How to get into… Gaspar Noé movies

As his latest project arrives in cinemas, here’s how to get up-to-speed with the provocative auteur’s best work.

by Douglas Greenwood
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12 May 2022, 7:00am

Gaspar Noé is a director synonymous with shock. The Franco-Argentinian auteur’s movies — whether they’re about sex, drugs or life after death — have a habit of making grandiose statements (often excessively so) about the human condition, wrapping up existential questions in challenging, dangerous packages. Since his debut feature I Stand Alone premiered at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, arriving with a poster emblazoned with a crimson ‘Warning’ sticker (an allusion to its gruelling climactic sequence), folks have approached his films with hesitancy.

His latest movie Vortex, in US cinemas now and in UK cinemas from Friday 13 May, is a pivotal piece in the filmmaker’s oeuvre, because it’s his most personal. Made in the wake of a life-threatening brain haemorrhage, it examines the relationship between an elderly couple as they simultaneously lose sight of themselves and their health: the woman, a retired psychiatrist known only as Mother, is suffering from dementia; her husband, Father, is an author with a heart condition. The film watches each of them, often in split-screen, chronicling their decline, as their distant son tries to make sense of the situation.   

It was a bait-and-switch for its first audience at Cannes Film Festival last year, who expected a spiralling sequel to his 2018 film Climax. But if most of this is gibberish to you, don’t worry. Gaspar Noé’s filmography is slight in size in comparison to other auteurs. If you’re wondering where to start, here’s our guide.

The entry point is… Enter the Void (2009)

An atheistic take on the afterlife, Enter the Void is a rare Gaspar Noé film that mostly impressed critics and audiences alike. A good entry point, as it captures the audacious and trippy aesthetics Gaspar is a master of, built around a gripping but loose narrative structure, it follows an American drug dealer (Nathaniel Brown) in Tokyo’s boundless spiritual encounters after he is killed in a police bust: witnessing his parents from the past, his own autopsy, and the future, from which he looks out for his sex worker sister, played by Paz de la Huerta

Necessary viewing? Climax (2018)

A certified fever dream that leaves a sore or special mark on whoever sees it, the secretly made Climax captures a group of friends -- go-go dancers, Voguers and break-dancers -- on a wild hallucinogenic trip in an isolated house outside of Paris. What ensues is bloody mayhem: spiked punch, spinning shots, and a soundtrack that remains a go-to for gays at house parties everywhere. Know little about it before you go in: that’s the best way to see it.

The one everyone’s seen is… Love (2015)

For a short time when it was first released, Love rocked the arthouse cinema world: a slow and explorative feature about a relationship split three ways that featured unsimulated sex. It received middling-to-bad reviews (perhaps that was due to the gratuitous 3D release that permitted body fluids to fly over the shoulders of cinemagoers), but received a second lease of life last year, when it was added to Netflix. A TikTok trend, suggesting people watch the first five minutes of Love and record their reaction went viral; as a result, surely this remains the most-watched films in the auteur’s catalogue. The question remains, though: how many people actually made it to the end of this two-and-a-half-hour depressing fuckfest? It might be hard-going (no pun intended), but worth it to say you’ve experienced Gaspar in full provocateur mode.

The under appreciated gem is… Irreversible (2002)

No Gaspar Noé deep dive is complete without the critically-maligned and salacious Irreversible. A cult classic with a big fanbase, the late, famed film critic Roger Ebert once called it “so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable”. Told, ironic considering the title, in reverse, it’s a brutal revenge story in which Monica Bellucci plays a woman whose lover and ex-partner band together to avenge the man who raped her. When it eventually reached regular cinemas, critics predicted it would be “the most walked out-of movie” of the year. They were right!

The deep cut is… I Stand Alone (1998)

Gaspar’s least-seen film (aside from his coterie of shorts) is most likely his debut, I Stand Alone. Released in 1998 to strong critical acclaim but little box office splash (it made just $58,000), the film chronicles the entire life of a horse meat butcher, from his dismal childhood through to his present moment, partaking in a career considered controversial in late-20th century France. It is, like most of the filmmaker’s work, profoundly discomforting and rich in malaise. But for those brave enough to sit through it, you’ll witness the earliest moments of a special filmmaker. Love or hate what he makes, no one can deny that arthouse cinema is emphatically more interesting with Gaspar Noé’s presence.

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