It’s “Fame directed by the Marquis de Sade,” it’s “a typically confrontational cocktail of music and horror … dropped on its audience like the bucket of blood from Carrie,” it’s “Step Up meets Enter the Void” — these were a few of the creative descriptions of Gaspar Noe’s dance-dance-devolution epic Climax coming out of the festival circuit press over the past 10 months. For folks familiar with the filmmaker’s back catalog, the notion that the golden child of the New French Extremity has filled his latest film with sex, drugs, violence, self-mutilation, neon lights, long takes, formal audacity, informal taboo-tweaking and a credit reel brimming with fontsploitation is not going to seem shocking. The fact that he’s front-loaded the proceedings with some of most exhilarating musical sequences of the past few years, however, will inspire double takes.
Here are a few more comparisons for the critical pile: It’s Busby Berkeley by way of Hieronymus Bosch, with God’s-eye shots of bodies whirling and whizzing through whiplash geometric patterns on their way to mass hysteria. It’s a dance party set in an upper-circle tier of hell. It’s a great approximation of a very, very bad trip.
First, we meet the troupe, a motley, multi-ethnic crew being interviewed by some off-screen presence. They talk about life, love, race, sexuality, why they need to dance, why they’re psyched to work with an all-star choreographer on this new project. Keen eyes may notice The Mummy/Atomic Blonde actress Sofia Boutella among the anonymous faces flashing across a TV set’s screen (Noe stocks his cast with a host of real-life participants in France’s underground ballroom scene); keener eyes will catch a videotape of the 1981 cinema du histrionics classic Possession stacked next to that screen, doubling as a subliminal pacesetter. From there, we get to see the group rehearse their number, and that’s when the screaming starts. Except the yelps are ones of pure glee, as Boutella and her costars glide through the frame, krumping past Noe’s creeping and swooping camera, limbs flailing and jazz fingers twitching, rocking everything from vintage voguing moves to Voltron-like assembling. It ends in a writhing, syncopated scrum. Set to a thumping Nineties techno soundtrack, the single-shot sequence is a blast — proof that, for all of his obsessive transgressiveness, the director knows how to capture movement and maximize his chops. It’s the first of a few showstoppers he’ll thread into the mix … as well as a bit of feint.
Then the troupe switches into party mode. Their D.J. pal start spinning records. Everyone dances some more. Most, not all, begin sipping Sangria. A brother expresses dismay over the fact that his sister is being cruised by several male dancers. Several couples fight and a few canoodle. Two dudes discuss who they’d like to hook up with and the “occupational hazards” of analingus. An older woman has brought her young son to hang out, prompting one person to note that “this isn’t a really good environment for a child.” (We’ll take foreshadowing for $500, Alex.) Each of these lengthy discussions play out as two- or -three-person tableaux, filled with banal twentysomething soirée chatter. “Are you sure this is a Gaspar Noe movie?” my screening companion inquired, sotto voce. Then it becomes apparent that someone has spiked the punchbowl. Forget entering the void; welcome to the abyss.
To say that things go off the rails would be like referring to the Titanic as a shipwreck. Anyone who’s indulged in drinking begins to go off his or her rocker. Anyone who hasn’t indulged becomes a suspect and suffers greatly. Everything starts to curdle into shrieking, insanity, depravity, beatings, extreme self-harm. Off-balance Steadicam shots follow Boutella and a few others down luridly lit hallways and corridors; the former gifts us with a bathroom freakout that reminds you what an incredible physical actor she is, and that “unhinged” is is definitely in her wheelhouse. The center most certainly can’t hold, and it doesn’t. The filmmaker who once took viewers inside a vagina during coitus now lets us tag along inside the warped minds of the damned. Ok, this is the provocateur we’ve come to Noe and love. (Sorry. We blame the drugs.)
The nightmare of it all becomes such a rush that it’s easy to overlook whether there’s any sort of statement being made behind all the sensationalism. Is Noe suggesting that we’re all just one dosed drink away from complete social meltdown? Or is he merely getting high on his own abundant supply of stylistic touches, tics and tricks? He’s noted in interviews that the premise is based on a real-life story of a troupe that went batshit in an isolated locale in the 1990s, and that he’d originally set out to make a quickie documentary to stay limber between long-gestating projects. How much that first part affected the Lord-of-the-Flies vibe is anybody’s guess; you definitely wouldn’t call this a docudrama. It’s not unlikely that his Benetton ad crew represents young, multicultural modern-day France — Climax big ups its heritage with a disclaimer that it’s “a French film and proud of it” — nor is it probably a coincidence that the first person to get kicked out of the studio under suspicion is a self-identifying Muslim. Only easy answers and scoring sociopolitical points aren’t part of the itinerary. Methods may not play into the madness. Any message worth taking home boils down to “be careful what you imbibe.” That, and maybe try not to urinate on the floor even if you’re crazy high.
But though he’s definitely channeled the puckish, punk-as-funk energy of his earlier movies, the nihilism he displays in the lysergic second half doesn’t feel hipster-chic — it’s virtuosic, yet not sick for sickness’s sake. It’s a stretch to call this film more “mature” than past work, though it does feel like he’s focused his energies and honed his attack to a much more effective degree. All those long, endless tracking-shot takes aren’t just showing off; he’s using them to make you feel that the nightmare is inescapable, that you can’t cut away or look away from the carnage … and it works. Long after the dance-movie thrills are in the rearview and before the images turn themselves upside down — before the movie becomes a literal danse macabre — you find yourself impressed by the fact that he’s not out to recreate a bad acid trip. He’s trying to create his own bad trip sans the drugs. And the fucked up thing about it is: You end up wanting to go along for the ride.