Gaspar Noé gets down with his bad self in one freaky acid trip
Directed by Gaspar Noé
Cast: Sofie Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Claude Gajan Maull
A half-clothed woman wanders, wounded, through a blinding landscape of snow. The camera follows her, tracking her stumbling progress from directly overhead. Wailing and clearly at the end of her endurance, she collapses. An intertitle card informs us that the film we have just watched was based on a true story. The end credits roll. Believe it or not, that is actually the opening shot of filmmaker provocateur Gaspar Noé’s latest fit of cinematic madness. Clearly, Noé is warning fans and detractors alike that he’ll be in full satyrical (not satirical), lecherous prankster god mode for this one.
Following the end credits, we jump to a series of interviews jittering on an old video monitor. An off-screen voice quizzes a parade of characters we’re about to meet, questioning their sexual history, their experience with drugs and their commitment to the art of dance. Stacked on one side of the video monitor is a jumble of art and philosophy books—from Kafka to Buñuel to Emil Cioran. On the other side of the monitor is a pile of VHS cassettes—a library of the world’s most transgressive cult films: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s “Un Chien Andalou,” Kenneth Anger’s “The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome,” Jan Kounen’s “Vibroboy,” Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, Dario Argento’s Suspria. Once again, by wearing his influences so boldly on his sleeve (the collections are undoubtedly culled from Noé’s own shelves), our writer-director is giving us fair warning. Strap in folks, it’s gonna be a long, dark trip.
The films of Gaspar Noé are both seductive to and assaultive to the senses. Climax is no exception to that rule. If you’ve witnessed the horrifying exploitative pull of 2002’s Irreversible or the queasy psychedelic death trip fantasia of 2009’s Enter the Void, you kinda know what you’re in for. It’s a glitter-bomb, but a deadly one. Climax is both lurid and alluring, expertly lensed and wrapped in a cocoon of neon colors and jewel tones.
The dancers we meet in the “pre-show interviews,” as it were, are a wildly diverse lot—gay, straight, bi, trans, black, white, French, German, African, male, female, what-have-you. Their only common link is that they are all young, healthy and quite attractive. They have gathered in the basement of a rundown dance school somewhere in the hinterlands of France to rehearse an upcoming performance. The troupe’s avant-garde style—a mash-up of hip-hop street moves and club scene acrobatics—is showcased in a joyous, post-(closing? opening?)-credits performance. Noé shoots it like a virtuoso, all-in-one-shot before a sequined French flag.
After three days of rehearsals, though, our dancers need a break. Sangria is mixed into large bowls, snacks are spread out, and a DJ offers up some thumping techno music. As the party rages into the night, Noé’s camera breaks the characters off into pairs to bitch, flirt, gossip, commiserate and fight. The information we gleaned from the interviews is expanded upon—although the most common topic of conversation is who and what they each want to bone. (Mostly one another.) As Noé’s camera prowls through the hallways getting voyeuristic with his actors in long, uninterrupted cuts, things take an ugly turn. It becomes apparent that someone has laced the sangria with liquid LSD. As they say: It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt. And it’s not long before a lot of people are hurt.
The night quickly descends into an animalistic orgy of lust and violence, a sort of beautifully curated trip into Dante’s Inferno, courtesy of sex, drugs and EDM. The dancers turn on one another, blaming various suspects for having spiked the punch. Some people are attacked. Some freak out. Some have sex. Some keep on dancing through it all, twisting their bodies into increasingly unnatural positions. That’s it in a nutshell. Is this all some microcosmic metaphor for modern-day French society, poisoning itself from within? Don’t ask me. I just work here. But that’s as good an explanation as anything in this mad tarantella.
Given the amount of dancing on display here, Climax could easily fit on the (admittedly small) art-horror shelf alongside Luca Guadagnino’s dance-fueled 2018 remake of Suspiria. (Compliment or criticism? You decide. Either way, it’s an appropriate double-feature.) With the exception of ensemble star Sofia Boutella (The Mummy, Kingsmen: The Secret Service) as the dance troupe’s self-confident choreographer, the actors on display here are all real, professional dancers improvising their way through their first on-screen experiment. Kudos for verisimilitude, even if Noé’s opening intertitle is a lie.
Surprisingly, Climax never gets as graphic (violently or sexually) as you suspect it might. But the dread and unease laced throughout don’t make it a pleasant trip overseas. Step Up, this ain’t. It’s also clear that Noé has some real sympathy and kinship with this group of young artists. Yeah, he still thinks that humanity is a bunch of monsters, just one bad night away from murderous anarchy. But in his own twisted way he’s celebrating the art form of dance and its ability to reflect life in all its facets—the good, the bad and the disturbingly carnal.
Climax is adventurous, boundary-pushing cinema from an enfant terrible at the apex of his button-pushing abilities. Half Bob Fosse and half Marquis de Sade, Climax will be a torture test for the average moviegoer. But for those in the market for something unshakably original, this is one very bad trip you might want to check out for yourself.