Climax: Gaspar Noé’s Extreme Study of Life Electrifying and Eerie... As Expected

Rating: A-

By Liam Lacey

Climax, the latest experimental sensory assault and indictment of vile humanity by 55-year-old Franco-Argentinian bad-boy director, Gaspar Noé (Irréversible, Enter the Void) is this year’s film you can’t unsee. For 45 minutes, this is an electrifying and beautifully shot display of modern street and club dancing, led by the formidable lip-curl and sexy strut of Algerian dancer/actress Sofia Boutella (The Mummy, Atomic Blonde) and a cast of largely unknown French club dancers. For 45 minutes, it's an exhilarating celebration of beautiful, strong bodies, diversity, democracy, and freedom.

Scroll down for our interview with Gaspar Noé

They are a dance troupe of a couple of dozen people, including a deejay and a choreographer with her toddler son, Tito. They are in final rehearsals for a big show in America, though just getting to know each other as a group. Their rehearsal space and temporary home is an abandoned school in the countryside. The events are supposedly based on a real event, set in 1996, with the period-appropriate fashion and dance music, but free of smart phones.

A scene from Climax.

A scene from Climax.

The initial performance is followed by dialogue where we learn a little about the characters and their rivalries and designs on each other, with particular attention to one surly skinhead (Romain Guillermic) who boasts that he will soon bed all the woman in the troupe.

After the choreographed opening sequence, and the dramatic interlude, there's a dance battle sequence, shot from above, in which the dancers move so rapidly you'd swear the film was accelerated, until you look at the corners of the frame and see the other people moving at normal speed.

Finally, there's an after-party where someone spikes the sangria with LSD. Heaven gives way to hell: ugly violence, bullying, child abuse, public peeing, raging paranoia and even worse, a political allegory. Which non-drinker spiked the punch bowl: the Muslim guy or the pregnant girl? It does go on… and on.

As cruel and grotesque as things get — as much as you feel your face is being ground into the nihilistic muck — there’s a built-in distancing escape hatch here that Noé’s films don’t usually provide. Take a breath, brace yourself and enjoy the dance, even if it's modern dance on acid.

Climax. Directed and written by Gaspar Noé. With Sofia Boutella, Kiddy Smile, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Claud Gajan Maull, Giselle Palmer and Taylor Kastle. Opens March 1 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox as well as in Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver and in additional cinemas throughout March.

Director Gaspar Noé.

Director Gaspar Noé.

Original-Cin Q&A: Professional Enfant Terrible (Actually Middle-Aged and Affable) Director Gaspar Noé

Movie press kits rarely sound as much like circus barker's pitches as the one-sheet for Gaspar Noé's Climax. In crimson text against a black background, the 55-year-old director offers this summation of critical reaction to his filmography.

“You despised I Stand Alone. You hated Irréversible. You loathed Enter The Void. You cursed Love. Now try Climax, my new film, Gaspar Noé.”

Biologically, Noé is the son of a famous and still-active Argentinian painter and intellectual, Luis Felipe Noé, and an Irish-Argentinian mother, Nora Murphy, a film buff who took him to art films since he was 10. Noé lived part of his childhood in New York City, part in Buenos Aires and, since he was 13, in France. Artistically, he's a child of Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick and cousin to provocateurs like Lars von Trier and Quentin Tarantino, mixing disturbing content and devilish cinematic contrivance.

"You have 30 seconds to leave the cinema," declared an intertitle in his first feature film, I Stand Alone (1998), before a gruesome sequence. Irrevérsible, his 2002 breakthrough, was a rape-revenge movie, archly depicted in reverse chronological order. The Tokyo-set Enter the Void was what Noé called a "psychedelic melodrama" from the unorthodox perspective of a stoned ghost. Love (2015) was a 3D film with real sex scenes, which one reviewer memorably described as "getting jizzed on in 3D."

Climax is a simpler affair, shot in just 15 days, edited and ready for release two months later. The cast would begin each day around 3 pm and shoot until 1 am. After each long take, they would evaluate the results and shoot it again, typically 15 or 16 shots a day. The next morning, they would reconvene, pick the best shot and move ahead according to the last sequence.

