I have a friend who on reading about Gaspar Noé’s new film, Climax, made the decision to see the film for its exuberant and wildly joyous first act, and then to judiciously pick up her bag and slip out of the cinema as its darker, vertiginous second act began to unfold. Though I want to encourage those of you who will see the film to stay right to the very end, I acknowledge the film’s formally and visually dissonant second half can tax the patience of a viewer. There’s a punkish and deliberate playfulness at work in Climax, even as Noé continues to assert his bleak and pessimistic view of humanity. He’s being deadly serious in this film, as he is in all his work, but he’s also ceding that an audience can get frustrated by the deliberate provocations that mark his films – the bursts of horrific violence, his puncturing of liberal mantras, the abrasive soundtracks, and a mise en scène that eschews narrative coherence. Halfway through Climax, the screen suddenly erupts into lysergic and vivid credits that name check the actors, dancers and the music in the film. Here, Noé is winking at us, daring us to continue on the ride. If you’re going to leave early, this is the point when you should pack your bags.
The film is set in 1996, and we are told in the end credits – which in a typically Noé stratagem, begin the film – that it is based on a true story. Whatever the inspiration, it is clear early on that Noé is not interested in veracity or realism but rather, as in all his work, in exploring how cinema can best represent extreme forms of consciousness and experience. The set-up is terrific. In a series of straight-to-camera video interviews, we are introduced to a group of young French dancers who’ve been assembled to work on a dance piece that will travel to the United States to demonstrate the vitality of contemporary French culture. The dancers are male and female, black and white, straight, gay and bisexual, and their observations and declarations offer up a fascinating mosaic of contemporary France. These aren’t professional dancers. They are mostly working-class kids who have discovered their love of dance on the streets, in hip-hop clubs and at techno raves.
Quickly and expertly, Noé sets up the themes that are crucial to Climax. As we listen to the dancers’ testimonies, we are asked to decipher what they might mean for multiculturalism, for identity, and for the tension between nationalism and a popular culture embedded deeply in American music and fashion. The editing is abrupt as we cut from one talking head to another, and our attention is further diverted by a collection of VHS videos on one side of the frame and a collection of books on the other. There is a copy of Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 days of Sodom, there is Dario Argento’s Suspiria and also Buñuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou. Of the books on display, I espied a monograph on the German Expressionist director Murnau, a book on homosexuality and cinema, and copies of Pierre Petit’s Molinier: une vie d’enfer. Of course, none of this is accidental. Noé is telling us that Climax is influenced by a transgressive and surrealist modernist cinema, and that what we are about to watch will also be a horror film.
Immediately after the interviews, we cut to a hall in which the dancers have been rehearsing. This initiates the film’s most audacious and technically brilliant sequences. Scored to a series of 1990s rave tracks, the dancers perform the piece they have been working on. The hard crunch of the soundtrack is a fitting score for the acrobatic, defiantly assertive dancing. It is in their dancing that the cast, who are largely inexperienced actors, develop their characters. Each dancer has a personality, and what is riveting about the dance sequences is that even though each has their moment of dominating the floor, they are also in perfect unison with one another. It is elating to witness the camaraderie these young performers share. It is a defiantly utopian vision of liberation on the dance floor. Undoubtedly, these musical scenes work so well because of Noé’s phenomenal control and fluidity as a director. We are conscious of the precision of the editing – Noé edited the film alongside Denis Bedlow – but the cutting never gets in the way of the dancers. It is as if the camera is the choreographer, in tune with the dancers’ breath and bodies.
In these moments, Noé is as close as any other filmmaker has come to equalling the work of Bob Fosse. I couldn’t help but read the first dance sequence in Climax as a direct riff on that astonishing opening scene to Fosse’s All That Jazz, where a stage full of dancers is slowly whittled down to the few who will make it to being part of the chorus line for a Broadway show. Noé shares Fosse’s love for the eroticism of dance, and again, as with Fosse, the camera’s focus on the body never feels prurient or distancing. I was 14 when I first saw All That Jazz. When its first dance sequence ended I had to stop myself getting up in the audience and applauding. I had a similar reaction after my first viewing of Climax. But a key difference between the sequences is that while Fosse’s film forced us to acknowledge the undemocratic nature of talent and ability, Noé is celebrating the collective energy of his young dancers. No one is better than anyone else; each is stunning. If Climax had ended at this point, one would declare it a celebration of multicultural unity.
