French Director Gaspar Noé on America’s Fear of the Penis

“The fear of the penis in the United States still shocks me,” he said. “In many ways, the Western world is turning Victorian.”
french director gaspar noe on america's fear of the penis 

Near the end of my chat with Gaspar Noé, I ask him why he’s so comfortable with pushing narrative boundaries in film. He replied he doesn’t believe he’s pushing anything compared to what came before. So I remind him of cinema’s growing sensitivity to controversial representations of sexuality in 2019. The French director—whose latest film Climax (which is co-produced by VICE Studios), is a journey with a dance troupe lured into hallucinogenic states to the point of injury and death—decides to answer in the most Noé way possible.


“The fear of the penis in the United States still shocks me,” he lets out during a phone exchange. “In many ways, the Western world is turning Victorian.”

If you’ve ever seen a film by Gaspar Noé, it would be downright disappointing not to hear the word “penis” leave his mouth. The director is famed with his ability to unsettle viewers with equal parts beauty, sexuality and terror. You’ll see it in works such as Irreversible , Love, Enter the Void, and now in Climax set for a March 1 limited release—zero penises guaranteed.

It takes a special kind of mind to come up with films that explore the dark depths of the human psyche. And thankfully, I got a chance to listen to the ideas that a mind like that will throw at you when questioned. Whether it was drugs, directing or “the penis,” Noé was a man comfortable speaking about it all.

VICE: I was trying to describe Climax to a friend, and I always find it hard, in the same way that it’s hard to describe an experience. So let me ask you, describe your experience of creating Climax .
Gaspar Noé: Ah yes. I would say, it’s much like putting images to the sights I’ve seen in real life. I’ve been to so many clubs, parties and bars where people get high and wasted until they turn into monsters. The kind that will scream, hit and smash bottles at people. Of course I’ve never witnessed it get as bad as Climax, but I’ve seen that living catastrophe. As a genre, it’s one that I love.


The last catastrophe movie I watched was Titanic, but my fascination with them really began at 10 or 11 years old. I remember watching The Towering Inferno about these successful people having parties and drinking champagne until there’s a fire on the 15th floor, and it’s suddenly…everybody’s going to die. I was fascinated by that image of society going back to their most animal instincts. Later I met thee dancers in Paris and thought, why don’t I go into this other story of a small community collapsing from the inside.

It’s interesting how you used dancers specifically to confront that subject.
Yes. The dancers were never the main subject. I could have made a story around actors at a rehearsal going through a similar breakdown. But I admit, there is something special about dancers specifically. Although I’m not fascinated at all by contemporary dance or musical comedies, there’s a raw energy that I witnessed with the street dancers I filmed. They were hypnotic. I could watch them over and over and creating film with them felt like my own personal party. I enjoyed the sights so much that I was determined to involve them in my concept for catastrophe. It was the most satisfying work experience that I’ve had in my life to be honest.

The dancers were convincing as well. It’s not like this is the first time you’ve worked with non-acting professionals. What do they bring that’s unique from a traditional actor?
In this case, could never ask an actor to dance in such a savage and inspired way. They have spent years creating a language with their art and legs. They’re a fascination that cannot be duplicated. A movie with real actors where I’d have to teach them how to dance would have been another dull, boring musical comedy which I hate. Actually, I was very inspired by an American documentary called Rize, where you’d see these krumpers and it would seem like they were possessed. They would dance two by two and I was fascinated by it all. Especially when it came to scenes involving young kids who were seven or eight years old, moving as if they were possessed by the devil. It’s an extremely well done movie.


Image courtesy of A24.

So you don’t have real actors, and apparently no script aside from a beginning and end. How do you get a crew to trust you under those parameters?
That trust goes both ways. I made sure to tell every dancer and actor that I would never make them do a scene they were not willing to do. Now I don’t know if they trusted me or not, but I knew that they knew more about me than I knew about them. They new my work and experience.

For myself, it’s easy to come across actors who are egomaniacs with relational issues. It was a goal of mine to take the sweetest and most charismatic non-acting dancers I could find. They were people who danced in boardrooms, battles and interestingly didn’t come from the higher or even lower classes, they were often from the suburbs. I had absolutely no preconception to what the team would look like based on that. I thought initially that there would be more girl than boys, but in the end, it was a collection of genre that were so much more varied and a reflection of the world. I just loved it. We all became friends although we came from different places.

Climax , much like your other films, feels organic for the exact reasons that you chose to give up control at certain points. How do you view yourself when it comes to controlling others?
I hate to control people, I like to control parts of my movie, but cinema should be a collective work. It becomes far more personal once you bring these images to your editing room to enhance or make them better. In the process of shooting, I feel like a party giver who wants people to be happy in front of the camera whether they're being themselves or they're portraying a monster that they're not.


I have great producers who support me when I want to do something different. I have to have a team that knows what good movies are made of and that’s energy, good ideas and transmissive feelings. The producers of Climax were my producers from Love, and one of them was a producer from Enter the Void. I couldn’t call myself a control freak unless it was the editing room. I don’t understand directors who make good movies but don’t care to check on those responsible for putting it together. I’m given the power to refuse a poster that doesn’t represent my film, and they’re responsible for the first image we see. A Clockwork Orange isn’t A Clockwork Orange without the editing. It’s organically linked to the movie itself.

