Imagine “Fame” directed by the Marquis de Sade and you’ll have some sense of what you’re getting yourself into with Gaspar Noe’s “Climax,” another drug fueled horror show by the French provocateur that surprisingly intermingles some joyous sequences with the typical shock value you’d expect in a Noe film.
Noe has long been among Europe’s enfants terribles – along with Lars Von Trier, Bruno Dumont and Ulrich Seidl – who shows up every few years at the Cannes Film Festival with a new movie that will likely make viewers run for the aisles. His previous work includes the shocking “Irreversible,” a very well made and horrifying film that I’ll likely never watch again, as well as the trippy but overlong “Enter the Void” and the overwrought semi-porno “Love.”
Although the grim aspects you’d expect in a Noe film – as well as the loud blaring house music, dizzying camerawork and drug induced hallucinations – are present in “Climax,” I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the director had more on his mind this time around than merely jolting audiences.
The film follows a day in the life of a dance troupe circa 1996 – the film is apparently based on a real incident, whatever that means – that has camped out in an old, secluded building to rehearse. “Climax” opens with interviews of the troupe’s various members, a diverse cross section of men and women of varying sexual preferences and ethnicities who appear to be purposefully representative of France’s multicultural makeup. In the troupe, there are two German women, a number of black men and women, a Muslim, several white performers, one or two gay men and a few lesbians.
Following the interview sequences that kick off the film, we are treated to an absolutely electrifying dance rehearsal sequence, in which all of the performers dance in a circle as each member moves toward the camera and practices their best moves, all to the tune of thumping house music. At times, Noe’s camera travels to the ceiling a la Busby Berkeley and observes from above as the dancers show off on the dance floor. There are a number of dance sequences throughout the course of the picture, but the first one is easily the best.
The film’s next movement is the least compelling. The camera travels back and forth throughout the rehearsal room as various pairs of dancers talk about other members of the troupe and discuss their sexual preferences. It lingers for long periods of time on two groups of men who explicitly discuss how they have slept with all of the women in the troupe. Although these scenes do a decent job of setting up the group’s dynamic and explaining the various relationships between its members, there’s only so many times that one can hear about a character fucking another’s brains out.
As they celebrate the end of their rehearsal, the dancers realize that someone has spiked the sangria they are drinking with LSD. Soon, the characters begin to turn on each other, accusing various dancers of having been the culprit. The Muslim dancer is the first to be accused since he doesn’t drink alcohol and he is thrown out of the rehearsal space, forced to battle the snowy elements outside on his own.
Resentments rise to the surface, characters become paranoid and all literally goes to hell. A character catches on fire; a mother locks her young son in a closet to keep him away from the other dancers, who are high, but this ends in tragic results; and a pregnant woman undergoes a particularly grueling episode.
Throughout the film, Noe flashes title cards with statements on them – at the film’s beginning, there’s one that reads “A French Film and Proud of It!” Later, one in line with Noe’s worldview – “Death is an Extraordinary Experience” – is seen. But the one that is seemingly most noteworthy regarding this film’s overall concept is one that reads “Life is a Collective Impossibility.” “Climax” is, perhaps, a microcosm of our current world on fire.
While the film isn’t as mercilessly effective as “Irreversible” or visually ambitious as “Enter the Void,” it contains some of the most impressive moments of Noe’s career so far. The opening dance number is phenomenal and the camerawork, often spinning around and around and leaving characters upside down is occasionally breathtaking. Other scenes drag on too long – the original interviews, the scenes in which characters discuss their sex lives and some of the horrors in the film’s final act – but the picture also finds the director tackling material that is more thought provoking than usual.
Noe’s films are undoubtedly an acquired taste. They’re not for everyone. But “Climax” finds the director at his most compelling, at least thematically, and there’s a little bit of joy in the film’s early scenes to accompany all of the horrors that follow. The film may or may not have a deeper context regarding the current state of multicultural France, but it doesn’t bang you over the head with it. “Climax” is an interesting experience.