French filmmaker Gaspar Noé is know for making some of modern cinema’s most challenging films and while his most recent film Climax is not unlike his previous work, it is easily his most commercially accessible. For anyone concerned that the film would be as unsettling as Enter The Void or as soul crushing as Irreversible, know that “commercial successful” is code for “you will be able to sleep after seeing this movie”. Climax made its US premiere at Fantastic Fest 2018 and made for a perfect midnight screening, complete with a complimentary (almost ominous) sangria toast.
Unlike his previous films, story seems to be of the least importance in Climax. Don’t get me wrong, the film is not boring, and by no means a waste of time, but very little actually happens. Some dancers dance, they’re unknowingly drugged, and they spend the rest of the night trying not to tear each other apart. That’s about it, but it’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen. It’s an incredibly visual film that feels immersive in a way 3D films have yet to accomplish, an aesthetic that Noé has retained for several films now. It was no surprise to fans when he eventually branched out into 3D film-making with Love (2015) and it should be no surprise now to see him working with professional dancers. Like his other films, Climax is painstakingly constructed and choreographed- a dance of chaotic movements and intricate, instinctual steps.
“…Climax is painstakingly constructed and choreographed- a dance of chaotic movements and intricate, instinctual steps.”
Climax follows a newly formed dance company celebrating a successful bout of rehearsals before preparing for a cross-continent tour. Getting to know each if our players, we are introduced to the company through a series of taped interviews. They look into the camera and are asked to share details of their greatest fears, sex lives, and what dance means to them. From there we are transported to the company’s rehearsal space which best I can tell is an abandoned warehouse in a remote area of France. The following 20 minutes or so are a single-take dance number from incredibly talented performers. I can’t honesty describe this segment. It’s gorgeous, it’s impressive, and if it continued non-stop until the end of the film, I would have been so on board with that decision.
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The dancers blow off a little steam with a table of refreshments provided by their director, which includes a few light snacks and several large punch bowls of (totally-not-spiked-with-hallucinogens) sangria. In cuts similar to the interview style up top, we bounce from dancer to dancer, listening to them discuss their personal lives. This mostly consists of who’s sleeping with who, who’s wants to sleep with who, and who refuses to put out. Oh, and there’s also a kid running around way past his bedtime time. Occasionally someone mentions something about how the sangria tastes but no one suspects anything sinister is at play. That is of course until people start tripping the f*ck out! What ensues is an uncomfortable series of events that put everyone in the company into immediate danger. They are erratic and unhinged, furiously hurling accusations and giving-in to their most animistic behavior.
By all counts, Climax is an impressive film, but it does pull from an already established bag of tricks seen in Noé’s previous work. We beginning with the end insight, the credits rolling backward as a single block of text. Long takes stitched together take us from character to character, giving the illusion that we are an omnipresent viewer floating through the party. From there things devolve into the chaotic camerawork we all associate with Noé, living in constant fear of the savage nature that has possessed the cast. What is different however is a colorfully hypnotic opening that showcases the dancers in a choreographed frenzy of movements so impressive I was convinced some were digitally enhanced. Knowing some of the darker moments in his filmography, I remained on edge for a few things I was so very worried might happen, while simultaneously making peace with this particular films darkness that was (maybe too obviously) hinted at in the pre-chaos.
Climax, like all Gaspar Noé films is more of an experience than it is “entertainment”. The emotion and sensation of having seen one of his films is worth the price of admission but you’re unlikely to put the movie on again anytime soon. There’s also less to “chew on” in this movie than his previous work. It is exactly what it presents itself to be, and is much less a rubix cube of complex themes than you’ve come to expect. In some respects, he walks up that line and teases what could have been a deeper exploration but never crosses it. There are even scenes that would resolve problems, or provide closure to an individual’s story arc that are completely skipped over. This decision leaves you with all the build up before returning for the afterglow or epiphany that a “climax” provides. That said, (and I really do have to thank co-editor KimmiKillZombie– who didn’t even see the movie- for this observation) it’s very interesting for Noé, in a movie titled Climax, to build up these scenarios piece by piece, edging you toward a conclusion, only to take away that moment of pleasure you would normally receive from a story’s resolution.
“Visually stunning, slightly unsettling, and completely out of control.”
I heard very few people saying “That was unlike anything I’ve ever seen” after the sole midnight screening at Fantastic Fest, but no one denied that what they had watched was unmistakably Gaspar Noé. He is unlike any other filmmaker working today and like Quentin Tarantino or Michael Bay, his style is immediately recognizable. The characters in Climax are a familiar brand of trouble in the Noé universe, but their decisions are very rushed with absolute commitment and no second thought, even for someone dealing with the come up of mind-altering drugs. Negative points aside, Climax was exactly what I had hoped it to be. Visually stunning, slightly unsettling, and completely out of control.
Climax celebrated it’s US premiere September 24th at Fantastic Fest 2018. The film has no solid release date but has been making an impressive festival run and will be distributed in the US under the A24 umbrella. Check out all of Nightmare on Film Street’s Fantastic Fest coverage here!