultes
  • Oeuvres (Works) by Michel Bakounine
  • Fritz Lang
  • Murnau by Lotte H. Eisner
  • Mars by Fritz Zorn
  • L’aventure hippie by Jean-Pierre Bouyxou
  • Jacques, le fataliste by Denis Diderot
  • Molinier, une vie d’enfer by Pierre Petit

I am obsessed with Pierre Molinier! Once, for the New York Times, they asked me to give the names of the ten artists that changed my life. There were three French artists: Diderot, the French writer from the French Revolution, then Le Professeur Choron, who actually was a director of Hara-Kiri, and the third one was Pierre Molinier.

He was a photographer-painter who wanted to be part of the Surrealist movement and tried to join them a bit late. They were afraid of him because he was a bit psychotic and also he took photos of himself dressed as a woman, and he was doing the most amazing photomontages ever with him dressed as a woman or with, like, 12 legs coming out, or a fucking himself with dildos. He would put himself in one position and then get in another position and then edit that, like doing preconceived Photoshop. He was cutting the photos and sticking them and making them.

I’m obsessed with his work, and hopefully I’ve managed to buy two of his photos. That book is the biography of his life. Also, one particular thing that I admire is that he has a daughter, and towards the end of his life, he finally openly accepted that he was homosexual, but he was fighting so hard his whole life to be a good father. He announced that date of his suicide, he said, “I’m going to do it at this day and this time.” When the day came, he had lunch with his daughter, and then he said, “Oh, I have a meeting with myself.” And he went to his room and he shot himself. He just left a piece of paper saying, “I hope I didn’t leave too much dirt.” I’m fascinated by people who do very artistic suicides or announce their death when it hasn’t happened, just to have fun and see how other people react.

  • De Profundis by Oscar Wilde

I like the title and I like the book De Profundis by Oscar Wilde because it’s so cruel. Many of the books or movies are also there because they have a very, very cruel perception this animal-kind that’s called humankind.

[That aspect appeals to me] because it’s there. You don’t only see it in cinema, you see it every day, in real life, on TV in the news. The problem with the movie industry is that most movies are made to entertain people and make them forget that their parents have Alzheimer’s or cancer, or that their kids have been abused or that there’s a war next door, or that their bank is closing their account. Most of the movies that you see, whether they’re horror movies, science fiction movies, comedies, they’re just made for entertaining people and make them forget what real life is. Nowadays, I watch more documentaries than I watch fiction.

I like documentaries about cults. I like scientific documentaries. I like historical documentaries about the second World War, any way, especially now that they get all this footage from the first World War and second World War and they add color to them, and redo the sound. The things that, in your mind, were from a faraway past, now the same images look so much closer to the present time.

Climax is in theaters now.

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