Gaspar Noé is... a lot.
The French provocateur seems to have made it his life's goal to shove as much depravity, horror and animalistic barbarity down the throats of every audience member he comes across - and I don't think I mean that in a bad way. His films are indeed shocking and provocative, but at their best they find a balance between thrilling technical audacity and smartly disturbing deconstructions of theme, film itself, and society at large.
Though it's hard to describe any take on his films as representative of a "general consensus", the most common view on his oeuvre seems to be that it peaked in 2002 with 'Irreversible', his brutal, backwards-moving take on the trauma and profound destruction inherent in a particularly horrific act of violence and violation. From there, it would seem as if he's in something of a decline. He's attempted to replicate the success of that film's controlled excess with 2009's 'Enter the Void', a three-hour descent (ascent?) into a drug addict's ghost-eye-view of his sister's mental breakdown, and with 2015's 'Love', provocative for its unsimulated sex scenes and for being a three hour-long 3D cumshot - and not entirely figuratively.
Which brings us to his latest, 'Climax', and, once again, it's a tough one to describe. It's like... a 'Step Up' sequel directed by a tripping demon. Or it's like an EDM-fuelled MGM musical, seen through the eyes of the pill-popping actors as they drop mid-number. Or, it's like the film equivalent of the Marquis de Sade on poppers at Poof Doof. But most of all, it is fucking glorious.
Set in France in the mid-1990s, and supposedly inspired by a real event, the film focuses on a diverse troupe of dancers as they celebrate the end of a three-day rehearsal intensive. Having retreated to an abandoned high school in the middle of winter, the group, led by Selva (Sofia Boutella, 'Kingsman: The Secret Service'), have perfected their number and are ready to party. Tensions amongst them simmer quietly (and not-so-quietly), but on the whole they seem unified, supportive, loving - and never more so than when they're dancing, with Noé giving a masterful throwback to the musical numbers of old by treating us to a long, unbroken shot containing their entire routine. It's a righteously queer celebration of bodies and ability, kinetically realised and joyously executed... and then the drugs kick in. It quickly becomes apparent that someone has spiked the sangria they've all been guzzling with some particularly potent LSD, and their night is about to take a turn for the nightmarishly macabre.
And boy, does it ever. This night has everything - screaming, dancing, scratching, pissing, fucking, beating, cutting, burning, laughing, seizing, killing - it's all here. Noé and cinematographer Benoît Debie capture the group's feverous plunge into brutality and psychotic inhumanity with an intimate, glazed immediacy, as the film unfolds in a series of long, gliding shots where their roving camera flits between subjects and headspaces with a sort of devastated glee. It feels like, for the first time in a long time, Noé isn't guilty of what his harshest critics often level against him, as rather than inflicting cruelty upon characters he clearly disdains, the filmmaker seems to have a real affection for these figures, even as he has them physically and mentally suffer as much as he possibly can.
It's like a 'Step Up' sequel directed by a tripping demon.
There's a real spirit of artistic game recognising game here, so enamoured is he with their ways of moving and their explorations of the abilities and limits of their own bodies, and it's contagious. It's energising, propulsive stuff, and helps key you into these characters in the short amount of time we have with them before they're all completely off their faces. Even with just their brief, audition-tape introductions (shown on a TV set framed with DVDs and books Noé brazenly uses to flaunt the film's artistic influences - oh hey Argento, Von Trier, Buñuel, how ya going), along with the fantastically edited collection of two-shots that whips us around the gossiping factions of the party pre-spiking, we're still able to care about these people as people and not just drug-powered props being moved around by a sadistic overlord.
No, instead Noé teases out likably naturalistic performances from the whole ensemble, made up of unknowns playing similarly-named characters we can only assume are in some ways extensions of their own personas. The lone outlier here is Boutella, playing a leader of the pack with her own insecurities and uncertainties, and the only recognisable face thanks to her turn as Samuel L. Jackson's sharp-legged henchman in Matthew Vaughn's 'Kingsman: The Secret Service' (not to mention the titular role in the Tom Cruise-starring 'The Mummy', a film people apparently saw and supposedly existed). Her striking physicality in that film fully blooms here, particularly when the film's standout sequence involves her impressive commitment to a very direct homage to Isabelle Adjani's most-memed moment from Andrzej Zulawski's 'Possession'. Boutella throws herself around a room with abandon - half-dance, half-exorcism - her character's every moment of sensorial engulfing and emotional spillage laid bare, and within all of that she's even somehow able to find moments of pitch-black humour. It's a riveting, intriguing turn from an actress who clearly has loads of potential.
Even with all the depravity, cruelty and horror on display, I couldn't help but enjoy Noé's audacity in his portrayal of it all. His style is undeniably unique, and here he is able to stay just the right side of exhausting. That's aided by a parable-like quality to the filmmaking, and not just because of the gigantic, sparkly French flag that adorns the walls of the dance hall. Watching this utopic community of sexually and racially diverse artists tear itself apart through pettiness and debauchery is gruelling, but makes it harder to dismiss the film as having no more on its mind than just being punishing brutality for the sake of punishing brutality.
In any case, one thing can certainly be said for this film and its director - Noé is once again, finally, just the right amount of a lot.