Review by LL Soares
I’m a big fan of director and provocateur Gaspar Noe, and for me a new film by him is kind of like an event. I first came upon him through his highly divisive film, IRREVERSIBLE (2002), a disturbingly violent flick that angered as many viewers as it fascinated. It’s a well-made, provocative film, but clearly not for everyone. As it is, I was impressed with it, but can’t really say I “liked” it. It’s a hard film to like. It did, however, establish Noe as a director to watch. I immediately sought out his previous feature, I STAND ALONE (1998), another dark descent into hell. After making various short films, his next big release was ENTER THE VOID (2009), a different kind of film, this time a story from the perspective of someone who has died and entered the “bardo” – the state between death and rebirth/reincarnation. It’s a hallucinogenic and visually impressive flick that is not only my favorite Noe film, but one of my favorite films of all time. In 2015, he came out with LOVE, which shifted the theme from violence to graphic sex, with real penetration, which of course meant more controversy, but I thought it was one of his weaker efforts.
Which brings us to his new one, CLIMAX. It’s about a group of dancers gathering for a celebration. It begins first with a bloodied woman trudging through snow, then switches to a TV screen where the various dancers appear as talking heads, introducing themselves and answering questions about art, dance, and sex. The footage appears to be on a VHS tape (establishing the time as the 1980s? 90s?) and there are numerous videos and books surrounding the television, including copies of Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA (1977) and Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE (1979).
Once we meet the players, we then see them “in person.” They begin with a giant dance-off, with each dancer getting a few moments to shine. It’s a long, riveting performance (which was all done in one continuous shot), as each character expresses themselves through dance. They’re going to be leaving soon for a tour of America, and are all excited.
The next part of the film involves the party. Characters talk (mostly about sex) as they eat and drink sangria from a punchbowl. This gives us further insight into the players involved. First, we heard them talk about themselves (the TV), then we saw them express themselves through dance, and now we see them with their guards down, talking among themselves. Predictably, most of the conversations are rather raunchy.
Then, something goes wrong. Someone has spiked the punchbowl with LSD and everyone starts slowly losing their grips on reality. Most of the action so far has taken place in the large auditorium where they danced and partied, but now some of the characters leave and go to other parts of the building, including the dorm rooms where the characters live. Some characters hook up, others explode with violence. When people begin to realize they’ve been drugged, they turn on the characters who didn’t “drink the kool-aid” – first a Muslim dancer named Omar (Adrien Sissoko), who doesn’t drink (he is thrown out into the snow), and then a woman named Lou (Souheila Yacoub) who said she didn’t feel well and who later reveals she is pregnant (other characters don’t believe her, and blaming her for the drugging, start violently hitting amd kicking her). The camera follows everyone throughout, as things get stranger and emotions get more erratic.
The most famous person here is Sofia Boutella, who you might recognize from playing the lead character in THE MUMMY (2017), as Jaylah in STAR TREK BEYOND (2016) and as the spy Charlize Theron seduces in ATOMIC BLONDE (2017). She’s also an experienced dancer, and here she plays Selva, the troupe’s lead dancer, and it won’t take long for her to be sucked into the chaos along with everyone else. Other characters include a woman named Emmanuel (Claude Gajan Maull) who brought the food and drink (and is one of the first people accused of drugging them, but she’s as spaced out as they are), who brought her young son, Tito (Vince Galliot Cumant) to the occasion (and ends up locking him the electrical closet, but, of course, she quickly loses the key); Taylor and Gazelle (Taylor Kastle and Giselle Palmer) a brother and sister duo where the brother is very possessive; Selva’s jealous boyfriend, David (Romain Guillermic); Psyche and Ivana (Thea Carla Schott and Sharleen Temple), a lesbian couple who have an argument early on, and DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile) who at first seems to be a figure of reason, but who descends into the hallucinatory madness just like everyone else.
The film has a lot of the visual quirks that Noe often puts in his films. For example, the end credits appear near the beginning of the film, and occasionally placards flash onscreen reading things like “Birth is a unique experience,” “Life is a collective impossibility,” and “Death is an extraordinary experience.”
Some of the dancing looks like the frantic movements of demonic possession, which makes this the second movie I’ve seen lately (the other being Luca Guadagnino’s SUSPIRIA remake from last year) that ties modern dance with scenes of horror. For some reason, dance and horror go very well together onscreen (also think of BLACK SWAN, 2010).
The soundtrack includes songs by Gary Numan, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti (of Chris & Cosey, and the seminal industrial band Throbbing Gristle), Daft Punk, and Aphex Twin. And it keeps you riveted throughout. Aside from the choreographed dance numbers, a lot of the film is improvised and has a chaotic feel, which is just what Noe is going for here.
While it is visually enticing, and revels in hallucinations and madness (also another of his regular themes), I still can’t help feeling it is one of Noe’s lesser works. The emphasis here is on having an “experience” rather than telling a story, and while that’s fine, there’s not a lot of meat here. It’s not as profound and beautiful as ENTER THE VOID or as relentlessly disturbing as IRREVERSIBLE. And, as it reaches the end, the insanity starts to get a little bit tiresome.
But it’s still Noe, and it’s still more adventurous and interesting than most of what we see in theaters these days. I give it three knives.
© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares
LL Soares gives CLIMAX ~ three knives.