Saturday, March 16, 2019


Climax, the newest effort from French provocateur Gaspar Noé is playing at a multiplex near me. Presumably the long reach of the brand name pop art-house outfit A24 got it there. The theater’s showtime guide has it classified as horror. I’m not sure that’s exactly right, but am sure it was probably what caused at least a few of the disgruntled moviegoers to check it out in the first place. I’ll give the theater and the unhappy audience members the benefit of the doubt, though. It’s certainly a nightmare and, past a climactic tipping point, almost deliberately unwatchable, its final sequence shot upside down with a swirling camera tight on the floor in a room lit only with a flashing red light. But the way there is a delirious descent. It’s at first a movie about a dance troupe celebrating their first few days of practice with a raucous party. They’re rowdy and excited and on the prowl, a dense tangle of bodies in motion looking to drink, dance, and hook up. For a good long while it’s a stunning dance picture of inventive choreography and toe-tapping beats intercut with dancers paired off for often raunchy gossip. Alas, someone spiked the sangria, and the group falls slowly, then all at once, into a manic haze of panic, abuse, violence, and sexual advances, all set to an unrelenting club beat that pulses, pulses, pulses. Against the constant thump, thump, thump of the film’s backbeat — fading only when the long, swirling, canted, topsy-turvy takes slide down dingy corridors away from the dance floor before crawling back in agony and ecstasy — bodies writhe and dance, the thin line between beauty and disgust crossed early and often as the drugs take hold. A Step Up it’s not. It’s a film of mesmeric intensity and movement, the camera as restless and increasingly deranged as the impressive physicalized performances of a game and athletic cast — most recognizably, for American audiences, lead Sofia Boutella of Kingsman, Atomic Blonde, and Tom Cruise’s The Mummy. Noé tracks their descent into hellish mass delusion. He presents a tiny, increasingly claustrophobic group as a small sample of society that needs only the slightest push, the barest permission to shed inhibitions, to totally fall apart, for hidden desires and ugly impulses to tumble forth. It’s chaos. 

Noé’s film is loud, unrelenting, an escalating litany of depraved acts and solipsistic pleasure-seeking expertly timed and brilliantly arranged for complicated camera moves, acting and dancing as one. Some characters fall into themselves in zombified repetition or self-harm, while others burst forth onto others, clawing and grinding and kissing and even, in the end, killing. It’s the sort of upsetting film where one character admits she’s pregnant and another has someone locked in a breaker room, and still another has an overbearing overprotective brother, and you start dreading the worst case scenarios, knowing there’s a good chance it’ll get to them eventually. (There’s also a shoving match near an open flame that put in mind of the immortal lyric: “Somebody call 9-1-1/Shawty fire burning on the dance floor.”) That this is nonetheless Noé’s tamest film would be news to those poor unprepared multiplex audiences. Unlike his earlier provocations like the sticky Love 3D, or hallucinatory Enter the Void, or assaultive Irreversible, there’s hardly an explicit sex scene or extended unbroken-take attack to be found. Nonetheless, he’s up to his usual concussive filmmaking tricks, throwing puzzling title cards and percussive editing into the mix, tracking his characters’ devolution with single-minded intensity while always reminding us that he’s the mastermind in charge of all this nastiness. It’s a real intense piece of work.

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