Gaspar Noe Explores Losing Control in the Horrifying “Climax”
Gaspar Noe’s films tend to focus on people involved in the most physical of acts. Enter the Void showcased out-of-body experiences, Irreversible dealt with rape and violence, and Love was all about erotic gesticulations. Now with his latest film Climax, Noe’s added another entry to his cinema du corps (cinema of the body). This time, his story is about dancers, whose business is to have total control of their bodies, losing such discipline due to LSD-laced Sangria at a party. Every last one of the troupe members goes bonkers in this disturbing film as their loss of faculties leads to assault, self-mutilation, and a host of other horrors. To say the least, Climax is not for the squeamish.
It’s a fascinating concept to explore, and despite the horrific acts on display in the story, Noe ensures that we never look away. He keeps us close to all of the action as if we’re a guest at the party ourselves, or at least a fly on the wall. Noe keeps us enthralled as well through his “movie-movie” machinations. At the beginning of the film, the director runs all the credits which are one usually saves for the end. He also super-imposes titles over the proceedings here and there to underline an idea of his at the moment. It’s very on-the-nose, but it works for Noe as he is such a self-conscious filmmaker that we have come to expect such flourishes.
He also ensures that we never forget that we’re watching a movie through the virtuoso camera movements courtesy of his exquisite cinematographer Benoit Debie. His Steadicam glides around the actors, goes between their legs, travels up the sides of walls, and even spins upside down numerous times to echo the LSD’s effects. If Noe wants us to feel like a guest at the party, then we’re going to feel the results of the drugged Sangria as well. Slowly but surely throughout the 97-minute film, the presentation of events turns from tight, synchronized framing and editing, into an utterly loopy and hypnotic submission.
Noe’s film starts with interviews of the dancers via VHS tape, suggesting this film is taking place in the 80s or early 90s. Then the filmmaker shifts the action the gym floor in an old school where those same characters are rehearsing an elaborate dance number together. The utter joy and confidence in the dancers expressing themselves through movement get matched by the equally stunning choreography of the camerawork that moves all around them with almost no cuts. Here, the dancers perform in perfect harmony, mixing it up together with moves inspired by ballet, hip hop, and freestyle.
After this enthralling set-piece, the dancers partake in the food and drink laid out on tables around the gym’s periphery. This gathering is a bon voyage party as it turns out, the last hurrah before the French troupe heads out to America for a multiple-city performance tour. There, Noe establishes that there are cliques among the dancers, as well as jealousies and sexual histories that still simmer. Once the drugs kick in, all of these conflicts come to a boil until they start exploding in ugly words and worse violence.
The cast is virtually unknown aside from Sofia Boutella who plays Selva. Boutella has shown off her body and menace before in films like Kingsman: The Secret Service, Hotel Artemis, and last year’s remake of The Mummy. Here, however, she gets to play soft and vulnerable too, acing both sides of her character. Watching her disintegrate before our eyes as she loses her body and mind to the drug is palpable here, and Noe wisely follows her around without edit for a 10-minute spiral downward that ends with her beating the walls. He lets each of the actors enjoy numerous moments like that as well, though no one stands out quite like Boutella.
Even so, Noe is the real star of the piece. He has a field day exalting in all of his abilities as a filmmaker. He revels in the colored lighting, the twisting camera movements, the long takes, and the craziness that often distinguishes his work. Noe also loves to inject as much philosophy and politics into it all, especially in his inclusion of such cheeky titles that splash across the screen with statements such as “Death is an extraordinary experience” and “This is a French film, and proud of it.” Indeed, pride is not lacking in this artist.
His film keeps you enthralled thoroughly with his immersive techniques if not exactly invested in the multitude of characters. Perhaps there are just too many to fully take stock in all their plights, or maybe we’re kept at arms’ length because there’s too much self-consciousness in the telling. A side story of the abandoned son of a drugged mother screaming for her attention while she’s oblivious should carry a lot more weight than it does. Noe missed the opportunity to be more devastating in such instances.
Instead, some of the tragedy gets treated as mere folly. One dancer’s angry thrashing accidentally starts a fire that envelops a frizzy-haired character, but it comes just this shy of playing for laughs. No one reacts to it appropriately, and later in the film, we see the charred dancer trying to cool off by dousing herself with water from a sink’s faucet. Such a ruinous head wound is worth more than just irony.
At the end of it all, this twisted horror tale is a fascinating demonstration of moviemaking prowess, but beyond that, the message seems either too obvious or even frivolous. What is Noe’s ultimate point here? Drugs are bad. No shit, Sherlock. Yes, it’s smart to lay waste to turn dancers who rely upon their bodies for their bread and butter into toast, but is Noe indicting them for youthful excess, selfish navel-gazing, or the shallowness of show biz? As important as all those titles and all that technique would seem to suggest, there isn’t as much to this film as there should be. Towards the end of the film, police rummage around the dead bodies that they discover the following morning, but we should feel more affected. Instead, we admire Noe a great deal but care little for those he’s left on the floor so devastated.
View the trailer of Gaspar Noe’s Climax below:
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