Le bad boy du French cinema is back. Gaspar Noé (Irreversible) has long made a name for himself with technically ambitious and stunningly crafted works rooted in cinematic sleaze. The provocateur is known for assaulting the senses in ways that would be unforgivable were he not so gifted as a stylist. His latest feature, Climax, feels oddly restrained by Noé standards, which will likely gain him more positive notices that he’s used to even if it may also slightly disappoint his fans.
If nothing else, Climax is the typically grueling filmmaker’s simplest project. It’s about a dance troupe (featuring Sofia Boutella and primarily a group of actual dancers around her) who gather in a remote and abandoned building to rehearse their latest production. Candid interviews set them all up. They seem like a fairly happy group, but also seem a bit selfish individually with suggested cracks in the dynamic. The film then gives way to a massive and intricately choreographed dance sequence incorporating the entire group in a single beautifully flowing take. It’s a gorgeous set-piece that establishes just how well this tiny community works together without any words or imposed meaning, just movement and color.
Of course, beauty in a Gaspar Noé movie is always fleeting, there only so that when the ugliness arrives, it cuts even deeper. Soon enough, the gang kick off a party to celebrate their accomplishment. It’s fun and a little naughty at first, until everyone notices that someone spiked the punch with an unstated hallucinogenic drug. After that, to say things get crazy would be an understatement. Still employing his long-take aesthetic, the camera movements quickly become wilder and unhinged. A bad trip takes over the dancers and Noé does his best to pass that experience along to viewers as well. The camera continues to dance along with the players, but their movements devolve and become erratic. They cling to walls and shove each other away. Things go wrong. Unsettling self-abuse attacks and all manner of icky sexuality fill the jittery screen. It’s a descent into madness or Hell, whatever you want it to be. Noé has no problem shoving his camera into the most uncomfortable of places in the most disorienting and inexplicably beautiful ways.
Climax makes quite a visceral impact. To watch it is to feel like you’re losing your grip on reality along with the characters. It’s intense, to say the least, capturing a bad night on the wrong drugs and a descent into madness and chaos so effectively that it will make viewers feel ill. As to what it all means? Well, Noé occasionally fills the screen with massive text that positions it all as an exploration of how easily societal and human bonds can collapse. Whether or not you buy that messaging is a matter of taste.
For anyone familiar with Noé’s work (and let’s face it, who else is going to see his movies at this point?), the whole thing feels a bit soft and hollow. That’s a strange thing to say because it’s certainly not true when comparing Climax to almost any other movie. However, the poking provocateur seems to be maturing as he ages, not as inclined to push boundaries well beyond any realm of acceptable taste. The trouble is that he hasn’t gotten any more intellectually ambitious, so having less of the hard stuff isn’t rewarded with anything else.
Ultimately, Climax feels like a bit of a lark for Noé and an attempt to see if he’s capable of anything resembling restraint. It’s a work of pure cinematic sensory overload, but it would be nice if all the promises of something more buried in the midnight movie madness actually delivered.