Climax - Review
A double-sided and on-theme trip through the dark side of free expression.
In Gaspar Noé’s new film, there are multiple intriguing threads dangled in the first hour, but they are not the film’s song. There is another, sharper voice that effectively mutes the rest with its all-encompassing terribleness, and like a talented soloist in a renowned choir, it steals the show from what was already an interesting spectacle.
What makes Climax so jarring is a change from social commentary to psychedelic-thriller. This is a film made up of several lengthy tracking shots, and a few extra-long edited sequences. The propulsive music (courtesy of Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, and various other pioneering artists) in the background keeps the scenes from standing out too much, meshing them together to form a prolonged fever dream. The film opens with its final scene --much like Noé’s notorious Irreversible, of which Climax takes more than a few cues from-- involving a character stumbling into a blinding sheet of snow and collapsing. The credits roll, and the film begins. We see interviews presented on a dilapidated box TV, displaying the various dancers we are about to spend a night with as they are questioned on their love of dance and goals in life. Like the rest of the film, it is a lengthy sequence that eventually loses any semblance of beginning and end; the visuals are entrancing, and the actors are as eclectic as anyone Noé has thrown together, though not nearly as explored.
After a jaw-dropping opening dance, set to a remixed version of Cerrone’s “Supernature”, there is nowhere to go but down. The scene collects everything there is to love about Climax: an array of eccentric personalities, unbelievable camera work, dynamic lighting, and pitch-perfect music curation. That last bit is just as essential to Climax as its actors, creating a constantly revolving door for moods to pass through. Featuring two original compositions from Thomas Bangalter and a myriad of other defining 90s electronic artists, the music is half the story of Climax; NEON’s “Voices” captures the mood fullest. Eerie synthesizers, skittering backbeats, and a driving kick drum usher in the film’s wild second half, as the dancers discover someone has spiked the Sangria they’ve been celebrating with. High on LSD, some continue to dance in their dazed state, but when the first icy notes of “Voices” begin, there’s no mistaking that the tone is about to shift. Selva (Sofia Boutella), one of the dancers, experiences the epitome of a bad trip, hallucinating and bumping through darkened hallways searching for a friend, or something to hold onto. The helplessness felt in this uncut scene is the first blatant Noé-ism: the terror is unfurled, and just as the characters must ride it out, so do we as the audience.
There is unspeakable violence in Climax, the kind that only scratches at the surface of Irreversible’s agonizing display of sexual assault, but scarring nonetheless. These moments are effective, but feel like glimmers of a different time in the director’s life, seen also in the frequent flashes of text on screen, proliferating mantras like “DEATH IS AN EXTRAORDINARY EXPERIENCE”. It’s rapid and blurry, but shot methodically. There is a brilliant contrast in content and form in Climax, as the two seem to contradict each other at every turn. The propulsive dance sequence is offered straight, no frills, while drug-ridden stumblings are followed by a lurching steadicam that mirrors the actors’ churning brains. The camera, and to an extent, Noé, is not always a player in the scene, but when it rears, nothing else matters. I understand this may be disagreeable to some, but the command Noé and cinematographer Benoît Debie retain is a marvelous thing to be subjected to.
Climax is most difficult in its off-brand plot structure: after the previously mentioned dance sequence, which sees the cast shake off insecurities for a joy-ride of self-expression, the film cuts between various conversations in the dance hall. Quick cuts, robbed of any context or emotion, as we aren’t yet familiar with the characters yet; all we know is that one of them ends up dead. They’re judgemental, sneaky, obscene conversations: basically 20 year-olds in a nutshell, but it will have you wondering who’s film you are watching. The dread of his previous films is almost completely absent until the one-hour mark, when things begin to go off the rails. It will be described as many things, but Climax is best summed up as a dual conversation, one that simultaneously celebrates the emotional-release of dance and expression and condemns those who fall prey to it’s temptations. It’s a dance party in hell set to Aphex Twin and Daft Punk, and always energizing.