Gaspar Noé’s visceral, intense bodily experience is an intoxicating display of excess

Patrick Preziosi on Gaspar Noé’s ‘Climax’ (2018)

For teenaged, self-proclaimed cinephiles, there’s plenty of internet rabbit holes to go down in search of “messed up” art films, many belonging to the ilk of such locational arthouse movements as Denmark’s Dogme 95 and New French Extremity. Volatile directors such as Lars von Trier (Denmark) and Gaspar Noé (France) came to embody and subsequently reject these respective schools of filmmaking. Whereas Trier’s work – even with all its depravity and surrounding controversy – has held more esteem among critics and tastemakers, Noé’s films have become something of punching bags; Irréversible (2002) and Enter the Void (2009) being referred to as little more than transmissions from France’s resident “bad boy” for the torture porn obsessed, hallucinogen ingesting, edgy youth. Over the years, Noé’s films have gone from initially overwhelming provocation to simply soured juvenilia.

However, upon announcement of Noé’s newest, Climax, there was a sense of unshakeable intrigue that had seemed to evaporate after Love (2015) landed dead on arrival. It seemed as if the director’s misplaced sense of bloated conceptualism was finally taking a backseat to his undeniable level of technical craft. Climax’s premise is straightforward: a group of young, wildly talented dancers practice for their 1996 US tour at some isolated studio, before experiencing a terrifying descent into madness at cause of a possibly-spiked-with-LSD sangria bowl. Climax isn’t Noé trying to inhabit the experience of a drug trip as means of philosophising, but rather a simple display of the fine line between ecstasy and agony, and how humans decide to act on either side of this threshold.

In a four-month turnaround, Climax was shot in 15 days from a five-page script, with a much lower budget than other Noé projects. Although Climax, for lack of a better word, has an absolutely bonkers structure and narrative arc, it possesses a refreshing off-the-cuff feel, no doubt due to Noé’s openness with his largely unprofessional cast, as many of the sequences and relationships at play are born from such collaboration. The totally jaw-dropping opening dance sequence – shot in one thrilling long take – was the work of choreographer Nina McNeely compositing the dancers’ diverse array of styles (from voguing to krump), and all subsequent body movement was the sole decision of the cast themselves. The film begins as a euphoric dance number before the group begins to break off as the LSD sinks its teeth into them, many getting the chance to convey their hallucinations in the form of subtly experimental solo dance pieces.

There is a slightly predictable shock factor within the film’s second half (without saying too much, of course the woman who shouldn’t be hit in the stomach… gets hit in the stomach), but these are moments that are at least imbued with a solid sense of narrative. Much of what manifests itself is hinted at more casually at what could be considered the film’s interlude, where after the first dance, everyone breaks off into pairs, and a series of quick cuts insert themselves into casual snatches of conversation (Noé had everyone improvise here as well), ranging from personal secrets to sexual conquests. Once the hellishness of the second half creeps in, the dancers find these conversations used against them.

Surprisingly, there’s a lot that can be drawn from this film that trades in such pure viscerality, but there’s also plenty to glean on the surface level. Climax bounces between the respective poles of all-consuming art, but this is separated by a schizophrenic credit sequence plopped a decent way into the film (though the beginning does start with the very end credits rolling, such as distributors, music rights, etc.), where every contributor is announced in gross neon and obnoxious fonts, an intoxicating display of excess. These dancers’ world is literally turned upside down, and for the last twenty minutes, the steadicam work of Benoît Debie does just that.

Does Climax meet its lofty aspirations, of which we learn from a series of interviews of the dancers playing on a TV surrounded with works by the likes of Fassbinder, Pasolini and Murnau? Not necessarily, and this does come off as cloying, even if a case could be possibly made for similarities shared with Pasolini, though that’s still a stretch.

But Climax doesn’t need to align itself with Fox and His Friends (1975) or Buñuel. It revels in its own process of devolution, and remains an absolutely physical film, not just because of the dance, but for the ways it remains an all around bodily experience: Noé renders the film’s environment totally immersive through his queasy camerawork, and a throbbing soundtrack pushed to ear-splitting levels. And even with the violence that rears its ugly head, Climax is an overwhelmingly human work, and speaks as much to surviving fear as it does to succumbing to it.

Climax is released in the UK 21 September 2018

Patrick Preziosi

By Patrick Preziosi

Patrick Preziosi is a freelance critic from Brooklyn, NY. He’s written about film, music and literature for photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Metrograph Edition, Little White Lies, America Magazine, and Screen Slate.