Cast: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull, Giselle Palmer, Taylor Kastle, Thea Carla Schott, Sharleen Temple, Lea Vlamos, Alaia Alsafir, Kendall Mugler, Lakdhar Dridi, Adrien Sissoko, Mamadou Bathily, Alou Sidibe, Ashley Biscette, Vince Galliot Cumant
Director: Gaspar Noé
Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
When it comes to extreme cinema, there are few modern voices as brazen as French filmmaker Gaspar Noé (aside from Lars von Trier, natch). His 2002 psycho-thriller Irreversible had two sequences worthy of the extreme pantheon; one where a man’s face is smashed to pulp by a fire extinguisher, and the other being the infamous rape scene filmed in one long, grueling shot. Then there was 2009’s Enter the Void; an out-of-body sensory experience where the camera was literally a floating POV traveling through the neon-lit hell of Tokyo, and yes, the lens at one point goes directly into a woman’s vaginal canal. With his latest button-pusher, Climax, Noé is up to his old tricks once again with arguably the best unintentional comedy of 2019 so far; a wildly overwrought descent into madness which plays like a Eurotrash version of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò directed by a fleet of drone cameras.
To his credit, Noé does seem to understand the absurdity of his premise; setting his film entirely inside a grungy rehearsal space circa 1996, set to the throbbing sounds of EDM music. Populating these small quarters are a series of annoying archetypes who, when they aren’t dancing up a storm, are entertaining philosophical discussions about such things as the finer points of rimming. Truthfully, the film does contain one truly extraordinary sequence; an exuberant opening dance number where each performer gets a chance to strut their stuff with fearless physicality, and Noé is smart enough to capture this deranged ballet in one long continuous take. However, as soon as the rehearsals end, we are forced to endure long stretches of dialogue which consist mainly of racially and sexually diverse dancers talking shit and hoping to score in more ways than one. This inane banter is all set-up, naturally, for Noé’s predictable swerve into the nightmarish abyss. Someone, it seems, has spiked the sangria with LSD.
Part of the problem with Climax is the lack of characters to really invest in. Once the bad times start rolling after the acid kicks in, there’s very little reason to care about what happens to any of these poor souls. The film is mostly an exercise in extremes which reaches levels of comedic absurdity. Some of the personalities do come through, however; such as Romain Guillermic’s swaggering ladies man, Sofia Boutella’s bi-curious choreographer and big-boned DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile), who has a memorable moment chewing on a blonde wig once the drugs take flight. Ultimately, the film is less interested in the psychology of its performers than in the ways performance and movement can break down social order. As the dancers start “tripping”, Noé’s roving camera follows their spastic movements, hallucinations, euphoric freak-outs, and awful behavior in a voyeuristic manner suggesting that we too, as the audience, are under the influence. In a way, the film becomes a more ominous version of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, where a group of wankers are unwilling (or unable) to leave their geographical space as the world closes in on them.
Unlike Buñuel, however, Noé lacks satiric imagination, and therefore the one-note maximalism of Climax starts to grow tedious, even as sequences where someone is set on fire or a woman punches herself in the stomach to abort her unborn baby play as comedic highlights. What’s supposed to be shocking and disturbing comes off more desperate than anything else; a telling example of a filmmaker making his name on shock tactics early in his career being pigeonholed into providing minor tweaks to the same formula. For some provocateurs, it can work over the long haul, (see von Trier’s masterful meta-commentary The House That Jack Built), but in this case, provocation without actual ideas can feel a lot like drinking the spiked cinematic sangria. Noé urgently wants us to come away with a visceral sense of shock and awe, but what’s really left after all the bodies stop twitching, is a soft tickle in the funny bone.