Gaspar Noé doesn't direct that many films, but there's no doubt that he does his very best to make every single one of them count. His previous feature film (Love) ended up being a little disappointing though, so my eyes were firmly set on Climax, not quite sure whether he still had it in him. Noé isn't getting any younger and even though Climax shows the wear and tear of an aging director, it is in fact a return to form. It's not Noé at his very best, but it's an insane trip that only someone like him could bring to life.
Climax fits right into the growing trend of 90s throwbacks. Apparently there were some feeble excuses thrown up to have the film set in 1996 (like not wanting the kids to have smartphones), but really it's just an excuse to rehash some classic dance bangers. While it annoys me less than the 80s throwbacks (I am after all a kid of the 90s), I'm not quite sure if I'm ready for a 10-year-long wank fest celebrating the music of my youth. I'd much rather see a film featuring some modern electronica instead, but apparently it's impossible for film to actually catch up with its time.
While reading up on online reviews, I also noticed a lot of people complaining about the realism of the "bad trips" in this film. Apparently people are very eager to point out how this film doesn't resemble their bad LSD trips in the slightest, but in my opinion that's really missing the point. While the film's story might point to an LSD-spiked sangria bowl, the trip itself has very little to do with a particular drug or state of mind, instead it's a typical spiral into madness. Whatever triggered it or how realistic it is portrayed does not matter in the slightest.
The setup of the film is extremely simple. We're following a group of young dancers on a three-day dancing retreat, which is supposed to prepare them for a dance battle in the US. On the final day they organize a party to celebrate their time together, but when it comes to light that someone put something nasty in their drinks, things spiral out of control really fast. Built up irritation and jealousy find their way to the surface, and it doesn't take long for people to turn on each other.
Even though I'm a big fan of Noé, I think a co-direction credit for Benoît Debie wouldn't look out of place. Debie's cinematography is absolutely essential in the success of Noé's films, and Climax just provides more proof of that. The film consists of several tremendous long takes (take notice, Cuarón), which don't limit the expressiveness and agility of the camerawork in the slightest. Debie dances amongst the dancers and catches everything with surprising clarity, even when things go completely wonky. Climax is another visual tour de force, but that's hardly a surprise.
I'm a bit more conflicted about the soundtrack. On the one hand, it's miles ahead of what most films even dare to put forward (with stand-out tracks from Neon, Wild Planet, Aphex Twin and Thomas Bangalter), on the other hand it's still a little too toned down for my taste. Some of the heavier tracks are also slightly pushed to the background for some unexplained reason, which is a shame when you know what kind of effect this music can have at full blast. I'm also not a big fan of the retro-vibe that Noé pursues, but I'll just have to get used to that, I'm afraid.
Apart from Sofia Boutella, the entire cast is made up of amateur actors/professional dancers. It's a bold choice that pays off, not in the least because it gives the film a more natural flair. Noé is great at drawing very natural performances from his actors, their lack of experience only adds to the overall effect. And having a bunch of professional dancers on board makes the dance scenes that more impressive. Boutella (a former dancer herself) doesn't look out of place and shows she can do more than appear in mediocre blockbusters.
The first half hour of Climax is a little slow and you'd be forgiven for thinking that the film is not going to live up to its reputation. But once the shit hits the fan Climax quickly spirals out of control and Noé fans will get exactly what they came for: a grim, uncomfortable and downbeat descent into madness. The final hour is unadulterated unease, discomfort in its purest form. It's the kind of cinematic tour de force that is a rare treat, which makes it all the more worthwhile.
That said, in a way it's also a little disappointing that a film like this is still so exceptional. It's really not that different from Noé's Irréversible, even though that one is almost celebrating its 20th birthday. It's a shame cinema hasn't progressed to even more overwhelming experiences, but that's clearly asking for too much. Rather than push this style even further, Climax is slightly more restrained and with no one to challenge Noé, things aren't looking too promising for the near future. There's just so much untapped potential here that a 90s electronic soundtrack half-tucked away in the background simply isn't going to cut it for much longer.
Don't get me wrong, Climax is a superb film, but only by lack of true competition. Debie's cinematography is first class, the soundtrack is spot on, the dance routines are pretty impressive, performances are great, and the final hour is Noé at his finest/darkest. At the same time, Climax is starting to feel like familiar territory, which isn't quite the experience I'm looking for when seeking out a Gaspar Noé film. Fans of the director will find a film that is right up their alley, but I can't help but wonder what a younger, more spirited director could do with this kind of material.