“Well, that was crap,” said a middle-aged man wearing what appeared to be full-on goggles as the lights came up in the theater. It’s odd that we’re still there at that point. One would typically have headed out as soon as the credits began… but this is a Gaspar Noe film. Those closing credits are the opening credits, seamlessly flowed to from the minutes-long opening shot of a bleeding woman crawling through perfect white snow.
There are actual opening credits too, but they take place about an hour in. So fun.
Gaspar Noe is one of the most interesting directors working today. He’s hardly prolific – having only made five features in 20 years, with some shorts in between – but every release feels like an event. For him, style is substance, and he’s got style to spare, all of which is used to push the boundaries of acceptibility.
His first film, I Stand Alone, feels like a warm-up, clearing his throat with some almost comedically nihilistic philosophy. It was the next, Irreversible, that shot him into the collective consciousness by depicting a nine-minute-long rape with an unbroken, unmoving camera – among other horrors. Seven years later, Enter the Void meditated on life and death in a DMT-fueled psychosexual nightmare full of unforgettable imagery. His next, Love, had a quarter of the budget, and so went in a more, um, intimate direction with scenes of actual, as in unsimulated, sex, including a moment of ejaculation straight at the screen.
Also, it’s in 3D.
Climax, fittingly, is a culmination of everything that has come before. Eighteen dancers come to an isolated location to work on a performance that they will then travel beyond France’s borders. Perhaps even to America.
The bulk of the film takes place a few days into their stay. After a routine run through, they have a party. Someone spikes the celebratory sangria with LSD. All hell breaks loose.
But where Enter the Void takes you along for the trip, Climax keeps you out of it.
I’ve been sober for… 27 years; I have never intentionally ingested alcohol or anything else of that sort. But I have been around intoxicated people – perhaps not on LSD, at least to my knowledge, but I can say that Climax captures the discomfort of being someone who’s just a bit more aware of a situation than everyone else. I don’t think this was intentional, to be honest; I don’t know if Gaspar Noe knows what it’s like to be the sober one, and it seems to me that the disorienting camerawork was intended to bring the viewer into the experience, but there’s a clear line between the way Enter the Void depicts DMT and Climax does LSD. Now, Quora tells me that this is because DMT is a whole other level of hallucinogen
– and Google probably now thinks I’m looking to start checking out alternate planes of consciousness –
but the Irreversible-esque camerawork in constant motion better represents the overall uneasiness of the situation than it does any given person’s experience. This is more appropriate, though, as the camera moves throughout the characters, not all of whom had the sangria, while trying to keep you up to date on their statuses in a movie that barely passes the 90-minute mark. This section of the film appears as a single take, eventually resulting in an intimate familiarity with the space. This is the area where the light changes colors. That is where you hear the screaming child locked in a room. You start to remember where characters are only to be shocked when they appear elsewhere.
And this is where Climax is at its most effective, because it feels as though the camera could have just as easily given its primary focus to other characters without really compromising the overall impact of the narrative. Despite having so many characters, they’ve all got clearly defined personalities and feel like people who are doing actual things even when they’re not onscreen. Everyone is introduced in a series of interviews, presented on an on-screen television surrounded by reading and viewing materials. To the left are books; the right are VHS tapes.
The tapes include Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Hara Kiri, Possession, Suspiria, and the like. I wasn’t really able to see what the books said, because the film is in French and I was trying to pay attention to the subtitles and couldn’t do both – but the word “Suicide” stuck out, as did the name Fritz Lang. Watching the trailer, you can see some of this. However, the aspect ratio is wrong, and much of the sides are cut off. I guess he doesn’t want you to see his Salo-esque “Essential Bibliography” until you get into the theater.
But these gave me a lot to think about during the slower portions of Climax, and there are many. That interview section feels like an eternity even if it is probably closer to ten minutes long. Following the big dance number – which is very impressive – is an exhausting amount of singles dancing and then a bunch of two-shots ripped straight from Love as characters talk about whatever gross or dumb thing they’re interested in amidst jarring cuts to black.
Fortunately, this is Noe’s first time in 16 years working with competent actors. The biggest failings of both Enter the Void and Love are that its performers are genuinely bad – especially the protagonist in whose head you spend… most of each film (the former more literally than the latter). You can tell that he’s working with professionals here solely by the amount of clothing that the majority of the characters keep wearing throughout. There are a couple of folks willing to sign nudity clauses, but far more who won’t; that would have been a deal-breaker for Love, but Noe clearly cared more about performance here. And good, because it is all about the performance. Unfortunately, I just didn’t care about at least two-thirds of them.
So while they were keeping on keeping on, I thought about other things: like Suspiria, and mother!, his earlier films, but the oddest one I kept coming back to was the music video for Sia’s “The Greatest.” If you haven’t seen it, you really, really should; it’s a great song inspired by the Pulse night club shooting in Orlando, and it has a video to match – one full of dancing and emotion and, of course, death. I don’t watch that much dance, so my points of reference are pretty limited, but if you told me that the choreographer of Climax was the same person who puts together Maddy Ziegler’s little Sia dances, I’d believe it. Here that feels particularly true, as so many others are involved. And hell, that video’s final group scene takes place in a room lit in green and red.
Honestly, if you watch the video for The Greatest, you’ve seen like 80% of what Climax has to offer. Maybe more.
Which is perhaps the oddest thing of all about this movie: it doesn’t really stand out. Even though it is overtly a Gaspar Noe film, it has none of that unique or interesting transgression that defined his earlier work. Other people could have made this movie – and indeed have made movies much like it. Climax instead turns inward, reflecting on his ouvre, pulling direct inspiration from his own earlier styles and attempting to fit them into one film. It doesn’t work. The nauseating, seemingly unbroken camera of Irreversible mixes as well with the frankly boring conversational style of Love as oil with water. Juxtaposing them highlights this incompatibility. Climax, then, feels like a series of shorts starring the same actors that have been grafted onto each other.
It may be new for the director that the closest thing Climax has to a protagonist is a woman, but that hardly feels like a revelation. His male characters are still pigs, and they’re given so much time to spout their piggishness. It made me wish that I was watching this at home, where I could fast forward through the nonsense before getting into that last thirty minutes or so.
Still, I don’t really agree with the man in the goggles who sat behind me. When he came into the theater during that same dumb trailer for The Curse of La Llorona that I’ve seen fifteen times, he loudly proclaimed “You’re in my seat” to whomever was already there. Clearly, not a man who cared much about the people around him. I bet he would have been even louder if the movie had already started.
But I understand both why he felt that way and why he needed to verbalize it to this room of strangers, because there is no way to not have a visceral reaction to this movie – also evidenced by the multiple walkouts. And no two reactions will be quite the same: there are so many reasons to hate this movie, though each could just as easily be a reason to love it for a certain type of person. I’m not one of them, but I get it.
Because I have a genuine appreciation for some of what Climax does. It has flashes of brilliance that, though they are overshadowed by the much longer spells of aggressively anti-audience blather, I can’t help but respect.
And so for the hilarity of it:
Six Point Nine out of Ten.