The directors violent, sexually charged films repel as many viewers as they entrance but at Cannes, almost everyone loved his latest, LSD-soaked dance drama Climax. So where did he go wrong?
The Cannes equivalent of a Sunday service is the 8.30am screening of Gaspar Nos Climax, in a basement cinema beside the casino. Once inside, the congregation (all sleep-deprived, many hungover) are treated to the complete matins, a kind of prolonged grand-mal seizure set to music. Theres sex and theres violence. Theres coke-snorting and mouth-frothing. A corridor is patrolled by a lumbering giant wearing a fright wig and a kilt. A utility closet contains a hysterical child screaming about cockroaches. And then, near the end, we get a sermon printed on the screen in letters 10ft tall. Death is an extraordinary experience, it says.
The Franco-Argentine director has grown used to outraging audiences, driving punters from the theatre like a shepherd chasing his flock. But heres the thing: Climax is promptly greeted by almost uniformly glowing reviews. Critics are claiming its his most fully realised, purely exciting film to date. And now, for perhaps the first time in his life, its Nos turn to be outraged. He says: I must be doing something wrong. I have to take a long holiday and rethink my career.
We meet in a big marquee on the beach, open at the far end to let the sea air blow in. At the age of 54, No still has the self-conscious air of a disreputable young thug. With his shaven head, beetle brows and cigarette permanently on the go, hes like a villain from a 1950s Tintin book. But he insists hes pleased to be in Cannes and delighted to be screened in the more rambunctious surrounds of the Directors Fortnight sideshoot, away from the glare of the main competition. I wouldnt have won anything anyway, he shrugs. This years jury is so moralistic and consensual.
Variety magazine calls No an artist of scandal, which sounds about right. His brutish 1998 debut I Stand Alone, about a murderous butcher, notoriously threw in a 30-second countdown before the carnage began, as if the film itself were a rollercoaster climbing to the top of a loop. Its essentially been downhill at great speed ever since, hurtling through the harrowing rape-revenge drama Irreversible (which critics duly renamed Unwatchable), swooping between the floors of a Tokyo love hotel in the fabulous Enter the Void, and plunging towards flesh in his 3D sex film Love. He never thinks of an audience when making a film, he says. The focus is always on his own enjoyment. When the approach works, its infectious. When it doesnt, we recoil.
Purportedly based on a 1990s news story, Climax opens like Step Up and then goes full Cabin Fever. Its about a band of limber street-dancers, rehearsing in an abandoned boarding school, who make the mistake of drinking from a punch-bowl of sangria thats been dosed with LSD meaning the films second half plays like an extended nightmarish freak-out (or perhaps an artistic extrapolation of the first halfs dance routines). The director points out that, back when he was a kid, it was always sangria he would use to get his fellow classmates drunk. It was my first shamanistic act, he says. And I was the shaman.