Published on March 4th, 2019 | by Lucas Wunch0
If you’re going to see this film, it likely won’t be a huge surprise to you. Those that will buy a ticket already know who Gaspar Noé is and what he’s all about. Films like Irreversible and Enter the Void have defined him as an artist of scandal, evil and the extreme. Climax follows directly in the footsteps of those films, but at this point it does leave us wondering if there’s any room for growth in this writer/director or if we’ll just continue to get more of the same until we’re sufficiently numb to his offerings.
The setting for Noé’s latest tour of human horrors is the final rehearsal of a French dance troupe set to tour internationally. The film begins with the final scene of the movie and the ending credits. Then, just as your confusion has built to appropriate levels, things actually begin with videotaped interviews of all 22 members in an attempt to give you some semblance of character introduction. Shown on an older TV, the screen is surrounded by books and plays focused on ultra-negative philosophical views and subjects such as schizophrenia and suicide. So, despite the rather upbeat and optimistic responses of the prospective dancers, the tone is already being set for the madness that is about to commence.
From there we are taken to the big dance number. A ten-minute single shot involving the entire cast choreographed to 90’s EDM music. While this scene felt a little bit long, it did nearly as much to introduce the characters as the audition tapes shown earlier. Each dancer has a unique style and flair that executes a certain character development. Once the dance is complete it feels like the movie finally begins and the cast starts their post-rehearsal party. The soiree involves dancing (of course), drinking (homemade sangria) and some minor cocaine use. But it mostly consists of quick shots between different cast members taking part in some intergroup gossip. We are treated to one more (non-choreographed) dance scene with each individual showing their talents in a circle of their comrades, then we break again for more conversation. As the party continues on everyone starts to feel a little bit funny. They quickly deduce that the sangria has been spiked with LSD, but cannot determine who drugged them.
And this is where the hour-long journey into hell embarks from. The realization that they have been drugged seems to worry them very little, but does instantly turn them all against each other. The effects of the LSD ramp up rather quickly and as the cast members descend into madness the audience is treated to a myriad of trauma and depravity including: rape, incest, self-mutilation, child electrocution and an attempted abortion via a swift kick to the stomach. None of this should be any surprise to someone familiar with Noé’s work. But if this is your first experience with his particular brand of filmmaking, then be prepared to leave no perverted stone unturned.
One of the most impressive things about this film is how little preparation actually went into it. The entire film was shot in 15 days and edited to completion in only 3 months after that in order to meet the Cannes festival deadline. In addition, it was shot with a mere 5 pages of script. The majority of the film consists of both dancing and psychotic undulations inspired by web videos of people high on crack, ecstasy and acid which were hand-selected by Noé. So, despite the assumed need for structure that comes with extended tracking shots such as these, the whole movie is (surprisingly) mostly ad-libbed. Only the opening dance scene is choreographed with all of the remaining ones being the result of the how the dancers chose to express themselves through dance.
In the end you’ll be left wondering if all of the shock and awe that’s been served to you actually meant something, or if it was simply sensory overload for the sake of itself. And that’s where the movie really falls short. If Noé had meant for any sort of deeper meaning in this film, it was ultimately lost to extreme subtlety. I did my best to find the clever allegory here (French history and culture, biblical stories, etc.) and I admittedly fell short. “Birth is a unique opportunity. Life is an impossible collective. Death is an extraordinary experience,” read three title cards which flash throughout the journey of Climax. Although these sayings are poetic and beautiful, they seem to have little or loose application to the actual storyline.
The strongest feelings in this film are not evoked from any sort of meaning or fable-style lesson. They come from the distress and disgust brought about by the actions of the characters and, more so, the beautifully executed cinematography. Every filming technique meant to cause discomfort is present here including: long tracking shots, inverted imagery, black screen with nonlinear sounds and subliminal images. The application and combination of all of these effects means that much credit for this film should most likely go to Noé’s DP, Benoit Debie.
Fundamentally, the judgement for a Gaspar Noé film exists on a different scale than any other film. And while that concept can be new and exciting when the first shocking film debuts, you quickly realize that subsequent ones have to continue to push the boundaries that were originally broken. Otherwise you run the risk of becoming stale. We may have gotten to that point now with Noé. Climax brings very little new shock to the table for a director who has developed his reputation as a purveyor of wickedness. Those who attend this movie will be looking for him to push their horror to new levels, but will likely end up unfulfilled. Although the lack of a new frontier doesn’t remove all of the value for the film, Noé has made implicit promises through his other work which he has failed to deliver upon with Climax.