It’s been sixteen years since Irréversible, the last time I can honestly say the notorious French master of excess Gaspar Noé truly shocked me. Since that film with its unforgettable (and for many – understandably – unforgivable) nine-minute long rape scene, movies like 2009’s Enter the Void and 2015’s Love have seen the filmmaker continuing to push the envelope of acceptability and explicitness in ways that have become perhaps paradoxically something to be expected. A director of extraordinary vision whose politics often unapologetically fall into the terrain of ‘difficult’, after ramping up the confrontational nature of his work time and time again it was going to take something truly surprising to remind of his talent as a filmmaker.
With Climax – which recently made its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of its beloved ‘Midnight Madness’ program – Noé has done precisely this, one of his most euphoric, succinct, and effective movies in over a decade. The trick is a simple one: the director has turned his hand to that supposedly most non-confrontational of body genres, the musical. Climax is unapologetically a dance film, and after a neat preface that introduces the film’s cast of young dancers that we follow throughout the film, Noé presents one of his most accomplished, engaging and sensorially engrossing feats in a lengthy pre-credit dance sequence. Here, the cast of young dancers (representing a broad cross section of gender, race, class, and sexual identities) perform an astonishing dance routine, shot – by Noé’s usual standards at least – with the minimum of fanfare: it’s the dancers and the dance itself that provide the spectacle, not over-the-top formal and stylistic showmanship. The thrill and appeal of Climax is how Noé shocks by refusing to shock, instead revealing the raw spectacle of bodies in motion like few filmmakers since Bob Fosse.
Fosse might otherwise be a curious point of reference for a Gaspar Noé film, but in Climax, All That Jazz is a difficult point of reference to avoid, particularly as the film moves forward and drug use takes over as a primary ‘plot’ point. In Climax, an impromptu post-workout party at the isolated French dormitory-style dance studio where this group of young men and women find themselves dissolves into violence and hysteria when their punchbowl of sangria is spiked with LSD by persons unknown. A selection of video tape spines shown next to a television screen that played the preliminary video introductions of each character acts as neat shorthand to introduce the direction that this doomed trip will soon take; references to films like Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò and Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession all foreshadow what is to come in one way or another.
And yet, what remains so striking about Climax – apparently based on a true story – is how even when pushing his audience to witness the extremes of human behaviour that have all but become his trademark, Noé uses remarkable judgement in knowing when to pull back. The film is still conceptually shocking and extreme in its subject matter, of course, but the way the filmmaker tackles it here reveals something we’ve not quite seen from him before. What in his other films is explicitly revealed with great relish and fanfare is here alluded to but rarely actually shown as such. This is in almost all cases to remarkable effect, if only because the Noé brand finds us constantly bracing ourselves for that now cliched shock reveal. The great paradox – and the great success – of Climax is exactly how Noé flirts with these expectations but never comes through in the way that we have until now expected him to. Climax single-handedly reveals that this is still a vital filmmaker with new tricks up his sleeve.