Provocateur director Gaspar Noé has put a waking nightmare on screen with his newest movie Climax. The film is unsettling, nauseating, confusing, and, in the end, a singular viewing experience that only Noé could unleash upon the world. The director responsible for the equally singular Enter the Void – which I revisited as the second part of a double feature with Climax, a night I won’t soon forget – uses nihilism the way Bob Ross used happy little trees, often and with great satisfaction. There is no lesson to be learned here. Climax isn’t exploring any deeper truths about the human condition. Noé’s only goal seems to be to shock and disorient his audience. In that way, Climax is a complete success.
The story is about as high-concept as you can get: a troupe of dancers preparing for an international tour celebrate their final rehearsal with a party. Unbeknownst to them, one of the dancers has spiked the communal bowl of sangria with LSD. As the drug takes almost every member of the troupe on a bad trip, a night of unspeakable horrors unfolds.
It’s Noé’s incredible visual style and inventiveness that makes the movie hypnotic and disturbing. The director puts just as much care into the extended (and energetically beautiful) dance sequence at the beginning of the film as that sequence’s nightmarish counterpart at the end. Noé pays homage to musicals of the past; the camera work of one segment could be straight out of a Busby Berkeley number.
Later in the movie, his overindulgent nature leads him to mirror the exuberant dance with brutal horror. Much of the last half hour of the film takes place with the camera upside down. His affinity for long takes – the longest in Climax is a mind-staggering 42 minutes – and the single location, a remote, abandoned school, compound the claustrophobic, hallucinatory feel of the picture. Noé’s precise staging of each long take is masterful.
There are a few sophomoric philosophical moments in Climax that border on laughable. Several title cards with seemingly meaningless (but OH SO DEEP) observations like “Life is a Collective Impossibility” and “Death is an Extraordinary Experience” would have pleased my college-aged self to no end.
We are also forced to wade through a generous helping of cringe-worthy dialog in the extended sequence between the dance and the drugs taking effect. The long and experimentally edited set of dialog scenes serve to introduce us to an unwieldy 24 main characters. I was never quite able to grasp all the relationships between the young dancers, which was frustrating. It also didn’t help that Noé gave a few of his characters repugnant philosophies on sex.
Noé probably prides himself on being what internet parlance refers to as an “edgelord,” but having characters gleefully describe how fun it is to “surprise” a woman with anal sex isn’t interesting or edgy – it’s just plain disgusting.
The film begins with the end credits. It’s a disorienting technique that could either seem inspired or gimmicky, depending on how into the film you are; it’s also pure Noé. From there, we launch into several minutes of videotaped interviews. The choreographer, Selva, and DJ, Daddy, of the future dance troupe question the people who we eventually see dancing and partying (and having the worst night of their lives) at the abandoned school.
The interviews play out on a TV surrounded by books and videotapes. Each character talks about what the art of dance means to them. Noé builds anticipation because a VHS case for the cult horror film Susperia, another movie about dancers, is among the titles next to the TV. Both films depict, in graphic detail, the horror and beauty that bodies in motion can produce. Whether you love how Climax does this or you hate it, you’ll certainly never forget it.
One last thing:
- I couldn’t work it into my review, but this inspired piece at Slate from someone who hated Climax is a hilarious must read: Inkoo Kang’s When to Leave Climax: A personalized guide