AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD: 11th FEBRUARY, from ARROW FILMS
RUNNING TIME: 96 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 1996, twenty French dancers join together for a three-day rehearsal for a tour in America in a closed-down boarding school in the middle of the countryside, then finish off with a party. Some are in relationships with each other, some just want to have sex with others, one of them even has their young child present. Some get on with each other, some don’t. But everybody seems to want to dance to the tunes being spun by DJ Daddy. However, it suddenly becomes apparent that somebody had spiked the sangria with LSD or some other drug. What could go wrong?
It’s possible that, more than anything, Climax is about the dance. People are dancing at the beginning, throughout, even towards the end. They begin by moving in time but end up performing the kind of weird, double-jointed movements normally just seen when people are demonically possessed in films. Gaspar Noe likes to depict humanity as regressing to its most primal urges, and moving to a beat is as primal as lust and anger – well to those of us who like to do it [I plead guilty]. But then Climax, which may for some recall The Lord Of The Flies and Mother! [I reckon that your feelings about that wildly divisive Darren Aronovsky film won’t be much different from your feelings about this one] also seems to be so many other things that it hard to know where to begin even though there’s not really much of a plot. Is it a warning about drug use [including alcohol which of course is a drug too], considering that not one single person in it has a positive experience? Is it a depiction of a multi cultural France that’s threatening to tear itself apart [and before you call me or Noe racist prior to me going into this a bit more later on let me first remind you that Noe is half-Argentinian]? Is it a kind of Divine Comedy in reverse? Or is it not really about anything except being another depiction of debauchery from a sex-obssessed filmmaker who just likes to provoke and make the viewer feel like they’re on drugs?
One thing is sure, Climax, shot in fifteen days from a one-page outline to which the cast members made up their own dialogue, is quite extraordinary, an intoxicating fusion of music, dance, long takes, sexuality and a mystery [who put something into the sangria?], almost all of it taking place in one setting, that ends up really rather exhausting the viewer but in a good way as long as you’re willing to go to the places that Noe will take you. For those familiar with the previous work of this filmmaker, there’s plenty of sex and violence but nothing really graphic, Noe perhaps having fun being more restrained than normal in that respect [this film certainly isn’t restrained otherwise], even though a hell of a lot of stuff goes on, and at times this gives proceedings more power, rather than less. In particular, there’s a terribly sad and horrible death that affected me more than probably any movie death last year, yet it takes place off screen and you barely get to know the person. However, we feel the effect of it and feel rightfully horrified, angry and sad, and all at the same time. For those willing to jump in, there’s actually a powerhouse of emotions on offer in this film, and I’m tempted to say that this is Noe’s most approachable picture – though it’s still not ‘normal’ whatsoever and very much him. Love him or loath him [I generally love him but found Love to be something of an empty aberration in his oeuvre], Noe is an artist who has his own way of making films and who makes exactly what he wants. He probably doesn’t care if he pisses off a lot of viewers, in fact he probably welcomes it. In today’s climate, such fearless filmmakers should be cherished even if their work isn’t to your particular taste.
We begin at the end, which won’t come as a total surprise for some. The screen is covered in white before an electronic version of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie Number One [you may recognise the piece even if you don’t recognise the name] begins to play and we realise that we’re seeing aerial footage of snow, the camera slowly panning down to reveal somebody struggling to walk, then a tree, then back to the person who collapses but still tries to crawl forwards despite bleeding a great deal. The imagery is startling yet oddly beautiful even though it’s showing someone who’s dying. Then, after words dedicating the film to “those who are no longer with us” and saying how it’s based on true events in 1996, the end credits are shown. The beginning credits eventually turn up half way through, some of them upside down and somewhat dividing the film in half, while other slogans appear here and there, seeming to offer either ironic commentary or a statement on an issue from Noe’s point of view, such as while two women are discussing having abortions. I guess some may find all this rather pointless and/or annoying but I like how Noe likes to have fun with such things, and – well – if you’re easily irritated then this film, a film in which for example the entire climax takes place upside down, just isn’t for you. Anyway, we soon switch to a stationary shot of an old TV screen sandwiched between a pile of books and a stack of a very cool video collection that shows a series of cast interviews with folks who’ve signed up to work on a dance project. As they answer questions about a variety of subjects from their fears to drugs, it becomes apparent that this is an ingenious way to get to know a bit about quite a large number of characters, even if some may find that it goes on for too long.
