The latest odyssey of sleaze from French provocateur Gaspar Noé stunned audiences (and the director himself) when it premiered at last year’s Cannes film festival – it was the first film of his that most people didn’t immediately hate. To call Climax Noé’s most accessible film yet feels more like a comment on the director himself than the film, but the premise here is simple: the year is 1996, and a young, diverse, attractive troupe of dancers are rehearsing in an abandoned school. After finishing their extravagant routine it’s time to party, but there’s a twist – someone has spiked the sangria, and in typical Noé fashion things soon fall into delirium.
Regardless of whether or not you have the patience to stomach Climax‘s extended sequences of debauchery, Noé’s technical prowess here is undeniable. He delivers expertly choreographed extended tracking shots one after the other, perfectly capturing the energy of his dancers and allowing their every little movement to find a place in the frame. And as things start to fall apart and the world turns upside down, Noé’s camera does too, twisting and turning amid sickly neon lighting to show his cast writhing in equal parts agony and ecstasy. Beyond the go-for-broke physical performances that Noé pulls from his performers, his ability to balance and carefully define distinct personalities for all of his many characters is equally impressive. Romain Guillermic’s festering ball of masculinity and horniness is a skin-crawling delight, while Sofia Boutella channels Isabelle Adjandi in an immensely committed lead performance.
The early dance sequences, the opening number, in particular, are euphoric in their depiction of young individuals from all backgrounds coming together in unison to make something beautiful. Even the collapse of it all is a perverse joy to behold – individual moments are grotesque and tough to stomach, and the final fifteen minutes are so abrasive that by the end you’ll feel like you’ve endured a marathon, but the collective decay is so riotous and outrageous that it’s more fun to just laugh along with Noé than to be outraged at the unpleasantness.
It’s definitely a film that will test the patience of and repel many, but having just finished my second viewing I already want to sit through it again. For however outlandish and challenging the film becomes, it’s deliriously entertaining as a cinematic endurance test, learning to attune yourself to Noé’s rhythms and just sink yourself into his wild ride.
Noé has said that he didn’t intend for the film to be allegorical – but with its proud declarations of French pride and an omnipresent tricolor flag adorning the dance hall, it’s hard not to see the descent into chaos as a cynical microcosm of a diverse society falling into total disarray at the first hint of unchecked hedonism. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that when our characters find out the sangria has been spiked the first person they kick out happens to be Muslim.
Ultimately though the descent into depravity does feel less like Noé making some grand political statement and rather just him continuing to reject happy endings, there is a real joy in seeing such a diverse film proudly claiming its French roots, regardless of the dissolve that eventually comes. A filmmaking philosophy Noé has quoted on the press tour for Climax goes as such: “when a movie is good, it’s about the energy. It’s not about the message”, and the final product clearly reflects that – Climax feels like a pent-up ball of cinematic energy suddenly and violently exploding over the course of ninety minutes. Noé isn’t concerned about what the explosion means. He just wants us to enjoy the fireworks.