Climax is the latest controversial feature from Gaspar Noé (Irreversible, Enter the Void, Love), purportedly based on true events, and setting the festival circuit aflutter with its seedy depiction of very a bad drug experience and stunning dance choreography.
The film takes place during the nineties and we’re introduced to various members of a French dance company via videotaped job interviews that preface the movie. We then meet the company as they let loose for a pre-tour party. The party progresses as you would expect, until they discover the sangria has been spiked, and with nearly the entire company having indulged, everyone begins to have a considerably bad time. And just in case it needs saying, things go downhill rather quickly.
Acknowledging that the movie is intended as a largely visual experience means, at the risk of being too spoiler heavy, that is pretty much it for Climax in terms of the plot. It doesn’t fare a great deal better in terms of characterisation either. We get the introductions at the start and that’s our lot. There is virtually no other meaningful dialogue in the whole film, but there is a lot of shouting and screaming. It’s an interesting approach, if nothing else, but it does mean Climax struggles to maintain interest.
The things Climax does well, it does very well. The party opens with a stunning dance sequence that can, quite unexpectedly, be described as fun. Each member of the company briefly takes centre stage, and the routine looks (to the uninitiated) to be simultaneously choreographed and improvised. The remarkable physical ability of the dancers makes for a mesmerising opening. Then, once things start to go pear shaped, Climax is quite effective. The camera gets mobile and once again takes turns to focus on each participant as they begin to experience the effects of the drugs, gradually descending into chaos and debasement.
Climax sets out with the clear intention to make you uncomfortable with its wobbling, shaky cam and spinning overhead viewpoints. They enhance the dancing considerably, but cleverly, when they are applied to the dark, tight corridors of the building, following people through their harrowing drug freak-outs, those same techniques fuel audience discomfort.
Add in lots of seedy strip lighting and dulled neon bathing everything in sickening colour, Climax does its utmost to disorient you. Is it a coincidence that Suspiria was one of the VHS tapes pictured alongside the introductions at the start? Both are set in a dance company, both immersed in striking colour, although it’s really more of a mild nod of the head than any deeper commonality.
The sound design makes Climax a particularly difficult watch, too. The low end thud of the bass from the party is incessant. The cries of a child and the unhinged hollering of miscellaneous acid casualties seeps into the background, creating an ever present, unnerving cacophony. Sonic terror is generally underrepresented and great movies that mess you up with their sound design are few and far between. One of the things often overlooked about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example, is just how uncomfortable the soundtrack makes you feel when watching it in the cinema. So although Climax is not one of the greats, it’s got the right idea.
It’s hard to single out anyone in particular in terms of performance. All the cast are clearly gifted dancers, and beyond that everyone is orbiting the movie in varying degrees of freaking out. Sofia Boutella (Star Trek: Beyond, Kingsman: The Secret Service) is probably the best known and certainly commits to a role that involves a lot of running and shrieking. She definitely makes a drug induced mental unravelling look believable.
Climax is definitely a great film to look at, in a warped sort of way, and while that works to a degree, the real question you end up asking is whether or not the slimline plot is interesting enough to hold your attention for the full duration. Unfortunately, the realisation dawns that it is not.
The final third descends into darkness and incoherent upside down camerawork and after an effective beginning, Climax draws things out, seemingly escalating toward further chaotic and confronting events… which never materialise. The movie just levels off.
When you’ve got a notoriously provocative director, with a reputation for confronting cinema, the last thing you expect is to get a bit bored by it. But the last ten or fifteen minutes are really quite dull. Fans of Gaspar Noé and his previous work might feel a bit more generous toward Climax, because it’s not that it’s bad, it’s just too insubstantial. But for others, if ever a title felt like it oversold a movie, it’s Climax.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆
‘Climax’ opens in limited Australian cinemas on December 6.