But Climax doesn’t end there. The dancers, having worked hard for three days, begin to drink from a sangria punch that, unbeknown to them, has been laced with LSD. As the drug slowly begins to take effect, the tensions between them become apparent. If the first movement of the film is utopian, then the second half quickly becomes a descent into hell. The dancers are locked in a building somewhere in the country and outside a blizzard is raging. Of course, this brings to mind Kubrick’s The Shining. Noé has always been forthright about the influence of Kubrick’s work on his cinema. His most contentious film, Irréversible, ended on a poster of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a direct riposte to Kubrick’s suggestion that humans could transcend our warring nature.
Unfortunately, Climax lacks the rigour, the clear moral rage, that animated Irréversible, a film in which the shocking scenes of rape and violence were mediated by a clear ethical commitment to a radically anti-humanist despair. That Noé is influenced by Pasolini’s Salò makes perfect sense. As with that film, Irréversible declares that life on Earth is hell. But Noé doesn’t share Pasolini’s Marxism, so his anguish is not grounded in politics. He’s working more from emotional responses to chaos. But precisely because he is finding his way through such difficult terrain through instinct, his films sometimes allow for insights that escape his contemporaries such as Catherine Breillat or Bruno Dumont. I recently rewatched Noé’s first feature, 1998’s I Stand Alone, and I was knocked out by how prescient he had been in that film in capturing the working-class rage that was set to explode across the Western world in 2016.
If the descent into hell in Climax doesn’t have the emotive force that propelled both I Stand Alone and Irréversible, it is also because there’s less consistency of vision to this new film. I do like the flashes of cruel humour that puncture the bad acid trip of the film’s latter half, but there’s too much going on. There’s the influence of Kubrick but also a deliberate referencing of giallo horror in the overwrought colours and wobbly camera work. I wondered, too, if there wasn’t a sending up of Big Brother and the slew of reality TV shows that came after it. But a viewer can’t be sure of how much is conscious and how much unconscious or accidental in the satire. That’s an inevitable consequence of Noé working instinctively. As the characters become more demented and violent under the influence of the acid, the film grows slack and indulgent. The only experienced actor in the cast is Sofia Boutella. Most of the others lose their vividness as their behaviour becomes more hallucinatory or “possessed”. Pasolini also used nonprofessional actors in Salò, but his reworking of de Sade as a parable of fascist power was rigorous and unrelenting, and that film’s final moments were profoundly shocking and disturbing. Climax catches some of the wooziness of a bad drug experience, but apart from a few very jarring and effective moments of violence, we never experience the genuine fear of a bad trip. So we grow detached. Unlike Salò, we never feel the disorientation and genuine terror of what these young people are suffering.
And yet, for all my reservations, Climax is genuinely thrilling. A declaratory title card flashes at one point and states that this is a proudly French film. As with so much in the film, there’s a sense of the proclamation being tongue in cheek, but the film earns this defiance. Noé is bold and takes risks, and his sensibility is kinetic and seductive. It’s surprising that there isn’t a copy of a Céline among the pile of books we see at the beginning of Climax. An Argentinian migrant to France, Noé is the closest that any of French cinema has got to the incendiary and unapologetically argot rhythms of this great and controversial novelist. This connection to Céline was evident from I Stand Alone, and it is there in the dialogue in Climax. It’s the language of the street colliding with modernism, and hearing it equals the high of a drug rush: it is genuinely exciting. His boldness is in his risking the provocative questioning of the pieties to diversity that underpins so much of contemporary cinema. Climax is asking whether the demons of lust and envy and hate – and of tribe and creed and blood – can ever be tamed. The climax referred to by the title comes halfway through. In the ecstatic and orgiastic finale of their dance, we are convinced that the response is a resounding yes. And then he pulls the rug from under us. The demons have not been exorcised.
The dance troupe is going to America to prove that French working-class culture is equal to anything that comes from America. Climax makes recent US filmmaking, from the blockbusters to the art house, from Netflix to YouTube, seem anaemic and gutlessly cautious. It is absolutely fearless and it kicks arse. In my reckoning, that’s France 1 to America’s 0.
VISUAL ART All Day Sucker
Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, until December 21
Queen’s Theatre, Adelaide, December 14-16
VISUAL ART Love and Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, December 14—April 28
MUSEUM Dinosaur rEvolution: Secrets of Survival
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, until May 5
CHOIR Voices of Angels: In the Land of Silent Night
City Recital Hall, Sydney, December 10-11
FASHION The Designers’ Guide: Easton Pearson Archive
Museum of Brisbane, until April 22
VISUAL ART Summer Show 18/19
Despard Gallery, Hobart, until February 3
VISUAL ART Johnny Romeo – The Last Days of Disco
Harvey Galleries, Sydney, until December 16
MULTIMEDIA No Second Thoughts: Reflections on the ARTEMIS Women’s Art Forum
Lawrence Wilson Gallery, Perth, until December 8
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 7, 2018 as "Tripping the light fantastic". Subscribe here.