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A bad trip to the pits of human experience



Climax (MA). Director: Gaspar Noé. Starring: Sofia Boutella. 97 minutes

Overhead view of ensemble dancing in Climax'It was fairly restrained by his standards, but it still gave me a headache.' — Overheard from a fellow cinema-goer following a screening of Gaspar Noé's Climax at Cinema Nova in Melbourne.

Gaspar Noé is a jerk. Brilliant, yes, but a jerk nonetheless. It's not even really apposite to describe the Argentinian born filmmaker as a provocateur any more, though the sobriquet has been de rigueur dating back at least to 2002's Irreversible. From that film's graphic, protracted portrayals of violence (and sexual violence), to the relentless taboo-busting of 2009's Enter The Void, to the non-simulated polyamorous sex (in 3D!) of 2015's Love, Noé's bag of shocks is by now well-riffled. 

In fact, the biggest surprise of Climax is how straightforwardly effective — and relatively conventional — it is. Noé, as always, is out to assault his audience, but treats them more than ever as co-conspirators. He includes the odd 'meta' touch, such as inserting garish music credits at unexpected moments, his role as sinister showman ever-present. His provocations serve a simple premise and well-paced plot, immersing us in the experiences of his characters, emotionally and sensorily.

That these experiences tumble from ecstatic to nightmarish over the course of 90-odd terse minutes is par for the course. The story, apparently based on fact, concerns a squad of professional hip-hop dancers holed up for a three-day rehearsal in an otherwise empty, secluded school building. As the rehearsal winds down, they set themselves for some hard-earned R&R, centred around a bowl of sangria that, unknown to them, has been secretly spiked with LSD.

As the drug takes hold, myriad insecurities, jealousies and repressed desires do likewise, with distressing (and, rarely, transcendent) results. 'This is no place for a child,' one character opines early in the piece, not knowing that before the night is done said child (adored offspring of one of the dancers) will be locked in a room labelled 'high voltage', in a grossly misjudged attempt to shield him from the debauchery unfolding around him. (His mother is so far gone that she loses the key.)

The cast of mostly unknowns is multiracial and spans the spectrum of sexual orientations and gender identities. Not long ago that might have seemed transgressive, but these days it seems like the least that could be hoped for from a piece of mainstream entertainment. To his credit, Noé does not politicise these aspects; they are merely facts of the characters' lived experience. The characters are wholly human, with all the inherent dignity and fallibility that that entails.


"You half expect South Park's Mr Mackey to walk on tutting, 'Drugs are bad, m'kay?'"


In fact by the standards of the typically nihilistic Noé, Climax comes off as a kind of depraved morality tale. Aside from the plight of the child mentioned above, one character is hideously maimed in an accident with a gas burner; another is violently assaulted and then driven to self-mutilation by her peers after revealing that she is pregnant. For most of the characters, this is at best a decidedly unpleasant trip; you half expect South Park's Mr Mackey to walk on tutting, 'Drugs are bad, m'kay?'

For better and worse, Noé takes us along for the trip. He has rarely put the work of cinematographer and regular collaborator Benoît Debie to such cogent sensory effect. The dance sequence that opens Climax (surely one of the most electric ever put to film — kudos to the performers and coreographer Nina McNeely) is shot in one long, steady take, but as the characters' psyches unravel the camera is tossed and turned by the psychoactive tummult (see the quote at the top of this review).

So yes, Noé is a jerk. A talented, visionary, cinematically ingenious jerk. He has no interest in edification, in making anyone feel better about themselves, beyond the fellow-feeling that comes from knowing that yes, we all experience misery, and human beings are capable of doing awful things. During the climax, the director inserts a title card that reads 'Death is an extraordinary experience'. It’s meant as a joke. With Noé, what you see is what you get, and often what you get is a headache.



Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Climax, Gaspar Noé, Sofia Boutella



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Existing comments

Thanks, Tim - I won't be putting this one on my must-see list.

John | 30 November 2018  

People have to pay to see this film, yes?

Pam | 30 November 2018  

No, Pam! No-one has to pay to see any film!

AURELIUS | 02 December 2018  

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