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Thursday, March 14, 2019

Review: CLIMAX, an exercise in sadism that offers little else

Gaspar Noe is a filmmaker that revels in controversy, or at least that's the way it seems from the outset. There's a brutal immediacy to his work that is instantly appealing, and to some degree gripping. While Irreversible is a taut examination and rumination on violence and its ripple effects, it's also a film that has spurred no few amounts of walk-outs - particularly during its infamous 10-minute long rape scene. Enter The Void, a project that furthered the French director's ambitions towards the esoteric, is a neon-drenched exploration of the afterlife and the wake of its protagonist's passing. It also features an aborted fetus. Noe's career is littered with these kinds of punctuations on fascinating themes that are either marring or enhancing in its provocation. He is the definition of "not for everyone", as a matter of fact, there's an argument to be made that he's "for the very few".

Surprisingly, with Climax, this cinematic formenter has somehow deigned a new-found appreciation from the critical set; with many who caught his latest in festival screenings calling it his most accomplished work yet, and dare it be said "mainstream".

It seems a far cry to take such descriptors to these potentially logical endpoints, particularly as Climax, while perhaps Noe's most accessible feature, is about as brutal a work of nihilism as he has yet produced. It's just wrapped up in a flashier wrapper.

Opening with a shot of a cheap television surrounded by some of the classics of 70's Italian horror, we bear witness to a number of audition tapes - where a behind the camera interviewer (switching between a male and female voice) asks a number of young street and professional dancers about their individual experiences, their hopes, their dreams, their life philosophies and the like. It creates an fascinating visual juxtaposition, the purity of dancing as an art form combined with the griminess of old horror filmmaking. All that to say, this is clearly Noe's attempt at making his version of a Giallo film of the Fulci, Argento variety...though where it visually dovetails with Italian B-cinema in spirit, thematically it may be more on par with the work of Pasolini, particularly his study of humanity's inhumanity Salo, or the 120 Day of Sodom.

Climax begins with a rush of adrenaline, once the preliminaries are dispensed with, as it zips its attention toward the school in which all of our interviewees have enrolled. Viewers are immediately thrust into a 15 minute long dance sequence that is perhaps one of the most impressive examples of such in modern filmmaking. Noe's cast, comprised of real-life French and German dancers makes the most of their incredible talent and mixed styles. From Sofia Boutella's (the lone known acting quantity here) semi-orgasmic center staging, to a group of male dancers joining together to create one moving unit, to the DJ himself jumping from behind the turntables to join in, it's a mesmerizing effort, and regardless of the ugliness to come, this opening shot of kinetic energy nearly makes the whole thing worthwhile.

As one would inevitably expect, things turn south very quickly. Someone has spiked the sangria that everyone is drinking at this party with LSD, and while it takes a bit for its effects to kick in, giving the performers an opportunity to interact a bit more and provide grounding for their various interpersonal relationships that pre-exist prior to this incident and those that are quickly forming. It's a bit of voyeuristic activity, comprised mostly of two talking heads each that's essential for grounding these characters with the audience at all, but does wear itself a bit too thin. This is largely due to the facile nature of most of their conversations. Everyone has basically one dimension or trait: the drug addict, the sexual conquistadors, the quarreling couple, the other quarreling couple, the weirdly protective brother and sister, the mom, etc...it's a lot of cast to navigate admittedly, but these brief snippets do so little with a huge chunk of time. And then the worst comes...

Once the acid trip begins, Noe and company enter full-throated psychological and cringe-inducing horror, it begins with a woman urinating on the floor and accusations between each other as to who could have committed this profane act to their communal beverage, then a pregnant woman gets kicked in the stomach and is encouraged to self-abort and even kill herself by the quickly growing hostile crew. The sheer pandemonium continues to grow, and literally every Chekov's Gun that you could imagine could possibly go off, will.

That's not to say that Noe's penchant for shock and sadism necessarily provides nothing to recommend. His playing within the realms of a tried and true genre is rather fascinating to behold, particularly when the camera follows behind Boutella, the ersatz central figure, as she travails along the hallways of the school and bears witness to her own internal struggle with the trip and the increasingly creepy visuals that continue to build up around her. Noe cleverly finds a way to even make the idea of a triple-jointed dancer a disturbing thing to behold, playing to a back of the mind queasiness.

But once the film enters its inevitable Lord of the Flies territory, and the camera becomes more and more obscured, and the shock value enters its most absurd - we begin to wonder what we really learned at all or what the bottom-line messaging that Noe is aiming to uncover. As a piece of genre flirtation, it's a worthwhile curio perhaps, but beyond that, the potential for further appeal escapes likelihood outside of the diehards.

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