Captain Marvel is not the only movie coming out this week that focuses on nineties nostalgia. Climax, the latest visual and aural assault from Gaspar Noé, takes place in the period where electronic music from Daft Punk and Aphex Twin were all the rage. The cumulative effect is almost like a musical: all the characters are dancers, and throbbing house beat may have you bopping in your seat. But this is Noé we’re talking about, so that transcendence is temporary. His characters devolve into a downward spiral of violence, insanity, and forbidden sexuality. Qualitative “good” and “bad” judgments are moot to a movie-going experience like this.
The setting for the film is a dance studio in the French countryside. It is winter, and a dance company is holed up as they go through their latest routines. The dancers vary in style/talent, but Noé is able to characterize them through movement. Selva (Sofia Boutella) is the only real standout because she is the choreographer, and is can weave through the natural cliques her troupe forms (the remaining cast are unknowns). They are told to relax after a rehearsal, and there is even sangria for the party. Things go awry when everyone’s hedonism gives away to a nightmare. Someone secretly spiked the punch for LSD, so there are accusations abound as everyone trips balls.
By Noé standards, Climax is pretty tame. Granted, the film includes dead children, disturbing sexual dialogue, incest, murder, and violence against pregnant women. Noé films all this with relative restraint: his past films like Enter the Void and Irreversible could wallow in bodily fluids, predominantly blood and semen, and here he spares us the viscera. This is still an extreme film, and that’s due to Noé’s aggressive camera work. Many of his shots are godlike, floating over the characters like a detached observer. Once the trip starts, however, his camera points at odd angles (there is a long take where a character is writhing on the floor, but the camera is upside down). It spiral and twists in circles, creating a feeling like you’re drunk. Like all Noé films, this will inspire walkouts.
There is still the matter of whether Climax has any point. As an anthropological study, it captures the attitude and experimentation from the period. There is a nihilism to many of the characters, and not just the one who spiked the sangria. The film opens with a lengthy, lengthy faux-interview where all the characters talk about their desires and ideas, and selfish advancement is what they all share. Maybe Noé sees the period with rose-colored glasses, and not just because red the film’s predominant color. These characters live in an era after AIDS but before the internet, and their taste/talent could not be cultivated through YouTube.
But if all that’s the case, then why have his characters go through the disastrous sangria-soaked ringer? Noé clearly sees freedom and youthful abandon as a double-edged sword. There is also an element of sadism to this film, as with all his work, as if he wants to test your patience. Your reward is Noé now thinks you’re cool, maybe.
In a Noé film, even the credits are central to a film’s overall message. Climax begins with all the credits, including the list of songs in the soundtrack, including stuff by Satie and Soft Cell. One of the songs is “Windowlicker,” by the aforementioned Aphex Twin. The minute I saw that track, I thought to myself, “There’s no way its use here is more disturbing than the original video.” I was wrong. If that intrigues you, then maybe you will appreciate the wringer that this film provides. Everyone else should probably skip the sangria.