Gaspar Noé is what many would call a provocateur. From Irreversible to the much more recent Love, his films are baked with a particular nasty kind of energy – sometimes a pointed finger, other times a tightly-clenched fist, but whatever that hand is doing, it’s always coming at you full force and smashing you in the face. He doesn’t care if you watch and enjoy his work; in fact, on most occasions it actually feels like Noé’s begging for the very opposite. He wants to unsettle you, he wants to enrage you; he wants you to hate him and to call him names. And until now he’s almost always delivered on the promise of both bark and bile.
But his latest, and surprisingly, his most critically adored, is limp. Still desperately lunging for that oddball, arthouse, curveball charm, and reaching absolutely none of it. Climax is a 90-minute drudge of a steady-cam music-video, following a bitchy troupe of seriously talented dancers in the hour or so after they all accidentally consume dangerous amounts of LSD. Half in mostly real-time as the effects of the drug kick in, the other half a series of locked-off soapy conversations about who’s sleeping with who.
Noé promises a more body-oriented The Shining with horny 20-somethings on acid, but the finished film is anything but. A dramatically empty attempt to embody the madness of a particularly bad collective trip, which winds up as the cinematic equivalent of going to a sweaty nightclub with a bunch of strangers, while stone cold sober.
The ‘madness’ you’re tuning in for is little more than over-the-top bickering, the occasional flash of a knife, and heavy 90s dance music with the bass turned way-up high, all stitched together with a steady-cam that doesn’t know who its following. Not to mention the faux-academic/art-student aesthetic that every-so-often will jolt the camera upside down or throw up a philosophically-empty title-card with such pretentious twaddle as “Death is an extraordinary adventure” in big bold lettering.
It’s exactly the sort of “daring” and obnoxious visuals you’d expect from Noé, but where Climax diverts massively from his other work is in its lack of actual bite. There’s nothing wrong with being overly-indulgent if you actually have something new or interesting to bring to the table, whether that be an exercise in pure cinematic nastiness or a head-in-the-clouds attempt to connect with a spiritual plain. Even Love had edge; misguided and fairly irrelevant edge considering unsimulated sex on screen isn’t quite the taboo Noé clearly thought it was at the time, but to many it was still edgy all the same.
Climax has nothing. Its early dance sequences at the very least engage on a visual level and offer something to admirers of the craft, but by the time he’s dialling up to the supposedly renegade finale, it’s clear that Noé has absolutely nothing substantial to say here. Climax isn’t a punch, a slap or even a single-fingered poke in the face; it’s an over-egged empty shell with all the bravery of prodding the passive viewer with a very long, very blunt stick.
Climax was screened as part of Arrow Video FrightFest 2018 and will be released in the UK in September.