And now we begin the dancing with an exhilarating, joyous bit of performance art in front of a huge French flag in one lengthy single shot before the party begins and people start dancing in their own styles while others pair up and have oddly ritualistic but usually very frank conversations with each other. Some may find some of the guy talk very sexist, but this is how a lot of guys talk about sex, always has been and always will be. When on the dance floor, Benoît Debie’s camera tends to just glide around for ages without visible edits, but when filming the dialogue we get conventional static set-ups. I could have done with a bit less of two bisexual black guys going on and on about fornicating, we keep on cutting to them at the expense of some of the other characters that we don’t spend enough time with. However the acting is quite good considering the cast mainly consists of dancers, and by the time we get the next major dance sequence, this time shot from above with everybody forming a spontaneous jam circle, things are more complicated and even tense because we know who fancies who, and who dislikes who, and so forth. All it takes for all their neuroses to fully come out is some LSD [well, some think it’s LSD though this isn’t confirmed] in the sangria in addition to all the alcohol and cocaine on offer, and things go from bad to worse, from peeing on the dance floor to incest. In some ways what we have here is a surprisingly realistic look at the effects of recreational drugs on screen, just ramped up to sensationalist proportions, and viewed more voyeuristically then from the POV of the person experiencing things. This is helped immensely by very believable acting, as earlier conversations get their payoffs, lust gets more urgent, people do things they mistakenly think are for the best, loss of control induces panic and mob rule takes over. No amount of camera fireworks and stylish red, green and blue lighting can soften how harrowing all this becomes, with the threat of human terror feeling very real indeed.
It’s probably easy to see all this is a Big Warning, but Noe seems to enjoy filming what he’s filming far too much to make things seem that simple, especially with the way the camera continually seems to be roaming around seeking people out, seeing what good or bad things they’re up to. He’s probably more making the point of how easy it is for humans to revert back to being like animals. Sofia Boutella is probably the only recognisable member of the cast, and we do spend more time with her character Selva than some of the others, though not to the point of really getting to know her. The dancers are made up of a diverse assemblage of races, sexes and sexualities, and I must admit that I began to groan when the one straight white guy David seemed to be the most dislikable out of the whole lot with his unpleasant attitude to women, though thankfully others eventually turn out to be far nastier than he. Unsurprisingly humour is generally reduced to the irony of things like one of the dancers having left Berlin because of its drug culture, though I guess you could say that there’s a very black [and I mean very] vein of humour here and there. I think that that huge French flag and one of the credits saying “Present a French film and proud of it” mean that Noe at least partly intended a timely political subtext, though considering certain things such as when a Muslim is the first one to be blamed for the spiking of the sangria and chucked outside, I don’t think that any negative racial commentary can be inferred, and take note of what happens to David. More than anything else, Noe just seems to be reminding us of how easily things can break down, and maybe especially so in a multi-cultural environment when it’s the duty of everybody to respect the cultures of those who live alongside them.
The perfectly structured soundtrack mixes the familiar sounds of the likes of Daft Punk and Aphex Twin with darker, more industrial, more claustrophobic tracks that serve well as underscoring while still filling the role of ‘source’ music. I think it’s possible to appreciate how well the music in this film is used even if you dislike the kind of music that it is. And you’re probably never think of a certain Rolling Stones song the same way again. The fact that Climax appeared in some top movies of 2018 lists means that myself and David Smith who was lucky enough to see it at Frightfest way before me are nowhere near on our own in finding it to be a really fulfilling movie experience, though it probably goes without saying that it’s not for all tastes and may just baffle and annoy some viewers – though I reckon that many will be compelled to keep watching anyway, it’s so hypnotic. After all, not every movie is there to provide easy enjoyment. If you do lean towards the offbeat though you really must give it a go. Cruel yet beguiling, tiring yet liberating, outrageous yet in its own way saying quite a lot about human nature [even if its generally unflattering], Climax is the closest that Noe has come in quality to his Irreversible [which I feel is an utter masterpiece and one of the top five films of its decade.]] and the second best movie of 2018.
As I watched an online screener of Climax, I was unable to view any of the Blu-ray/DVD special feature, but Arrow Video have clearly put together a highly impressive package for this film, so the Doc Highly Recommends!
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
*5.1 DTS-HD MA Audio
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*Audio commentary with writer-director Gaspar Noé
*An Antidote to the Void – a brand new interview with Gaspar Noé
*Performing Climax – newly-produced featurette comprising interviews with actors Kiddy Smile, Romain Guillermic and Souhelia Yacoub
*Disco Infernal: The Sounds of Climax – Alan Jones, author of Saturday Night Forever: The Story of Disco and Discomania, offers up a track-by-track appreciation of the Climax soundtrack
*Shaman of the Screen: The Films of Gaspar Noé – a brand new video essay by writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas looking as Gaspar Noé’s evolution as a filmmaker
*Reversible sleeve featuring two artwork options
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Anton Bitel alongside the original press kit
Read David Smith’s review of Climax here.