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A bad trip to the pits of human experience

  • 29 November 2018


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