If someone viewed Climax at face value, they might think it had a negative view on narcotics. What’s your own view?
The word narcotics is only a bad word if you approach it in the way it’s seen socially. But understand that if you’re a young person born poor who was afraid of misbehaving, and older without having experimented, it will add to the feeling of a life of boredom. Everybody wants to reach a point when they can lose control and enjoy life based on what they can experience for themselves, not based on what they’ve been told. Some will drink, for example. They’ll drink to experience happiness. They’ll drink to remain in the moment. Or they’ll drink when they need enough energy to watch three movies back to back.


As a person, I believe that you’re always going to know what satisfies you, and you’ll come to understand what it will take to remove yourself from your daily perceptions that become repetitive. Let me be clear—I’m not pro or against narcotics! Like everything, if you take two glasses of wine, it may make you happier, but keep drinking and you’ll turn stupid and aggressive to everyone around you until the brain decides to erase those terrible memories from existence. Your own mind works to salvage the mess you made. But with saying that, I still believe that we should be both curious. Life is a sequence of different experiences and the more of them that we have, the more we can be aware of our world and body chemistry.

How does that relate to your thematic choices in film?
They’re simply reflections of the generation. My movies themselves are never pro or against anything and they are never meant to be educational. It’s just when I think of kids partying today, it’s weird for me to not imagine them taking drugs. Most of the young people I party with always pose the question “Do you want anything?” and it happens often. It’s a natural thing for this generation whether some want to accept that or not.

What’s your own experience with drugs?
I only did some joints as a teenager, and one day I suddenly stopped because I was becoming paranoid each time. The only other time I smoked a joint was when I was 20, so when I’m offered one today, I pretend to inhale and exhale the smoke. I don’t enjoy them anymore. Also when I was creating Enter the Void, I tried cocaine because I felt it necessary for my visual research. I had to do it. My thought was…how could I do a movie of this kind without making it personal? But even when I did it, I was always able to maintain control and retain some context for everything that I experienced.


You were never addicted to anything then?
My only addiction was alcohol. For me to say no to a beer when my friends were drinking it was difficult for me. Some chemicals are better at making personalities shift, and it’s a pressure to make your own personality to shift with them. I’ve seen many friends who are druggies that can turn into regular consumers from one scene to the next. But they’ll of course get in trouble. Even the most curious person of escape will not want to be a part of that unless they were self-destructive.

I share that. I can be pretty low energy and a bit of alcohol will help change that pretty quick, especially when it comes to anxiety.
Yes, yes. But I have to say that it’s interesting how in North America, people do much more legal drugs compared to Europe. For example, uppers or Adderall. It’s the bad things we’re experiencing in society that’s procreating our habits. Society also pushes us to be sheltered. Our genetic code is made to go outside and fight for our needs like food and water, and our body depends on movement. The anxiety you feel come from new adjustments that go against our original natures. That’s why I love dance. I don’t do sports but I need to go to a club and dance once a week or else I might go crazy.

I once read that you don’t care what an audience thinks. It makes me wonder about what drives your art, if not for your audience.
It’s not that I don’t respect the audience, it’s that I don’t care about what they think about my movies at the end of the day. I hate Star Wars for instance because I find many fantasy movies to be predictable, but the greater audience still watch these films every second. As a director, I’m not running for president and I don’t need more than half of the country to vote for me. I’m just offering my perception. I create movies with elements inspired by other films, but mostly from elements that came from my life experiences. Audience opinion and ticket sales aren’t issues for me. As long as I’m happy, my only concern is with creating something close to what my family and myself enjoy. It’s not just for myself, it’s also for them.


So when I think of your films like Love and Irreversible, I have to assume that it’s a major reason why you’re so comfortable with pushing shit.
Yes and no. I never felt like I was pushing any boundaries that others hadn't pushed in the 80s, 70s and 60s to begin with. I actually feel like a follower instead of a guide. People forget that what seems more radical in some countries is less so in others. When you look into French literature and cinema, everything is portrayed on screen in more bold and expressive ways because the system is more open. It allows filmmakers like myself to excel in ways that we couldn’t in North America. Times change, countries change, history changes, and I’m lucky that I’m based in France because several of my movies could not have been produced elsewhere.

Well yeah. In most ways, it’s in the interest of being progressive and sensitive to our portrayals of one another.
Yes! That is true. But what continues to shock me is that when we did promotion in the states for my past movies, I kept getting asked why I had to show penises in my films. A penis is like a hand, and some of my films are about passion. How can you separate passion from sexual attraction? Our personalities are not just in our skulls or mouths when we talk. When I film people, I want to display every part of the body that expresses that. The fear of the penis in the United States still shocks me. In many ways, the Western world is turning Victorian.

While I understand that we must progress, the world is being portrayed as more and more delicate within the film industry. People are proposing entertainment that doesn’t deal with our fears, but mostly in fantasy and stupidity. We now revel in war films because the Western world no longer has to fear wars like they did in the 70s and 80s. Nowadays, they wouldn’t even reach their full influence because it’s all about entertainment. It doesn’t reflect the world many of us currently live in and that’s not good.

Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.

Sign up for the VICE Canada Newsletter to get the best of VICE Canada delivered to your inbox.