“Have they started tripping yet?” is one of the first questions my partner asked whilst I was watching Climax, to which I replied, “Maybe; probably; I’m not sure, to be honest”. The scene in question was a near ten-minute sequence of the several dancer cast members doing just that: dancing, each on varying levels of intensity, provocation and attitude. There’s plenty of movement, speed, feistiness, eroticism, bravado, aggression, and it’s hard to tell if their amplified rowdiness is a product of them being absorbed by the moment or if it’s something more sinister at play. The scene is shot directly from above in a birds-eye view, and, as characters begin to disband, move around, close-in and amalgamate into shapes entirely different from at the beginning of the sequence, the camera begins to rotate. You may notice this steady initiation into movement, a gentle yet unusual shifting, as though the camera is moving for the sake of it, like when you’re feeling nauseous and you fidget and adjust your position as a means of distracting your brain from your threat of sickness. It’s a subtle nudge into what the rest of the film has to offer.
Films I refer to/potentially spoil in this article:
– Climax (dir. Gaspar Noe, 2018)
– Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1976)
– Irreversible (dir. Gaspar Noe, 2002)
– A Serbian Film (dir. Srdjan Spasojevic, 2010)
– The Human Centipede 2 (dir. Tom Six, 2011)
Gaspar Noe’s most recent feature Climax is the latest addition to his canon of shock cinema, a hefty contribution to his cinephile playground-dare list: “Oh yeah? Well does Salo have a scene where a pregnant woman punches herself in the stomach and cuts her face?” This self-aware and outgoing provocation is the simultaneously best and worst element of the film. Notoriously branded as a descent into hell, Climax is the story of a dance troupe who, upon finishing their rehearsal, spiral into mayhem after someone spikes their sangria. The film chronicles their collective trip in an impressively conveyed sense of nausea, panic, outright terror and desperation for the mental effects to end. One of the extensive aesthetic elements that Climax utilises is the seemingly unending notion of being drunk or feeling unwell, and the desperation for it to end. Noe masterfully throws you from room to room with characters shrieking and screaming, steadily pacing with heavy, firmly planted feet, various flavours of dancing, body-contorting, fighting, paralleled by some of the most appropriate cinematography I’ve ever seen, powerfully utilising the stylistic form of the single-take.
It’s difficult to critique Climax for only being this manic, trippy shock-fest though when that’s exactly all it seems to want to be. The characters aren’t built up to have these complex, entwining relationships; they’re hardly given the opportunity to expand and develop anyway. For most of the film, you’ll merely watch them freak out; it’s a defining morbidly curious, perverse film, where plot and characterisation take a backseat to watching them do awful things to themselves and one another. Instead, their surface-level templates are the basis of their characters. Selva is the closest thing to our main character as her morals are the most grounded; she seems to be the only one actively challenging the effects on her mind, whereas most others succumb to the drugs consequent inducing effects of paranoia, arousal, violence etc. Another character is overly obsessed with protecting his sister, which, with a twisted enough mind you’ll be able to imagine what extent that reaches. Another is a pregnant woman who faces the shame of being branded as the drink-spiker by the others. Another is a sex-obsessed man who seems to stalk Selva, attempting to get with her at any cost. One guy is a body-contortionist who is always conveniently lurking in the background adding extra dimensions of inhuman-like terror. The unifying trait is that they each possess something that Noe will be able to exploit and mould into a shock-worthy scene. One of the most notable is a mother who, upon realising that she’s about to lose her mind to the drugs, decides to lock her young son in a storage room to “protect” him from the about-to-ensue chaos; this child is responsible for some of the most authentic, affecting and spine-chilling screams of terror to ever grace film, shrieks that seem subconsciously activated and instinctually responsive to terror rather than a vocal choice. And this is exactly the type of buzzword description that may or may not draw you to watch the movie; it’s a shock film that the morbidly curious will no doubt want to check out in hope of scarring themselves. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, but a description of all that Climax has literally, thematically and narratively going for it.
However, when the aesthetics, production design, soundtrack-cues and soundtrack selection are each executed as exceptionally as they are, the plot and character studies take a comfortable backseat. Noe flexes his muscles of creating enticing stories with little plot baggage through unconventional methods of filmmaking, which he somehow achieves without falling into the category of being a gimmick. He’s also able to create the most convincingly nightmarish and otherworldly environments out of standard, everyday locations. Take the blood-red subway in Irreversible; the same brashly-coloured iconography is applied to Climax, creating locations that feel vaguely familiar and in equal measure nightmarish, grimy, nausea-inducing and uninviting thanks to grungy greens, sombre yellows and mysterious purples.
It certainly says something about a filmmaker when their film that features a self-harming pregnant woman, incest, child-death and suicide is one of their least offensive and most accessible. Although consisting of only a couple of graphic set-pieces as opposed to the unrelenting sequence of nightmarish incidents throughout Climax, Irreversible felt far more poignant and thought-provoking. Climax, on the other hand, is about as thought-provoking as the edgy “woke” drunken stoner talk among the dance troupe before they start tripping. Their journeys are vague and almost meaningless before they begin to trip, serving only to provoke another nasty scene, usually an attempt to initiate sex or violence. However, as discussed earlier, this is shock cinema; it’s not claiming to tell a complex, emotional story. Inevitably though, some audiences will find its style-over-substance fruitless and insufferable. To a cinephile though, Climax is a trove of expressionistic, atmospheric experimentation; Noe sustains various challenging motifs throughout the film, including a genuinely affecting, subversive rotating camera that succeeds in accentuating the ensuing, climactic horror and heightening the sensation of feeling lost and under-the-influence.
Climax is almost so absurd in its portrayal of “hell” (reiterated by the lights conveniently turning a deathly, strobing red halfway through the film) that it becomes kitsch. It’s nowhere near at the I-want-to-do-nothing-but-offend-you levels of A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede 2, but perhaps that’s only because there’s a talented auteur behind this project. The elaboration of just how bad things get for the characters in the film is almost too OTT to be believable. It is, however, entertaining and ticks all the boxes of why you probably chose to watch this morbidly curious film in the first place.