Gaspar No: ‘Six people walked out of Climax? No! I usually have 25%’

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.

Watch a trailer for Climax

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.

Harrowing Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel in Irreversible. Photograph: imagenet

Nos previous few features have been lush, long and noodling, like prog-rock albums with lavish gatefold sleeves. But Climax was written as a one-page outline and shot in two weeks, with its cast of non-professional actors plucked from Parisian voguing balls and YouTube dance videos. Clutching the hand-held camera, No enjoyed losing himself among them, like a drunk uncle at a teenage party, aping their movements to the point where the films frame spins in circles and turns upside-down like Diana Ross. Im not interested in constraining human beings like rats in a laboratory, he says. Here, youre a rat among the rats.

Does he like dancing himself? Love dancing. Love the physical sensation of dancing. If you were to ask people their three favourite activities, theyll normally say talking, eating He gropes for the third. Smoking. But in my case, its making love, swimming and dancing. But the climactic moments of my life have really always involved dancing. Back in Paris, I go to clubs all the time. I forget myself when I dance.

Freak-out a scene from Climax. Photograph: Wild Bunch

The director was born in Buenos Aires, the son of Luis Felipe No, an artist and intellectual. He spent his childhood bouncing between continents, first to New York and then later fleeing Argentinas 1976 coup to Paris. Yeah, I was only in New York from the age of six months until five years old, he says. But my very first memories are all of New York. I remember my first rainbow on a beach in New York. I remember jumping on a bed in New York. We used to live in an apartment on Bleecker Street and I remember peeing on the people walking below the balcony and being told off by my parents. Dont pee on the people! Some critics would argue hes been doing this ever since.

No talks at length about his father, who now lives back in Buenos Aires. Hes 85 and hes still cranking out paintings, working every day. No says there was recently a retrospective of his fathers work at the citys Museum of Modern Art and 5,000 people queued to get in on the opening day. Hes crazy creative, hes like David Bowie. And my father always says that the only thing that makes an artist good is working. Whenever Im in trouble and I get in trouble a lot he tells me, Hey, just concentrate on the work. Its the only thing that matters.

Id read that one day hed like to make a kids film and he admits that this is actually a promise he made to his dad, who wants him to shoot a movie that can be enjoyed by the widest possible audience. My own love for cinema began at the age of seven, says No, when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey. It blew my mind. I was obsessed with it. So I wish I could make a movie that speaks to kids the way that one spoke to me.

Does he have children of his own? No kids, he says. No kids, no abortions. Im not pro-life but Im not pro-death. He laughs embarrassedly and reaches for his cigarette.

His down-a-bottle-of-vodka days are behind him Gaspar No. Photograph: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty

His mother, it transpires, died a few years ago. No sat at the bedside and held her when she went and the experience left its mark. Hed spent his whole life in a hedonistic, self-absorbed funk. Now all at once, he found himself brought up short. Im more melancholic than I was before. When your mother dies in your arms, your perception of life changes. I think the whole thing is just a fleeting illusion. It doesnt last and if there is any paradise or hell, its right here, right now. Also, I used to have this mental disease called collectionism.

Called what? Collectionism. I used to collect everything. Comic books, posters, records, whatever. But the moment my mother died, I stopped being possessive because you never own anything anyway. Even her books and her dresses they had no more meaning, because they were nothing to do with her any more. I didnt want any of it.

No frowns, shrugs and briefly stares at the canvas. He wants to know how many people walked out of Climax. I tell him I spotted maybe six or seven. Aw man, no, no, no! he groans, as if this is the worst news in the world. I usually have 25% of the audience walking out.

It sounds to me as if hes mellowing but he insists its the opposite. Hes enjoying the present, living in the moment, at least as far as his body allows. Obviously, he cant party at quite the same pace he maintained in the past, when hed down a bottle of vodka before heading out on the tiles. If he does that now, he suffers blackouts. He cant remember the night, cant recall how he got home. Aside from that, he says, hes fine. He lives much the same as he ever did, swaggering ever onward through a perpetual adolescence. He says: You know what the difference is between 20 and 40? Ask me the difference.

Go on then, whats the difference? Twenty kilos, he says, and laughs.

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