TIFF 2018 Review: Gaspar Noe’s ‘Climax’

I’m an unapologetic fan of Gaspar Noe’s work, and while his films are certainly divisive, I think he gets a bad rep for portraying the kind of amplified reality of the dark subject matter he’s interested in. It’s easy to condemn him for showing this stuff but the intent with nearly all of his films is never to glorify, but expressly to repulse. In his latest work, Climax, Noe’s intentions are a little muddier, and aren’t so clear about what he’s trying to say. But on your way to the other end of this red-tinged maze, there’s a buffet of evil, laced with some extremely sweet dance moves, to feast on.

We open on a series of videotaped interviews with the members of a dance troupe, set in the mid-1990’s. The small screen on which the videos play is surrounded by videotapes of horror films like Suspiria, 100 Days of Sodom, and others, giving a foreboding vibe to the upbeat, hopeful words of the dancers that are about to embark on a tour, living out their creative dreams. To Noe’s credit, this is as sexually and racially diverse a cast as one can hope for, but you can fully expect that hope to be dashed on the pavement like it was hit with a fire extinguisher, because no one’s getting out of this club unscathed.

After a lengthy and engaging dance sequence or two at the dance troupe’s post-rehearsal afterparty, the dancers are unknowingly drugged with LSD in a communal bowl of sangria, unleashing a hellish scene of relentless debauchery that includes murder, rape, and all manner of other violence, in Noe’s extreme and uncompromising style. Frequent Noe collaborator Benoit Debie’s cinematography, all seemingly one long, gritty take, is raw and powerful, and his use of the kind of highly physical dance, evocative of vogueing or krumping, to invoke fear is something truly innovative that I can honestly say I’ve never seen before. The use of a camera spins and inversions add to the feeling of disorientation that never lets up for a minute as Climax wears on.

But Climax suffers from a lack of point of view, of message. Though the film is more than capable of evoking a response – usually fear or revulsion – in the moment, by the end it just seemed like a bunch of disturbing stuff that was strung together, with no overarching idea behind them and not much to say by way of commentary. Taken as an experience, it’s Noe through and through, and the soundtrack absolutely slaps (why hasn’t anyone used Aphex Twin in a horror movie before?) but ultimately it left me wondering if there couldn’t be a more substantial thread tying everything together.

Perhaps that’s asking too much, though. Noe’s raison d’etre isn’t really to teach you anything through his films; it’s to press both hands into your back and shove you into some version of hell. In Climax, a pulsing dance beat and a glass of too-sweet sangria are your only companions, and both are definitely out to get you, begging you to drink it down, and pop and lock your way into despair.

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