Here’s the thing about filmmakers who set out to shock audiences: If the gasps fail to materialize, and there’s nothing else behind those gasps, then it’s a pretty meaningless viewing experience.
Gaspar Noé is an auteur who frequently lives and dies by the shock, and among his past credits is 2002’s Irreversible, a brutal and ugly picture that prompted plenty of walkouts at both Cannes and Sundance. Real-life couple Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel starred as a blissfully happy couple whose lives are utterly destroyed after she’s raped and left in a coma and he sets out to kill her assailant. Irreversible shocked me to the core, but because the story was presented in backwards-chronological order (not unlike Memento), it proved to be a thought-provoking drama that registered as more than just a gimmick. The structure not only allowed for “what if?” reflections but also musings on the very nature of time, the frightening randomness of the little moment-by-moment choices we make, and whether our destinies are indeed laid out for us or whether our fates are constantly in our own hands. I never, ever, ever want to see Irreversible again, but I can’t deny its power to startle and even move me.
With Climax (*1/2 out of four), Noé is back with another hyperactive assault on our senses, but in this instance, it feels as if the emperor no longer has any clothes. A largely improvisational piece (the script was reportedly only five pages in length), it centers on the members of a French dance troupe who gather to practice and party in an abandoned building, only for everyone to turn into raving lunatics after someone spikes the sangria with LSD. Make that almost everyone — a Middle Eastern man doesn’t drink alcohol, so he’s suspected of being the spiker and is subsequently thrown out into the freezing cold to die, and a pregnant woman doesn’t drink for obvious reasons, so she then becomes the accused and gets repeatedly kicked in the belly. And then there are some who drink the sangria but don’t become quite as bloodthirsty as the others —among these would be Selva (Sofia Boutella), the dance choreographer who spends much of the time weeping at the inhumanity surrounding her.
Clearly, Noé means for Climax to disturb viewers, but it’s ultimately as shocking as a fifth grader making armpit noises. If the director’s nihilistic message is that the world is a horrible place and human beings are just the worst — well, that’s hardly a revelatory stance, and it’s one that’s already pummeling us in real life via each successive day’s round of headline news.
There’s one pre-LSD sequence that’s absolutely stunning, and it’s when the troupe performs a full-out dance number that’s simply staggering to behold. It’s so beautifully staged and so full of life and energy that I wished the movie had turned into Fame: Part 2 and provided more of such ecstasy. But this sequence also points out one of the picture’s limitations. Aside from Boutella (Atomic Blonde, The Mummy, Star Trek Beyond), there are few professional actors in this movie since Noé chose to cast actual dancers. That works for the dance sequences but for little else — even with subtitles, it’s clear that many of these folks aren’t trained to emote, and the early scenes in which they’re required to improvise their own dialogue are painful, with banal discussions that don’t exactly endear them to viewers.
Ultimately, Climax is too predictable in its supposedly horrific reveals to ever catch us off-guard. There’s the manager’s little boy, so of course something truly awful will happen to him. There’s a brother and sister among the troupe, so of course an incestuous tryst will be attempted post-ingestion. Like a bad disco song, Climax soon becomes numbing and repetitious, and after it finally ends, the only course of action is to let out a deep sigh and hope that the next offering on the playlist provides a catchier beat.