This interview was conducted in person by Pip Chodorov, with additional questions by Jeremi Szaniawski, at the Cannes Grand Hotel, 18 May 2018. It was edited and translated from French by Jeremi Szaniawski.
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Gaspar Noé was at Cannes this year to present his latest opus, Climax, which received an award at the Quinzaine des réalisateurs selection (the Art Cinema Award). But the filmmaker was also excited by the prospect of a 70mm screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the film’s release. Pip Chodorov and Jeremi Szaniawski took the opportunity to ask him questions about Kubrick’s sci-fi classic.
Pip Chodorov: Gaspar, we are at Cannes, this is the fiftieth anniversary of 2001: a Space Odyssey, and it just got screened in 70mm. You are an avid fan of the film, do you remember when you first saw it? 1
Gaspar Noé: I was around seven years-old. It was in Buenos Aires. I went to see it with my mother and my father. I came out of the movie transfixed. I was under the impression that I had enjoyed it far more than my parents did. And I remember very well, wondering at the time “what was that baby with a huge head…” And my parents explained to me “you know, babies, when inside the womb, have a huge head.” And so they had to explain both fecundation and birth to me by the same token. So in one go, I got to realize what a psychedelic trip could be, where life came from and how it was conceived. The origin of life. I was so fascinated by the movie… it got rereleased every summer, maybe every other year, and each time, I went. Without my parents, even though I was little. I would go with schoolmates, and then as a teenager I would go by myself, and I kept seeing it, in high school, in film school… and I have never stopped since. I must have seen the movie 50, maybe 60 times by now.
Jeremi Szaniawski: Are there other Kubrick movies that matter as much to you?
GN: This is one stands alone, above all the other ones. And I am flabbergasted when critics tell me that Kubrick’s greatest film is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). I have seen that film once. But 2001… I just can’t get enough of. I even watch it sometimes when I am on an airplane. People tell me “come on Gaspar, there’s tons of new films” and I am, like, “they are showing 2001, I am going to watch it one more time.”
JS: Your film Enter the Void (2009), with its ‘ultimate trip’ dimension, its colour patterns, the way it deals with death and resurrection, its camera movements, is very ostensibly influenced by 2001. But in general, your whole oeuvre seems to be informed by the film. For instance, in Irreversible (2002): the red tunnel, the poster of 2001 on the protagonists’ bedroom wall, the flicker at the end of the film, revealing a subliminal outer space and the black monolith… and I have a sense that your oeuvre as a whole engages with a phenomenology of drugs, just as 2001 clearly engaged with the effects and hallucinations of psychedelic drugs…
GN: The poster at the end of Irreversible has to do with the fact that the Vincent Cassel character is a cinephile, but the film was also shot in the year 2001, so it’s a reference to that, a way of dating the film… and also a way of announcing that Monica Belluci’s character is pregnant: we see the Starchild, a fetus, on the poster on the wall. The camera pans and we can see the characters and the poster in one movement. I have this poster at home, by the way, and it’s my favourite of all the many 2001 posters that have been released. I believe I have the largest collection of 2001 posters and publicity paraphernalia in the world. It felt good to be able to put the poster in the film. We got the clearance to do that… but indeed, for me the influence of 2001 is more explicit in Enter the Void, this tendency toward experimental filmmaking and psychedelic representations…
JS: Would you say that there is a Kubrickian tradition in your cinema?
GN: I am not fascinated by Kubrick’s oeuvre as a whole. I am fascinated by R.W. Fassbinder, by Kenneth Anger, … and then, there are distinct films that I am obsessed with. Salò by Pasolini (1975) is one. 2001: a Space Odyssey is the other big one. I just am the opposite of Kubrick… I am incapable of doing anything serious… even if I wanted to do a serious documentary or psychological drama… I can film people getting beaten to a pulp and it’s always derisive in the end, it ends up being funny one way or another. What I make will always be closer to a Buñuel than a Kubrick film.
PC: When did you start collecting posters of Kubrick’s film?
GN: I always had this drive to collect. It’s a mental disease. Since I was a child, I collected stamps, comic strips… it’s pathological. I don’t know, it’s as if in order to possess something, you had to have the totality, the product as a whole. The latest and longest lasting manifestation of this maladive collectionitis in my case is my obsession with 2001. That is clear.
JS: In Kubrick’s films, in 2001 particularly, there is a worldview, a philosophy. Do you think that your films have a philosophy, a worldview?
GN: I am a dwarf… a flea… compared to the giant… You can’t compare. Kubrick made THE film. The film where you can wonder how could someone do something so utterly majestic and ahead of its time. It is the major, the ultimate work of art made by a filmmaker. It’s like King-Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933). You see it, and you just ask yourself: “How is it possible to accomplish something so perfect technically, with such special effects, at that period in time?” When you watch 2001, made in 1968, it’s sublime. It’s unthinkable that someone managed to pull off a film like that, before any form of CGI… It was a period when people still believed in cinema. This film is the absolute and ultimate manifestation of the power of the mind over matter, over technology. In cinematic terms, 2001 is that manifestation. I was fortunate enough to meet Douglas Trumbull, who was only 24 when he did the effects on that film. I did an interview with him for Premiere magazine. His work is a feat, an intellectual but also an existential feat. The whole film is. It is visionary. And deep, so deep. It’s a mix of depth and lucidity in the analysis of the past, but also of the future.
JS: Is there a final goal, a telos in Kubrick, in your view?
