Climax (Melbourne International Film Festival)
Sofia Boutella, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile
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It is not just great at what it does; it is a provocative masterpiece.
Not enough people are going to talk about the dancing, but we will get to that shortly.
French film provocateur Gaspar Noé returns with what feels – at least on the first viewing – as the strongest feature he has directed to date. Climax does not deviate too far from his earlier works such as Love, Enter the Void and particularly his 2002 film Irreversible, but it certainly showcases how much his technique has been refined. Noé has always pushed boundaries of mainstream taste. His various scenes of graphic violence or sexual activity have earned him a reputation for controversy, and the discomfort created in those scenes leave his audience at a queasy crossroads between shock, inappropriate laughter – even anger at the director himself. He exploits an audience’s prurience and its desire to rubber-neck violence, and punishes those desires by lingering on them to interminable lengths. Then he will perversely break the horror with an absurd moment of levity and fool the viewers into lining up to be horrified again.
The remarkable part is that Noé only needs to present something horrifying a few times for the audience’s paranoia to do the rest of the job for him. One spends much of Climax in a state of constant rising dread. It is a hugely uncomfortable place to be. The film is enormously uncomfortable and tense. In one middle sequence, you feel actively nauseous. For a film to generate such a physical response in the viewer is a remarkable achievement. Most viewers likely will not enjoy it. Some will probably object to its having ever been made at all. For those with an interest at just how far motion pictures can affect the viewer, Climax is the best horror film of 2018 to date.
Climax features a group of contemporary dancers who have been assembled to perform on an American tour. In an isolated school building in the winter, they rehearse their collaborative work. Then they party, dancing and chatting late into the night while getting drunk on home-made sangria. The sangria has been spiked – whether with LSD or some other narcotic nobody knows – and trapped inside the building the party begins to go horrifyingly out of control.
The film is divided into two halves. The second, in which the drugs take effect and the paranoia sets in, is easily the half that everybody is going to talk about. The first, which kicks off with a series of interviews with the characters and centres on a bravura 15-minute dance sequence, is utterly remarkable and deserves as much praise as it can get. It is not just exceptionally performed, with choreography by Nina McNeely, it is also beautifully shot by regular Noé cinematographer Benoît Debie. It makes you long for the idea of a fully-fledged Gaspar Noé musical. It also does a tremendous job of developing the unexpectedly large ensemble cast; a process that continues with a sharply contrasting series of rapid-cut conversations between the characters as they party.
A second dance sequence, strikingly shot from above, cleverly shows the spiked sangria taking effect. The moves become more sexual and aggressive. The mood turns ever-so-slightly threatening. From here, the film descends headlong into a familiar Noé-esque Hell, in which the lightning changes to garish primary colours and the camera starts to pitch and yaw in a queasy fashion. The characters realise they’ve been drugged. Some sink into dream-like stupors. Others get angry – very angry – and for the two dancers that did not drink the sangria, the hunt for the one who spiked the drinks becomes genuinely terrifying. It is not the violence that makes Climax a harrowing experience, it is the potential for that violence. Every character becomes a potential victim, every character a potential assailant. As each shock incident assaults the viewer he or she becomes just as paranoid as the characters, imagining with every moment every potentially horrifying thing that might occur. Some of them do. Others come out of the blue. All of them arc up the harrowing, terrifying nightmare that is beginning to unfold. It is inescapable, unstoppable, and so seemingly unending that it begins to have a genuine physical effect on the viewer.
Climax is a film with niche appeal. It is unapologetic and pulls no punches. For many viewers it will be actively repellent, and even physically upsetting. When reviewing a film, however, there are always three key questions to keep in mind: (a) what is the director attempting to do, (b) do they succeed, and (c) is it well made? With Climax the answer to all three is a resolute ‘yes’. It is not just great at what it does; it is a provocative masterpiece.