It’s fair to say that director Gaspar Noé polarizes opinion. It’s a fact that he seems to revel in and play upon, and the distributors of his films implement this polarity into their press and marketing strategies. "You despised I Stand Alone, you hated Irreversible, you loathed Enter The Void, you cursed Love. Now try Climax."1 A superb and audacious technical craftsman whose work is able to authentically replicate the sensation of losing control, there was the sense that with Love (2015) the director had exhausted the patience of even his most ardent supporters. Noé’s work, with its interest in sex, drugs, violence and hedonism thrives on the ability to shock, and with his first three features he achieved a thrilling if uncomfortable talent for taking the viewer on a long, slow but strangely bracing descent to hellish depths. The sexually explicit Love however singularly failed on every level. It was boorish and masturbatory and seemed to suggest an artist stuck on repeat. Filmed in 3D, it felt like every David Bowie album of the 1990s. An excess of style, an abundance of technique, but for all that very little substance. I say this as a fan of Noe’s work. And of pre-1990s David Bowie. In Bowie terms then, Climax is The Next Day.
Continuing his interest in situations where chaos and anarchy suddenly spread and "psychotropically enhanced shamanistic sessions or parties at which the revelers lose control collectively,"2 Climax is loosely based on the apparently true story of a group of racially and sexually diverse dancers in the 1990s who go on an extended rampage of sex and violence in their secluded studio after indulging in LSD-spiked Sangria. Very little further background detail is given into the episode and the genesis of the story soon becomes all but irrelevant thanks to the formal and structural brilliance Noé brings to it. Approaching the material like a documentary and preparing very little in advance, the director encouraged the situation and instances to ‘happen’ in front of him, using the haunting tale of the troupe and their last, bacchanalian rehearsal as a springboard into chaos. "Starting from a page-long outline allowed me to capture moments of truth and to convey in images this sequence of events collectively. If you want dancers, actors or non-professionals to express themselves physically and verbally in a chaotic fashion, improvisation is essential."3 The result, which to borrow a phrase from Chris Morris, often feels like "Dante meets Bosch in a crack lounge in hell," may well be the director’s most mature (a relative term here), cogent and potent work to date. It certainly suggests a consistent authorial vision and for perhaps the first time in his career Noé has been greeted with fairly broad critical approval. For an endless provocateur, this approbation may well feel bittersweet.
Those familiar with the director’s work will know that the audience disorientation from the outset is a familiar trope and Climax follows suite. Set to Gary Numan’s recording of Satie’s Gymnopèdies we get the final credits first, accompanied by an incredible image of a bloodied woman, obviously the victim of some terrible event, collapsing into pure white snow. Noé then cuts to the audition tapes that the dancers have sent in, less as a means of introducing each member of the troupe (there is for the record only one professional actor, Sofia Boutella) but rather to highlight the stack of film cases alongside the monitor on which the audition tapes are viewed. Suspiria, Salõ, Querelle and Possession. There are books from Nietzsche and Buñuel too. It’s the Climax equivalent of the "You have 30 seconds to leave the cinema" from I Stand Alone (1998). It’s one hell of a warning. And relatively subtle.
As well as the customary nausea inducing POV shots that swoop and swirl and which formally signify that we are about to accompany the protagonists on very dark journey into unchartered lands (unchartered unless you have taken loads of mind numbing hallucinogenics or indulged in acts of extreme sexual or physical violence), Noé again excels at a prominent tableaux sequences. The extended rehearsal which acts as the springboard for celebration, is executed in a bravura single take is an undiluted mix of adrenalin and exhilaration. The director has often shown interest in the body and how it is often the focus for acts of hedonism and gratuitous sexual violence. Here the tone feels more celebratory and we get a more positive glimpse of what the human body is capable of. The dancers, who are choreographed by Nina McNeely, are incredibly dexterous and mesmeric and we are dared to take our eyes away.
The rehearsal sequence is followed by the ‘spiking’ incident (there are clues as to the perpetrator, but Noé isn’t overly interested in plot details) and an authentic descent into the cacophony of chaos. The nod to Andrew Źulawski’s Possession makes most sense in terms of the writhing, serpent-like figures we are faced with once the drugs take hold. They fight, fuck and frolic, and it sometimes becomes difficult to see where one-person ends and another begins in a grotesque but bewitching synthesis of sinew. The director creates a symphony of movement, cutting with fades to blacks between the various dancers as the drugs and inevitable psychosis take hold. The cumulative effect is as if Flashdance met Dawn of the Dead and They Shoot Horses Don’t They? on the dance floor and they rutted before starting to antagonize and then attack and then to finally eat each other.
Shot chronologically, according to the director to "generate both a state of general trust and a spirit of competition that drove the dancers towards ever-more psychotic performances,"4 Climax is set within a single location (a disused school in Vitry), which serves to heighten the very palpable sense of fear and danger. In a perfect metaphor for the film an innocent child is locked within a cupboard for his own protection, his safe place inevitably becoming his tomb. Noé, whose approach to sound design is as punishing as his visual aesthetic, sets the film at an unspecified moment in France in the 1990s which allows him to largely avoid politics and to use some brilliant electronic music from the period. The featured songs, the majority of which are French but which also include Aphex Twin, arguably Noé’s musical twin, appear in the bright lettering in the credit sequence that namechecks all the songs, the dancers, the crew and of course Noé himself. It’s yet another jaw dropping sequence, a Mixtape moment redolent of the film’s exuberance, arrogance and often inspired execution.