The warning signs about Gasper Noé’s new film, Climax, were there early on. Anyone who releases a poster declaring themselves to be a daring provocateur is more likely to rely on obvious shock tactics than subvert expectations in their attempt to try something truly outlandish. And so it proves, with the Argentinian director picking on the easy targets in his latest attempt to shock and revile.
It’s not as if Noé doesn’t have form for it, but you always felt there was a wider context behind the brutal violence in films like Irreversible and Enter The Void. Maybe he hit his own ceiling too early but Climax sees him continue in his overly self-concious attempts to create his very own Salò, now more likely to purposely piss people off rather than put his considerable talent to good use.
The set up for Climax couldn’t be more straight forward. Noé introduces us to a group of twenty dancers who are holed up in a quiet retreat preparing for a forthcoming American tour. First seen in their audition tapes being played on an old TV, they each answer questions about their personalities and dance aspirations. Everyone bar Sofia Boutella (an ex-dancer herself) is a non-professional actor, so you don’t expect to see a foot misplaced throughout. With the choreography at least.
Noé then cuts to their rehearsal space and launches into one of the most energetic dance sequences you’ll have seen in quite some time. It’s powerful stuff and throws you right into the heart of the troupe as they writhe and gyrate individually and as a group, the camera fixed firmly in place and their bodies propelled by a euphoric 90s house track. It’s the sort of energy that Noé specialises in capturing on film, and these moments of craft feel ever more frustrating when he serves up what’s to follow.
DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile) continues to control the beats in the background as the group begin gulping down bowls of LSD-laced sangria. Before the mayhem kicks in we settle into splintered conversations across the room led by Noé’s fluid camera movement. On one side, two men turn into giggling school boys while they brag about sexual targets in the group, while in quieter corners of the room backstabbing gossip sneaks out into the open. It's mostly in your face and quite amusing, but the chatter offers little beyond Noé cutting down masculine and feminine stereotypes.
Developed at this level Climax could’ve used the condensed space to project these ideas out into something more intoxicating. Instead, Noé is more interested in the easy - and unbelievable - moments of ‘shock’ that never feel genuine in how they are used in the narrative. Once the LSD kicks in it gives the green light for Noé to let loose on the dancers. And yet still it doesn’t feel as chaotic as the premise suggests it may be. There are so many forced sequences undercutting the intensity you end up sitting back detached and clock watching.
The idea is to let us drown in the depravity of these people who are let loose of their inhibitions to indulge in their base instincts - something something humankind. That sort of thing. The truth is it is terribly boring and nowhere near as horrifying as Noé believes it to be. The irony being the film was largely embraced by the critical inner circle at Cannes, instantly undermining his need to exist as some sort of enigmatic filmmaking outcast.
There are moments when the skill and verve of Noé’s talent does make itself known. There are few people in modern cinema who manoeuvre the camera quite as bodly as the Argentinian director and through it he frequently challenges storytelling rules. His visual flair peaks in a sequence midway through the film when a house beat blares at full volume and he slams a series of stylised logos into our faces. It’s cool, structurally daring and cheekily funny. If only Noé wasn’t so obsessed with trying to prove how outrageous he is, we might actually get to see how outrageous he really can be.