Climax (Review)

You should probably be suspicious of people who tell you they like Gaspar Noé’s Climax. However, few will be able to deny it is at least a very impressive piece of work – as it combines extremely long single shots with extensive improvisation and avant-garde camera work, while still managing to remain internally coherent (I mean, it’s completely wild and mind-melting, but it does maintain an internal logic).

I have to admit, I fall into both camps. I not only respect it, I love it.

Yes, Climax is a purposefully provocative film designed to shock and alienate. However, its audacity is admirable and the experience of watching it is just something else. This ‘story’ of a French dance troupe (equipped with the perfunctory apocryphal claim of being based on real events) charts their decline into hallucinatory hell as a rehearsal turns into a party in which -unbeknownst to all but the perpetrator – the communal sangria has been spiked with LSD. The results of this being the titular Climax: an extended crescendo of depravity.

In terms of structure, Climax is a fascinating film. It starts in medias res and cuts very quickly to the entire end credits. This is effective here, as a gimmick, but pays off beautifully at the end. The film, as previously mentioned, just escalates towards the extreme, and then just cuts out. The lights go back up and it’s just over. There is no time to calm down, no process by which you can acclimatise or process what you’ve seen. What seems like a minor meta-gag culminates in something utterly brilliant.

After the end credits, we get the rest of the film. The narrative jumps back in time to show you an introductory video (think of the video interview scene in Miike’s masterpiece, Audition, for a reference point, but this time you just get to watch the tape) for each member of the troupe. This establishes each character really nicely and facilitates later events. It’s a lot of information to take in but this already prepares you for an overwhelming experience. It also is impressive how defined each character feels, and how the seeds for later events are sewn (most of the film is improvised so this is more of a compliment to that process than it is to actual scripting). The framing of this scene is incredibly important, however. The videos are shown on a period appropriate (the film is set in the 1990s) TV/VCR which is surrounded by videos and books that are carefully chosen. Here, Noé shows of his influences and gives a hint of what’s to come. The footage all seems very realist and conventional – almost documentarian – but these slices of life are juxtaposed with VHS copies of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Żuławski’s Possession and Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (these being the ones that stood out to me). You already know, from Noé’s pedigree and the eighteen rating, that things are going to go south at a certain point – this framing is just an enjoyably elegant way of telegraphing this. The film also does these references proud and is, in many ways, a better spiritual successor to my beloved Suspiria than Guadagnino’s frustrating re-imagining.

From here the film segues into a breathtaking dance sequences. It’s an impressively long single shot and the art on display is mesmerising. With a film like Climax, in which the intent seems to be purely experiential and provocative, it’s somewhat foolish to ascribe meaning. However, the drug fuelled climax is so shocking that the film does perhaps push the importance of art for cohesion. We see how relationships between disparate groups can fall apart but at this point everybody is completely unified. This is a film in which art brings people together and in which people fall apart due to external and artificial stimuli.

And then another stylistic shift: the viewer now gets a sequence of dialogue shots populated by numerous cuts. The aesthetic dissonance is jarring, but effectively so. The content of the dialogue is also frequently shocking but stems naturally from characterisation. People spew some really toxic things but it never feels like the film talking or the film endorsing these views. It’s more an insight into herd-mentality and the dark desires that reside in us. When the drugs kick in, a lot of these desires are actualised – often in graphic detail but sometimes merely implied (the film is, arguably, actually rather tasteful. Climax is hugely shocking but I didn’t find it to be obscene or offensive: it knows how far to push it and it knows what not to show). By transitioning from crude conversation into horrific realisation, the film adopts a Hobbesian perspective in which we see mankind in the state of nature enacting its brutish desires. And while I may not philosophically agree with this perspective, it is very well realised.

I almost forgot to mention, before the climax itself, the viewer is given something reminiscent of an opening title sequence in which the names of all the actors flash up and dominate the screen. Noé’s name then pops up several times and then you get logos for all of the bands whose music you are about to hear (and have presumably heard already). It’s utterly bizarre but it’s totally mesmeric. The film knows what you are waiting for and it sets it up beautifully, tongue firmly in cheek. Then you have the rest of the film, all forty-some minutes of it: a nightmarish descent into chaos. And, you know what? It’s glorious.

The film doesn’t represent – or reproduce – the actual hallucinations but the camerawork and lighting – and pulsing soundtrack – is enough to create a hallucinatory feel that is far more effective. The entire sequence is also a single shot (it’s astonishing). There’s a lot of depravity on display here but it’s so well done and so aesthetically overwhelming as to be somewhat transcendent. It just works. It works so damn well.

So yes, Climax is certainly not for most people. And it’s a film you may be reticent to say you enjoyed. But, you know what, I loved it. It was transportative, suffocating, shocking, uncomfortable, utterly audacious and just a sadistic delight.

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