Since breaking into the arthouse scene in 2002, Gasper Noe and controversy have never been far apart. In 2002 he gave the world a brutal and unsympathetic tale of rape in Irreversible, following that up in 2009 he directed Enter the Void and with that, he was established as a one of a kind, perverse, voice. Not one to let his foot off the peddle, he upped the ante of the graphic sex in Enter the Void to make the glorified pornographic film, Love, in 2015. Like fellow provocateur Enfant terrible, Lars Von Trier, it has become hard to tell where the Firebrand of Noe began and the filmmaker ended. Sure, his commitment to rebellion has gained him legions of ardent fans, but in doing so he became the single least accessible director in European cinema for decades and much to the chagrin of those die-hard Noe fans, such a path can only be traversed for so long. I was of the opinion that he was effectively turning himself into a glorified pornographer leaving any notion of crossover appeal in the rear view window. Intrigued I was to hear that his new film, Climax, was garnering acclaim in the corners that had previously housed his most vocal critics.
Opening with a grainy television bookended on either side by books & VHS tapes of spiritual touchstones and on the TV we are introduced to a procession of dancers who talk about why dancing means so much to them whilst giving a vague sense of character. Most of these faces are dancers first and actors second, however, there is one familiar face in Sofia Boutella (Kingsman: secret service & Atomic Blonde). Intercut a few pretentious existential messages across the screen and action then moves to a dance floor where we are treated to an incredible display of modern dance. It’s an impressive display but other than saying that shapes are thrown and the physical contortions are impressive, there’s not much to say. Film criticism has its ups and down, but dance criticism, surely there can be no more redundant school of analysis? Noe knows this so he plants his camera firm and allows his super talented players’ centre stage. There is another number later on only the camera looks down at the top of the dancer’s heads from up on high.
Climax’s story, as non-existent as it is, is to bring these dancers together for one incredible performance. After which the troupe are free to let their hair down and party, Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull) has made some sangria, unfortunately unbeknownst to her someone has spiked it with some potent LSD. Climax is split in two with credits at the midpoint, not traditional credits, instead, a series of logos and monikers flash on-screen to the beat of the music showing all the performers involved and all the music included. It’s a film of two halves in other ways too, the opening 45 (of 90) is a typical party with people drinking (poisoned sangria), dancing, and chatting. The party chat sees certain members of the male contingent up their machismo and make claims of who they are going to sleep with (or already have), and honestly, of all the things in a Gasper Noe film to find annoying this loosely improvisational dialogue is possibly the most mundane option. Annoying as they are, to the largely unprofessional cast’s credit, these exchanges do echo the reality of some (albeit queasily).
Then the LSD kicks in and the film completely changes its spots. Some have described Climax as a descent into hell comparable to Pasolini’s Salo, and given Noe’s career direction to this point, I was concerned. A concern that wasn’t warranted. There’s a reason that the touchstones of Suspiria and Zulawski’s Possession used as rather literal influences in those introductory character bios because like them, this is a heightened sensory experience. First people lose their sanity and control, then they lose the ability to control their bodies contorting and twisting in reaction to some unseen terror provoked by the horrifically bad collective trip. As well as having dancers regress into a more primal emotional state, cinematographer Benoît Debie is constantly moving the camera in equally twisted and contorted ways whilst constantly changing protagonist on a whim. Now whether this is a seamless one-shot film (highly unlikely) or a cleverly masked series of long takes ala Hitchcock’s Rope or Miklós Jancsó’s Electra, My Love (a clear influence) remains to be seen. Alongside the visible mania of those mindlessly roaming the corridors and dancefloors is a colourisation akin to that of Argento’s absurdist classics (Inferno & Suspiria), add them all together and you have a genuine, unsettling and singular beast. I have remarked that Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s Tokyo Fist was the most intimidating film I’d ever seen – well, now it has competition with the camera finishing looking on events upside down, from the ceiling, being the icing on that nasty cake.
This is a contemporary Arrow Video, so naturally, the extras are excellent. There’s interchangeable cover art, a director commentary, and interviews, aka the norm of DVD extras, beyond that there are two fascination additions. The first comes from Frightfest’s very own Alan Jones who does a track-by-track appreciation of the soundtrack; featuring the best use of Aphex Twin’s Windowlicker. Second is a feature that is quickly becoming the rising star of extras, a video essay – this one comes from writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and she looks at the evolution of Gasper Noe’s craft. As for the main feature, I cannot for sure say whether I liked Climax’s singular horror musical or not. What intrigues me more than like or dislike is the fact that this is a film that has no contemporaries, it is truly one of a kind; that is a special quality for anything to possess.
CLIMAX IS OUT ON ARROW VIDEO