Full disclaimer: this is my first Gaspar Noë film. The French enfant terrible is a director I know about much more through reputation than personal experience. Known for creating visually stunning, shocking, sometimes repulsive arthouse features, Noë has built a fanbase that centers around not if, but when, his film is going to disgust them. Now, with “Climax” being picked up by indie juggernaut A24, Noë looks to potentially have his most mainstream hit on his hands (although, it’s pretty easy to be mainstream in conjunction to “Irreversible”). The result? Not unlike watching a Cirque du Soleil performer do a belly flop in a swimming pool. “Climax” is absolutely brilliant on a technical level, but for all its pinwheeling, it doesn’t really add up to a whole lot.
The premise of “Climax” is simple: a group of dancers experience the worst drug trip of their lives. What follows is 90 minutes of hallucinatory horror as these individuals begin falling apart, both mentally and physically. It’s a compelling enough premise for any visually oriented director: Noë himself must have been relishing the challenge of making such an internal process so visually compelling. And, to his credit, he doesn’t take the easy way out. There aren’t really any moments of surrealism or fantasy within this drug trip. Strangely enough, we aren’t quite inside the minds of any of the characters. However, to say that the film takes a distanced, objective viewpoint of the events would be incorrect, too. Instead, Noë is able to find just the right balance between objectivity and subjectivity, making the audience feel like their on the precipice of watching something terrifying while leaving out just enough information to make them do part of the work.
“Climax” is a very impressive piece of technical showmanship, especially seen in the film’s latter three quarters. This section of the film is all done in one take. The long take has been abused pretty often by auteur directors for a good reason: they look really damn cool. From the immediacy of “Children of Men” to the romanticism of “La La Land,” long takes can be a really effective mood setter. At their worst, however, they simply become an excuse for filmmakers to show off how talented they are as craftspeople. Unfortunately, “Climax” falls into the latter category. Gun to my head, I could honestly not give you a single good reason as to why so much of this film needed to be in one take.
In fact, Noë really missed out on using the edit as a way of portraying a fractured state of mind. Instead, the film contains several, flabby sections of characters simply walking from point A to point B, without much in the way of development happening in between.
Beyond its craftsmanship, there is a point trying to be made with the story of “Climax,” albeit, in a rather muddled way. Having the story being set around a multi-ethnic dance troupe that eventually tears itself apart clearly feels like a political move, but Noë doesn’t seem sure what specific message he’s trying to get across. Is it about the failure of racial and cultural integration within France? Or the destructive power of prejudice? While that may be the case, the central conceit of the film (the drug trip itself) denies the story any amount of political specificity for there to really be a working message. Ultimately, that is what sinks “Climax” the most: for all its visceral power, the movie doesn’t have a strong enough sticking point to work, unlike the similarly visceral, yet much more effective, “mother!” Without more to tie it to reality, Noë’s film feels aimless, stumbling around, desperately trying to get its next hit.