My notes on Gaspar Noé’s Climax (2018), the FrightFest closing night film.
Gaspar Noé’s new films opens with a post-credits sting (an overhead shot of a bleeding woman writhing on frozen ground, making a snow angel) and a rolling credits block that infodumps a lot of music credits and the mention that this is based on an incident which took place in France in the 1990s. Throughout the film, we get other credits and slogans (‘this film is proudly French’) as punctuation, occasionally written upside-down, and extraordinary long steadicam shots of choreographed chaos at one point give way to almost parodically ‘square’ two-shots for ritual-like dialogue exchanges. It’s an exhilarating trip, but also a descent into an inferno – as with Noé’s most famous work (Irreversible), this might be a film audiences will need to see twice to appreciate (and understand on a basic plot level) but which is so maniacally and humourlessly harrowing that it’d be hard to persuade anyone to come back a third time.
Noé sees humanity as a collection of its worst urges, and his films find situations where they can be unleashed en masse. However, this lacks the overarching political design of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo and Peter Watkins’ La Commune – both of which serve as precedents for its claustrophobic excesses – and assumes folk are mostly beastly to each other because they’re one dose of acid away from turning into Mr Hyde. A steady shot on an old TV screen sandwiched between stacks of (I guess) Noé’s personal VHS collection shows a series of cast interviews with folks who’ve signed up to work on a dance project. With a typical rainbow assemblage of races, sexes and sexualities, it’s not hard to spot the token straight white guy (Romain Guillermic) as likely to be the biggest bastard in the bunch – though Noé is an equal opportunity misanthropist and it’s almost refreshing that he brings in a collection of ethnicities and lets them all play awful people — even if plus-sized black bear DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile) comes across as the most decent human being in the room.
In a single exhilarating take, the troupe – choreographed by Selva (Sofia Boutella), the closest thing the film has to a lead character – perform an astonishing routine, featuring the sort of double-jointed contortions usually seen on screen only in possession movies. It’s a joyous communal activity, but afterwards the gang break up into twos and chat about sexual mores before tucking into a buffet and dipping into a bowl of sangria which turns out to be spiked with LSD. No one has a good trip. It starts with a woman peeing on the dance floor and escalates through levels of panic and bad decisions, with scapegoats picked on and cast out into the snow or battered (the SWG gets a swastika lipsticked on his forehead), a set of orgiastic couplings (including incest), solo meltdowns (Boutella gets her hands trapped in her tights), transgressions involving a pregnant woman and a panicky child, and a general melée in which a ceiling-mounted steadicam seems to swoop Birdman-style through the building (it looks like a community centre) in search of people at their worst moments. It’s about as sensationalised a depiction of a drug experience as any anti-drug exploitation movie from the ‘60s (cf: The Big Cube, I Drink Your Blood) – indeed, these people act more as if they’ve been dosed by Trixie, the nerve agent from George Romero’s The Crazies, than any product of Timothy Leary’s labs. That probably doesn’t matter – since this isn’t by any stretch a realist film, and it’s so dazzling and inventive (even if just in the shapes its cast bend themselves into) that it’s hard not to be swept along by the gruelling insanity.
In the end, we hope, calmer heads will prevail. If Michael Haneke is Dr Jekyll, then Gaspar Noé is Mr Hyde – the cinema needs them both. If it’s hard to like Climax, then that’s not really what its auteur wants. It’ll also be hard to forget it.
NB: this is the second FrightFest film – after Secret Santa – featuring communal punch spiked with a psychosis-inducing truth serum. Maybe best to stick to soft drinks at the Phoenix. Update – not the psychosis-inducing drug variant energy drink found in Ravers, thoough.