Provocateur Gaspar Noe pushes a lot of debaucherous buttons with his latest film, but misses the G spot.
Climax. Source: Madman Films.
The problem with being a provocateur is that it’s hard to shock an audience that can see your tricks coming. Gaspar Noe has been pushing the boundaries of cinema since at least 2002’s reverse rape-revenge drama Irreversible, but it’s been a fairly restricted kind of boundary-pushing, designed to shock and stun rather than educate or illuminate. Noe’s previous film Love featured a 3D ejaculation; what it had to say about human relationships was somewhat less memorable.
Supposedly based on a true story, Climax features a mid-1990s French dance troupe going through intensive three-day rehearsals in an isolated hall before heading off on a US tour. The twenty-odd dancers are a diverse group, introduced to us via video interviews shown on an old TV set. While there are a few obvious fault lines in the group and some are clearly more driven or aggressive than others, they mostly present as a typical bunch of free-spirited people in their late teens and early 20s.
To celebrate their last night of rehearsals, they have an impromptu party that opens with perhaps the film’s high point; a lengthy dance routine set to thumping 90s dance tracks involving the whole group. Everyone has their own styles and skills but they’re all working together as a unit – and then over the following 80 or so minutes this unity is torn apart. Someone has spiked the sangria with LSD. For most of the troupe, this will not be a mellow trip.
It’s a freezing French winter outside the shabby hall, and none of them have the state of mind to rug up. Trapped, they soon turn on each other, desperately trying to find out who drugged them. Dance partners become bullies, sexual tensions erupt, peoples’ darkest fears are exposed; it should be a thrilling night at the movies.
Unfortunately this hellish nightmare never becomes all that nightmarish no matter how many buttons Noe pushes (this is not a crowd you should reveal your pregnancy to). The nature of the troupe’s madness leaves the audience observing it from the outside, and while Noe (once again) sees the worst place on Earth as a dimly lit space filled with thudding music, as the bad behaviour builds to a crescendo even his swirling camerawork can’t mix these ingredients into the Hell on Earth he’s striving for.
It’s telling that the best moments here are the ones that go against the grain. The early scenes where the dancers are just talking to each other features numerous authentically warm moments of real human connection; if Noe ever wants to ease back and just make a film about people, this suggests he’d shine at it.
And Climax is a surprisingly funny film in parts, but only if you can amuse yourself watching the way it drives relentlessly towards a series of bluntly obvious punchlines. A drug-addled mother wants to keep her son safe from the crazed dancers so she locks him in a closet full of high voltage electrical equipment; a brother-sister paring has a subtext that rapidly becomes text. Out of nowhere a freebasing junkie suddenly finds her hair on fire; it may not be a joke but it definitely got a laugh.
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What the stars mean?
- Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
- Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
- Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
- Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
- Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
- Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
- One star: Awful, to be avoided
- Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level