I am going to go out on a limb and say that even those viewers who say they like Gaspar Noé’s movies don’t find them easy to sit through. It’s hard to like any of his movies in the conventional feel-good sense. Nobody likes von Trier that way, either. And while von Trier is on the darker side of the emotional cineastic spectrum, Noé can be almost maniacally, forcefully happy by way of a drug-induced high for a short time, but his movies, sooner rather than later, always tip over into loss and despair. Irreversible has that unflinching and seemingly endless rape scene, Enter the Void is about a guy overdosing and then floating above Tokyo, visiting his sister and other people. Love is about a three-way relationship breaking apart, which is almost conventional for Noé. All of them, however, have in common their pretty radical storytelling, floating unsteady camera, flickering primary colors, and their unapologetic leaps into nudity and/or violence.
And now there’s Climax, about a French dance troupe rehearsing for a big contest against other countries in an abandoned, snowed-in school assembly hall. The fact that no-one is using cell phones tells me that we are somewhere in the 80s. And they are a merry bunch of pretty good dancers, men and women, and if I am not mistaken, there are some transgender actors playing transgender characters, as if that had been the most normal thing 30 years ago. In fact, there are so many characters in this film that it is hard to remember them all. Every dancer is introduced via auditioning tape, but since everyone has about equal screen time, you see them much more as a group than as individuals. Sofia Boutella has been in major blockbusters, but most of the other cast members have never been in a movie before. While I like new faces, it was hard to care for a specific character, and if you can’t care enough for anyone, the movie really has to offer other things in order for me to get involved in it.
Somebody spikes the punch bowl, people feel funny, and their feelings – anger, suspicion, sadness, joy, other stuff that they wanted to keep to themselves – are turned up to eleven and come to the surface. Noé gave the cast videos to watch of people high on acid or speed or LSD, and then let them act that way. Conversations are about dance, race, drugs, sex, gender and religion; most of them quickly turn weird, accusatory, slandering and hurtful, and then the next rehearsal becomes more and more confrontational and violent. There is one character that keeps dancing and dancing until the cops show up. Others won’t survive the night. For me, it’s always hard to follow someone into a drug trip. It’s like being the only sober one at a party. I simply have no experience with acid or LSD or other hard drugs, so people getting high always seem slightly artificial and slightly ridiculous to me.
For all the problems I had connecting to the characters, there are a few things to be said in favor of the movie. First off, these are pretty good dancers. Boutella has been in Step Up 2, but Climax is very far away from those professional, fast-cut dance movies that have a paper-thin story attached to them. Noé shoots very long takes with the troupe, and because this is a rehearsal, their moves are not streamlined, but rough and fresh and unexpected. Some seem to dance out of sensuality, others out of anger, even before they drink from the spiked punch. There is a many-layered aesthetic about the movie that avoids the risk of resting the whole feature on the shoulders of just one main character, the risk being that you don’t find that character very interesting. In Climax, you can pick your favorites, even if you don’t get to know them as well as if they were protagonists.
The movie ends technically unclean. With Noé’s camera sliding and swooping from one dancer to the next towards morning, it’s hard to tell if they are asleep, unconscious or dead. You can be sure only with some of them; others just lie there, and we don’t know their fate. Climax is probably more for those moviegoers who can see a number of characters as a unity. Me, I need some kind of in-road, a spot that gives me access to the world unfolding before my eyes. Climax is one of Noé’s shorter movies, not least because it is so single-minded; it is not his best work, but it is by no means a bad movie. For the whole time it ran, I was involved.