In Gaspar Noé’s “Climax,” the end credits come at the beginning, the opening titles arrive in the middle, and from time to time other words interrupt the action.
“Death is an extraordinary experience,” declares one such text, printed upside down in both the center of the screen and the subtitles below. Another proclaims (right side up) that “this is a French film, and proud of it.”
What does that mean? Is it just the obvious fact that the characters in “Climax,” members of a dance troupe whose night of partying goes terribly awry, mostly speak French? Or that they gyrate, flirt, drink and fight in front of a giant tricolor flag? Is this a French movie because of its aggressive sexual candor? Because of the smoking? Because there’s a song by Air on the soundtrack? Because of the last-minute intervention of the state?
Possibly all of the above – and also, I suspect, by virtue of Noé’s commitment to an idea of cinema at once visceral and analytical, sensual and cerebral. He is an extremist with a philosophical streak whose movies combine an aesthetic of shock with an almost geeky formalism. He confronts the viewer with graphic sexual violence (“Irréversible”), 3-D pornography (“Love”) and what feels like death itself (“Enter the Void”) in a way that at once overwhelms thought and encourages reflection.
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“Climax,” with its hallucinatory, often horrific images, its relentless, bass-heavy music and its vertiginous camera movements, assaults the senses and scrambles the brain. But even though the techniques are immersive – plunging you into a disorienting reality that mirrors the drug-fueled frenzy you are witnessing – the effect is also curiously distancing. You are being assaulted with an idea, bombarded by a series of theoretical propositions about sexual ethics, social behavior and the nature of cinematic representation.
These are not, in themselves, all that interesting. Noé may be a better technician than a thinker. And like most parties that go on too long and spin out of control, this one gets boring after a while. But the director’s skill and energy keep it exciting – if not entirely pleasant – at least until the serious violence starts.
The dancers, finished with rehearsals and about to embark on a tour of America, gather for music and drinks in a cavernous room on a winter night. We know that it will end badly – the first image we’ve seen is of a desperate, bleeding woman crawling through the snow in daylight – and that the group came together in a spirit of eager creativity. On an old color television (the story takes place in the mid-90s), we watch snippets of the audition interviews that brought them to this fateful evening. The set is flanked by VHS tapes that offer clues about what is to come. The titles include “Suspiria” (the Dario Argento original, not the more recent remake), “Querelle” and “Possession,” films whose ranks “Climax” aspires to join.
It has its moments, most of them in the first half, when the emphasis is on movement rather than mayhem. There are two extended group dance sequences, one filmed almost entirely from above, that are enthralling for their discovery of the strangeness and beauty of human bodies.
At rest, the people, a mix of races, sizes and sexualities, are somewhat more ordinary. They gossip, squabble and banter. The men brag about the sex they’ve had or want to have. The women do that, too, although in less explicit terms. The audience manages to figure out who is who and struggles to remember the names, as if we had crashed the party. Selva (Sofia Boutella) is the one with the dyed-blond bob who might be the main character. David (Romain Guillermic) is the guy putting the moves on her. Daddy (Kiddy Smile) is the DJ. Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull) is the mother of the little kid. There are snacks and sangria, which turns out to be laced with LSD.
As the drug takes effect, the conversation devolves into screams, moans and accusations. The action erupts into shoving and shouting matches, and then escalates into beatings, child endangerment and self-mutilation, and finally into suicide, incest, rape and murder. The camera hurtles down corridors, flips over and spins around, a frenetic kineticism that increases the intensity and then drains it away. The climax, so to speak, is a murky swirl of limbs under hazy red light, a finish that demonstrates the limits of Noé’s immersive method. You had to be there. Thank goodness you weren’t.
Rated R for disturbing content involving a combination of drug use, violent behavior and strong sexuality, and for language and some graphic nudity.
In French and English with subtitles.