Most of the colour effects were achieved with onset lighting, thanks to new tube-like LED lights, controlled by an iPad, that cinematographer Benoît Debie introduced (he used them on an upcoming Harmony Korine-directed comedy, The Beach Bum). Noé, who is an enthusiastic club dancer, shot the film himself, typically no more than meter away from the dancers, while they performed.

I spoke to Noé by phone from his home in France.

Like many "shocking" directors (Von Trier, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, Todd Solondz), Noé comes across as sociable, articulate, and thoughtful. He's even open to talking about trade secrets. We begin by talking about his use of intertitles, a technique that deliberately pulls viewers out of the film. Climax has several of these somewhat pompous title cards: "Birth is a unique opportunity." "Death is an extraordinary experience." "Life is a collective impossibility." The explanation is somewhat roundabout, and pragmatic.

"I was a big fan of catastrophe movies as a kid," he says. "I watched Towering Inferno four times in one week. I liked the way these rich people were sort of rating their success in life and then they were all stuck in a big mess and they started dying one after another. So, I wanted to make a catastrophe movie with dancers. Initially, I thought of the movie in two parts, which I wanted to shoot with long master shots, or fake master shots that would last about 45 minutes. My first part started with the choreographed dancing scene. And I wanted to have a time gap between the end of the choreography and then jump ahead about 40 minutes to the beginning of the chaos, without doing something boring like a montage to show the passage of time.

"To make that jump, I thought I would put all the credits in the middle. It would be like Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, which is a kind of diptych: the rehearsal for war, and then war. My movie is about construction and then destruction; the story of how a community can build something and then, for induced reasons or internal reasons, destroy itself and its own creation."

Noé continues: "Then I decided I would probably need an epilogue and I wanted to create a second time split. That's when I said, 'Well, I want to make time splits so let’s use title cards.’ I've used them before in the past, in my first feature, I Stand Alone and my short film, Carné. They're like Nietzchean quotes, in that they are cynical but also true. The one about how 'Life is a collective impossibility' is a bit tricky because the dancers do create something collectively but I couldn't put a positive quote in at that point because the next segment is all about destruction."

Although Climax was tightly structured, the dialogue and much of the movement was improvised.

"I've always tried to get rid of things in a film that I think don't work. If you write a screenplay, each scene brings forth another scene and sometimes you want to cut a scene but you need it there to support the other scenes. Now I try to make movies that have simple plots, so if something transpires with the actors, they can put their experience into the story."

At the beginning of Climax, the cast of dancers are introduced on videotape interviews on an old-fashioned cathode ray television set, set the midst of an entertainment unit, stuffed with VHS tapes (Suspiria, Taxi Driver, Salo) and books (Nietzsche, Freud, Georges Bataille). Was this his personal collection? A kind of code to the film?

"None of the books or films are actually mine," says Noé. "Though the film was shot chronologically, initially, the interview sequence didn't exist. Toward the end of the shoot, one of the producers said that it was a pity we didn't put a documentary inside the movie because all the dancers had such strong charisma, that they were so funny and sociable. I decided to do interviews with the actors, in character, for about 15 minutes each and keep the best, funniest answers. The only one I scripted was for the German girl.

"We deliberately shot it in a 1990s’ video format — a 1:1.3 aspect ratio — and there were black spaces around the frame and it didn't work visually. We considered wrapping more credits around it and then we had another idea, 'Why not just put a TV around the frame and then we sort of recreated what would have been my TV and books that sort of inspired this movie.’ One tape that is missing because I couldn't find a VHS was David Cronenberg's Shivers, which was a very similar to this movie. Others may not be recognizable because they have the French title. Dawn of the Dead by George Romero was called Zombies in the French version. The French version of Eraserhead was called Labyrinth Man, which was the first tape I ever bought."

As steeped in cinema as he is, Noé contends that life, or at least an edited version of it, is still his the model that he aims to depict. "Even nasty films are an imitation of life and if the content is strong, you will have strong emotions. As a kid, I always went to movies that were too old for me and at first, I too, was shocked. But I wanted to get close the power of those movies. Life can be tense. Life can be stressful or happy and not always predictable yet, nonetheless, life can be boring. When you go to a movie, the last thing you want to experience is boredom."