GN: When he spoke of his films, they were almost all on the same level. He conceived of them as a continuity. And indeed there is a continuity in his approach, an approach you can see in the evolution he describes in 2001, of man as animal, even a reptilian creature, evolving to a higher stage. But the film also deals with many more things, it is far broader in its scope, it deals with the inner world as much as with the outside world. We spend one third, maybe even more, of our life sleeping. So there’s conscious and unconscious life, and to me, the last third of 2001 deals with the unconscious, the great, vast unconscious, as vast as outer space…
PC: Is there a final goal to your cinema?
GN: In Kubrick’s, there is. In mine, no.
JS: Would you like to express something about Kubrick’s legacy? What’s the most important aspect that he has left behind him in our life?
GN: When you make a film, the film is the most important thing. After that, to each their own method, their relational approach. Kubrick would seek isolation, even on the set, he was reserved… he used to say that it was a great weakness to get upset on the set, to show your emotions. He would play chess with people and would keep calm to get the best of everyone. I learned that from him, from an interview where he said this: “it is a weakness to get upset with your collaborators.” 2
PC: Do you think the young viewers today understand and respect the legacy of Kubrick?
GN: I don’t know if it’s a question of respect… People simply have moved away from cinema… from the temple. The temple of cinema, that we used to know. I was born in 1963. I knew the time before the DVD, even before the VCR, no Blu-Ray, no Internet. When you wanted to see a film, you would go to this place, often majestic, called a movie theatre. Today, you can see your films on your smartphone. Kubrick’s films, and particularly 2001, don’t do well on small screens. You have to see 2001 on the big screen. It’s the sign of the times… all films are accessible, in a way that is just so far less majestic than fifty years ago.
PC: Peter Kubelka said the same: you can’t own a film. Nowadays, people say they buy, own a film, meaning they acquire a piece of plastic that is the DVD. But Kubelka has memories from his childhood, seeing a great film, and then lying in bed and just thinking about it, and reliving the film, this fugitive experience, which you can’t “own”…
GN: (In the theatre) You are sitting in the dark, among many other people. When I make a film nowadays, Vincent Maraval from Wild Bunch, who produces and sells my films, tells me that 95% of people see the film on their laptop or their smartphones. So the perception is different. And so a film composed mostly of long and wide shots, with few close-ups, registers differently, and to the detriment of the film, because, at the end of the day, surface matters.
PC: Do you change your approach to filmmaking based on this factor?
GN: I don’t change mine, because I conceive my films to be seen in a movie theatre, but mine may be a vintage state of mind and approach.
PC: Anything else you would like to say about 2001?
GN: Everything has been said and written about 2001, and yet the film retains its mystery. It took me at least forty years to sort of get what the film was about, I read all the interviews by Kubrick, articles in magazines… I bought a VCR of a documentary that your father made, Pip, where Keir Dullea explains the film… it’s terrific stuff. 3 That’s how we met! You should put that stuff on the net, it’s terrific. It should be on a DVD/Blu-Ray bonus of the film.
PC: Have you read the book ‘The Astral Foetus’ (Le foetus astral: essai d’analyse structurale d’un mythe cinématographique, Dumont and Monod, 1970)? It’s a structuralist, Levi-Straussian analysis of the film. For example, the authors explain how at the beginning of the film, everything is craggy, nothing is straight, no straight lines except for the monolith. At the end of the film, it’s the other way round—everything is straight, , smooth and geometrical, except for the broken glass. There’s symmetry and inversion. At the end of the film, Dave Bowman loses his spacecraft, then his suit, then the broken glass… it’s the last layer of technology, the last surface of glass that gets shattered.
GN: And you can’t tell his age either, he is outside of space and time… is he in a Martian zoo, perhaps? That amazing Louis XVI space, lit from underneath…
JS: The final membrane, as Deleuze taught us, is the brain… and so all of Kubrick’s cinema is a mise-en-scene of the brain, of the noosphere as Deleuze put it… Enter the brain.
PC: I also have a theory about the construction of the monolith, the music by Richard Strauss used in the film, ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’, is tonic: 1, 5, 8… very tonic. Harmonics. And the geometry of the monolith is 1, 4, 9. One squared by two squared by three squared. Strauss’s music comprises in itself the three phases of the film: the ape, the man, and the superman. And in Nietzsche you have a similar three-stages evolution of man.
GN: You are being a bit Kabbalistic!
PC: Maybe a little bit. Every person has an interpretation of this film.
GN: For me it’s about evolution… at first animal species, with a reptilian brain, then they develop a mammal’s brain, and then a neocortex… the human brain. And so we have three brains, with the neocortex, which is a bit like a computer. And so perhaps the ultimate stage of evolution is when we are only left with a neocortex under dematerialized, digital form: artificial intelligence, in short. A superior form of intelligence would be man without the animal. But then there is the danger of the glitch, or the bug. Computers bug and crash. Go psychotic, like HAL 9000. Humans do, too… and more often, perhaps.
- The film was shown in the frame of the Cannes Classic section, at the Debussy Theater, on May 13th, 2018. In the end, however, the announced remastered print didn’t make it to Cannes, with a slightly scratched print shown instead. The Cannes program announced that the remastered print would have a running time of 2h44’, meaning this would be the longer, original release version, which Kubrick later discarded in favour of a shorter, 2h29’ version. ↩
- Still, in a making-of of The Shining directed by his daughter Vivian, Kubrick is seen losing his temper on the set, getting mad at Shelley Duvall, who has recounted working on the film as an often difficult, even traumatic, experience. ↩
- Gaspar Noé is talking about “2001: A Space Odyssey” explained with film excerpts; hosted by Keir Dullea, a film produced by Stephan Chodorov for the Camera Three CBS weekly show, and broadcast in 1971. It includes some behind-the-scenes information and references to material not included in the final cut of the film. ↩