Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated R, 95 minutes
Directed by: Gaspar Noé
Gaspar Noé films always contain an emphatic, defiant statement behind their deliberate provocations. Whether or not he conveys these anxiety-baiting sentiments coherently varies depending on the movie. IRREVERSIBLE, ENTER THE VOID and LOVE all contain varying degrees of this. With his new film, the shockteur takes us on a wildly cinematic journey laced with punchy political undertones and pulsating stylistic rhythms. CLIMAX is a BPM-heightened, horror-tinged feature about a dance squad who unknowingly ingests spiked sangria and goes on an indelible bad trip (a metaphor for euphoria and naiveté unwittingly led astray after drinking “the punch”). Though Noé earns points for keeping layered complexities hidden beneath a fairly straightforward narrative, the film ultimately fails to plunge its dagger deep enough to make a wound that never heals.
The film uses a literal cold open of a bloodied woman collapsing in the snow, setting up the coming bacchanal of blood, bile, and paranoia-infused bombast. It then turns to a page straight out of STEP UP 3D’s playbook, using confessional-style videos of the characters talking about the importance of dance. It steeps us in dance culture before the needle drops on the killer soundtrack (club hits from Daft Punk, M/A/R/R/S, Gary Numan, Soft Cell and Aphex Twin) and before we become a silent dance partner. An old model TV blares as the troupe members recount personal anecdotes and broach societal taboos, capturing their individual senses of energy, spirit and light. Lurking on the fringes, however, are videocassettes of films that hint at what we’re about to see: SUSPIRIA, INAUGURATION OF THE PLEASURE DOME, POSSESSION, HARA-KIRI and SKITZOPHRENIA (to name a few). Could it be that the ensuing events are a fever dream? It’s doubtful, as this is based on a true story, but it’s also filtered through Noé’s boundary-less artful lens.
On the blood-red dance floor of a remote, desolate school in France, dancers find a sense of freedom and fidelity. A French flag adorns the wall behind the DJ station, echoing the liberty, equality and fraternity of the art of body movement. It’s entrancing. Noé and cinematographer Benoît Debie begin with the camera in controlled positions as to showcase the dancers’ precise artistry, each taking their rightful power positions (oscillating from supportive to lead roles). In the second dance sequence, after the dancers imbibe LSD-laced Sangria, the camera takes a God’s eye view, looking down on them in a circle formation. They encourage each other to step into the center, writhing and wriggling. During the remainder of the film, the camera floats from dancer to dancer, gliding across the floor as the drug takes hold of their system.
This very bad trip is aesthetically contextualized, unlike most drug-fueled, hallucinogenic nightmares seen on screen. There’s no wallpaper that moves, no otherworldly creatures that manifest. Noé – ever the puckish, persistent agitator – is far more interested in grabbing a seat for a voyeuristic view of the dancers’ personal demons being confronted and exorcised. The performers abilities to throw themselves into their roles and choreography also serves to mesmerize.
The fluidity of the camera and the precision of the cuts act as the cinematic equivalent of dance choreography. Editors Noé and Denis Bedlow’s work comes alive in this cacophony of crazy, augmenting the snowballing suspense and tension as the troupe crumbles into insanity. The coke-fiend’s hair catches fire; a brother and sister make out (which, while on the nose, maybe doubles maybe as some sort of socio-political commentary); a swastika is drawn in red lipstick on a macho dancer’s forehead; a pregnant dancer is bullied and forced into the unspeakable.
Noé’s commentary on the human condition is heartbreaking and deflating, and, while he doesn’t always state his commentary cogently, the questions he wants us to reflect on are certainly understandable. Despite some clunky foreshadowing (like when the mother locks her child in the electrical closet hoping to protect him), Noé keeps us on our toes: Is rescue imminent? Is self-implosion assured? Is survival, for that matter? When artificiality is introduced into life, does that provoke the true response? There are no answers.
CLIMAX opens in limited release on March 1.