Climax is a complete blast, as much a full-on party as it is a piece of cinema. Depicting a group of dancers having a celebration that descends into full-on chaos, this is the cinematic equivalent of a drug experience. As technically impressive as it is entertaining, Climax may be the purest film Gaspar Noé has ever made. Rarely has a trip this bad ever felt this good.
An ensemble chamber piece taking place within one remote location, the outside of which we hardly see, Climax opens in the mid-90s, and a group of dancers have just finished a long few days of rehearsals ahead of their big trip to America. With the exception of one Russian and one German girl — the latter ironically here to get away from the Berlin drug scene — everyone else is French, making the setting feel like the country in miniature. This is stressed by the huge French flag looming over the ballroom; more than one person thinks it’s creepy.
There are a lot of characters, and they meld into one other in one of the opening scenes, a fantastic one-take dance rehearsal that segues into the start of the party. To distinguish each from one another, we are introduced to these people via VHS audition. This is a smart move, removing the need for long establishing scenes, and plunging us quickly into the action. Despite working hard all day, most of the group are still full of energy. We observe them talking quite graphically about who they want to have sex with, and how they want to have that sex. It looks like the movie might just be an orgy, Noé perhaps taking Love to a whole new level, but things start to go terribly wrong once it becomes evident someone slipped drugs into the sangria.
At first, the chamber drama threatens to become an Agatha Christie whodunit, with multiple fingers being pointed at who spiked the drinks. Yet, much like in a traditional bacchanal, the sounds of screaming are drowned out by the banging of the drums. Taking place during the Golden Age of electronic music, Climax features banging tunes like Lil Louis’ “French Kiss,” Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” and (in its second appearance at Cannes after Sorry Angel) MARRS’ iconic “Pump Up The Volume.” Noé cranks the volume up to eleven and keeps it there for the entire film. Whoever assembled this set should play at Berghain.
Gaspar Noé’s cinema is one of totality — he wants to assault the senses and fixate the eyes. This is achieved through his long and flowing takes. Shot from above, upside down, and close to the ground, Noé forces the viewer into submission. It’s an abrasive style, yet once you get used to it, it becomes immensely pleasurable to watch, simulating the wobbly feel of a drug trip and allowing the viewer not only to imagine themselves in the room, but to imagine how they would experience super-strong LSD.
Comparisons to mother! are inevitable. Like that Aranofsky film, Climax starts with a fairly innocuous situation, all set in one house, before everything slowly tears apart. Also like mother!, the constantly panning camera constantly suggests untold horrors unfolding just outside of the frame. Where they crucially diverge is the lack of an on-the-nose allegory. Climax may not signify much outside of itself, yet the film speaks to the most primal instincts of human nature — reducing man to essential feelings such as lust, anger, and most importantly, rhythm. The dancing functions as expressionist performance art, not speaking so much outside of itself, but working brilliantly on its own terms. This wouldn’t have worked without casting actual dancers in the main role.
Master of sprawling, messy pieces such as Enter the Void and Love, a new Noé film is always an event. Climax is his simplest and most entertaining movie to date. While lacking the profundity or ambition of his previous efforts, it is effortlessly enjoyable, and even contains moments of brutal comic value. Although it goes to some shocking places, it lacks the stomach-churning violence of Irreversible or the graphic sex scenes of Love, making this movie fairly accessible. Climax may depict a big night gone wrong, but it is almost certain to be a staple of house parties the world over. This film is so good it needs to set up its own club night.