Climax is a movie only Gaspar Noé could – and would – make. The French provocateur has long embedded hallucinatory imagery into his pictures – his 2009 feature Enter the Void is a literal out-of-body experience adopting the POV of a slain drug dealer – but takes his flirtation with on-screen drug use to new levels with his latest experimental feature, which follows an acid-dosed troop of dancers over the events of an increasingly unhinged night. The journey is a dark and delirious jaw-dropping mindfuck for sure, but one of horrifying technical marksmanship that is sure to burrow under your skin and peck at one’s brain. Like blood in the carpet, these psychological stains won’t wash out easily.
A party movie of the most disturbing and disorienting degree, and one that spans but a single evening with little in the way of narrative or plot, Climax, like all Noé’s work, is an exercise in exhausting style, that manages a troubling message about the fragility of civilization. The director is one of instantly recognizable style – who wields colors, music, and dizzying camerawork unlike any other professional filmmaker – and there’s no hiding his avante-garde credentials here.
His gonzo “immersive” style is much more akin to what audiences expect from film school students and their theses but Noé has mastered the art of the particular camera angle and whirling camera movements and brings it to the arthouse like no other. His films are experiential, and once you’re strapped in, there’s no escaping his icy, skilled grasp. And never has that skill felt in sharper focus (note that the sympathetic 95-minute runtime helps.) To be in Climax’s imposing wake is a feeling not unlike Kubrick’s Alex: eyes pried open with metal wire, hostage to pulsing images of violence thrumming on the screen. You’re altered through its watching, deeply unpleasant though it usually is.
The film plays out free from traditional narrative constraints. A series of static interviews with dancers auditioning to work with a choreographer of substantial acclaim. A single-shot frenetic dance sequence that rivals the best ever put to celluloid. A 20-minute collection of juicy one-on-one conversations where the dancers gossip about sex, relationships, sex they have had, sex they want to have, people they want to have sex with, methods of sexual delivery, etc. etc. If you’re uncomfortable with graphic descriptions of sex, this is certainly a movie you’ll want to skip – and that’s before things get, well, physical.
Noé attempts to ingratiate his audience to Climax’s collection of players by allowing us to drop in our their conversations before he punches the doomsday device and let’s everything fly off the handle. There is nothing really substantial to the written word – as has rarely been Noé the screenwriter’s focus – and the conversations rarely leap beyond partying and sex, but it makes for an appropriately fly-on-the-wall, cinéma vérité approach. These are 20-something dancers with Adonis-esque bodies, of course sex is at the forefront of the brain. There’s an almost documentarian touch to these earlier building blocks, and Noé’s camera is uncharacteristically static, but that passive sterility soon unfolds and explodes into full-brunt moviemaking psychosis. Gossip turns to confusion, sickness, accusations, violence. The camera flips and whirls and takes part, as if it too is dosed with LSD. Feral hedonism takes hold. Dionysus would be proud.
With the party spiraling further out of control, Noé’s style becomes emboldened, unveiling a filmmaker giddily playing Charon, ushering his audience to hell, cheerily indicating all the window dressings along the way. Noé’s latest is undoubtedly the work of a madman; it’s You Got Served with graphic sex, burning bodies, frozen corpses and blood; and what’s being served is lysergic acid. A booming, head-bobbing soundtrack is sprawled over course of the evening, the tracks of Cerrone, Dopplereffekt, Aphex Twin and more electronic house music staples turning increasingly sinister as the effects of the acid intensify.
Even moreso than his former works, Climax incites fear through sheer unruliness. A party – what with its undercurrents of drugs, sex, jealousy, and rage – has never seemed so infinitely evil. Barriers of society crumble as do formal rules of filmmaking and we’re left in a cockeyed miasma of anguished howls and terrified confusion. It’s beyond disturbing. Performances from Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Claude-Emmanuelle Gajan-Maull, Thea Carla Schott, and more embellish the sense of realism and body horror, their slow loss of control of mind and matter a purely unsettling thing to watch. Wrangling it all together into a singularly cinematic episode, Noé displays a mastery of the art of cultivating discomfort and anything that makes skin crawl so thoroughly deserves applause, even if it’s done through full recognition of the maker’s madness.
CONCLUSION: A purified blast of masterfully refined schlock, Climax is a depraved and largely unpleasant experience that boasts technical genius, a roaring soundtrack and wholly authentic performances. It’s at once impossible to recommend and the most disturbing, effective piece of filmmaking I’ve yet seen in 2019.
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