For 20 years, Gaspar Noé has shocked audiences with the excessiveness and extremity of films like Irreversible and Enter the Void. Though his provocations have premiered at Cannes and Toronto, Noé’s most consistently receptive audience is your fake deep, dab-smoking college suitemate, for whom the films are something of an on-screen bro mitzvah. Climax, Noé’s latest, is almost refreshing in comparison to the strained transgression of his past work. More party favor than vision quest, Climax is a light on plot parable about a dance troupe that accidentally consumes punch laced with LSD and ends up on a trip worse than any the “Sloop John B” ever sailed. Though it’s still stuffed with violence, sex, and other content bound to upset, the 96-minute runtime of Climax is a relative tonic compared to the interminable lengths of Love and Enter the Void.
Climax is also easier to inhale than Noé’s earlier work because of its musical supervision. Noé’s movies shock, but they also sound good. The soundtrack here is a record crate of dancefloor classics, from Aphex Twin (“Windowlicker”) to Daft Punk (“Rollin’ and Scratchin’”), Chicago house (Lil’ Louis’s “French Kiss”) to French disco (Cerrone’s “Supernature”). Even several original tracks from Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter are on deck.
The first half-hour of Climax is the most musical of Noé’s career, with electric choreography in front of and behind the camera. The group dance that comprises this first act, a joyous synthesis of ballroom vogue, footwork, and various flavors of hip-hop dance performed by a sexually, racially, and culturally diverse group of young dancers, soon blends into nightmare. As Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” seamlessly ebbs into “Where Did Our Love Go,” so too does Noe’s camera dissolve from pristine HD to degraded mini-DV tape. Visual omniscence gives way to nauseated obscurity, pleasure becomes pain, and that relentless four-on-the-floor is recast as the bark of Cerberus. If you’ve ever had a trip go bad, it’s a feeling that’s all too familiar: an exact photo negative of every positive sensation you’ve ever felt, a maliciousness permeating all that is good and clean and right with the world, a bad smell that sticks to everything. If the Paradise Garage was the manger of house music, Climax is the final circle of the Inferno.
In their eagerness to provoke, Noé’s films are more about reaction than action. Noé wants to see how minds react to drugs, how bodies react to pain, how audiences react to graphic displays. But Climax isn’t just reactive — it’s also reactionary. The dance troupe’s all-but-inevitable devolution into iniquity feels mere degrees away from complaints about the supposed “mob violence” and “groupthink” of online callout culture. Individuals say and do horrifying things in Climax, but it’s the collective that holds the most horror here. For all his interest in psychedelics, Noé seems terrified by what drugs and dance music allow you to do best: lose yourself. In this moral universe, hallucinogens and house music bring suppression, not liberation. The ones who give themselves the most to this experience are also the characters Noé seems most critical of. As the club descends deeper into hell, it is those who have dared to dissolve themselves into the collective who become demonic, not those who maintain their individuality. The solidarity is suffocating, not freeing.
In an extended opening sequence, we get a good, long look at a literal list of Noé’s cinematic influences, a stack of VHS tapes that includes everything from Fassbinder’s Querelle to Fulci’s Zombi 2. This visual gag isn’t just an easter egg or ancestor worship, though. Noé’s cinephilic syllabus is a divining rod for reading the rest of his film; the titles we see — Possession, The Mother and the Whore, Cannibal Holocaust — are like Climax in that they prioritize viscerality over narrative clarity and thematic lucidity. Noé hopes that, like the films he idolizes, the affective experience will be enough to excuse any interior hollowness. As a catalogue of the violent potential of the human body in both expression and action, Climax succeeds. Those interested in meaning should go elsewhere — this is a movie meant only for feeling.
But meaninglessness is hard to transcend, and people can’t live on affect alone. Climax is something of a feature-length DJ mix, with Noé behind the decks. DJing and filmmaking alike are as much about endurance as they are the curation of emotion: a DJ has to keep the groove, the crowd, and their own body going for extended periods of time. There’s a reason this movie is called Climax: Noé is good with flash, but he struggles to sustain it for long. This time, Noé has the decency to shut the dance floor down right when you find yourself ready to go elsewhere, but like a raver who won’t leave, his movies always find a way to overstay whatever welcome the novelty of their transgressiveness might initially earn. The playlist might be impeccable, you might get home before bedtime, but it’s all still much too much.
Climax premiered on March 1, 2019 and is playing in select theaters across the country.