Gaspar Noe is nothing if not an indulgent filmmaker. Visceral is a word often associated with his work. But he can go deeper, to the bone, when his work is at its most mature.
With Climax, Noe toes a line of maturity in filmmaking that can be difficult to parse. From one angle, his visual-forward approach to the film hearkens back to notions of a pure cinema. Aspects of colored flood lighting, minimal set dressing, deliberate camera work, and character movement take precedence over dialogue and plotting.
From a different angle, Noe is unable to fully divorce himself from superficial depictions of sensational horrors. The result of this is the most immediate, most visceral reactions. His career has been defined, in part, by these visceral gut-punch moments. But with Climax, the lack of scripting leaves open dialogues about horrifying topics and actions that make the gut-punches feel like manipulations.
The film is populated by dancers, both in terms of characters and the performers who portray them. Aside from the presence of Sofia Boutella, who plays the choreographer of the dance troupe, Noe fills the frame with dancers with an eclectic mix of dance styles.
Following a prologue involving a woman crawling through the snow, visibly in pain, and a series of interviews of the dancers hoping to land a spot in the troupe, the film focuses on the troupe rehearsing one night in a rented-out school.
For an extended long take, the dancers just dance. And it’s mesmerizing. After the number is rehearsed, they party down with a bowl of sangria. A bowl of sangria…and another substance of which they are unaware.
Climax is mostly a nightmarish depiction of hallucinogenic intoxication told as an interpretive dance. And these sequences are visually sumptuous, visually horrifying, and visually rhythmic. It is an impressive feat, armed with the usual cinematic flourishes that Noe is known for.
It is the other part, the lull at the end of the first half where characters converse about dancing and each other’s sex lives, that the bottom falls out. The conversations yield few important details, save for character relationships that will sizzle or full-on boil over once the drugs kick in. And it mainly serves to make most of the characters look seedy and unlikeable. As the talking sequence progresses, your sympathies bounce around, searching desperately for someone to like once the fan gets proverbially hit.
One or two characters come to the fore, in this regard. But other than allegiance searching, this sequence only serves to foreshadow events that, given how astute the visual storytelling is when the film is at its best, don’t require foreshadowing.
What is most telling about the characters in the film is not what comes out of their mouths, but what stems from their movement. Their dance styles. The shifts in geography between characters. When and how the camera chooses to bounce back and forth between characters.
The glorious, lengthy overhead shot that shows almost every character in the film dancing their preferred style of dance, that shot does more elegant character development than anything else in the film. And, for all the transgressive debauchery that follows, it is the highlight scene of the film. That or Sofia Boutella’s descent into hysteria as she tries to find solitude within her altered mental state, a scene performed with only choreographed movement and screams.
Noe is a director who is attuned to the concept of structure. For one, the film that put him on the map, Irreversible, is a story told backwards. So it is not entirely surprising when he sets the exact half-way point as the beginning of the nightmare. Or that he goes 10 minutes before introducing the film’s setting. Or that he inserts what would serve as end credits in a standard film at that 10-minute mark. Or that he inserts ornate title cards for each dancer and musician featured in the film (at the film’s midpoint).
While not entirely surprising, these are choices that jar you out of the state of passivity that can come with watching film, a medium that often adheres to formulas and conventions. They are not choices that significantly affect the narrative of the film, but they add energy and a somewhat anarchic tone that is befitting of the psychological horror that is on display.
What is less effective are Noe’s intertitles that make bold declarative statements. Not only are these statements less emphatic and bold than what is shown in the diegesis of the film, but they cut into the energy of the scenes. They jar in a detrimental way.
Ultimately, Climax is an on-brand addition into Gaspar Noe’s oeuvre. It is a film pulsing with a constant rhythm, and the insanity found within that rhythm is choreographed to perfection by Nina McNeely. The film doesn’t have all that much to say about the human condition—the fragile nature of one’s aspirations and livelihoods, perhaps. But, for the most part, Noe doesn’t want it to speak. He wants it to move in sync to the beat of a broken, unsalvageable night the consequences of which will be felt for the rest of these characters’ lives.
Oh, and Climax isn’t really for the faint of heart.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)