Gaspar Noé is back on form with Climax, a frenzied tale of a dance group training for an American tour. Their after-work party descends into a bacchanalian rave with episodes of drug-fuelled transgression, thanks to a bowl of sangria spiked with LSD.
Set in 1996 and based on a true story, Noé has made something akin to Salò at the discotheque, with dance-floor moves choreographed by Spike Jonze’s weirdo troupe leader in Fatboy Slim’s Praise You music video. The film is freaky, experimental, sometimes hilarious and unnervingly intense. From carefree joy to the abyss to despair, that Climax is a constant aesthetic marvel is to be expected from the director of I Stand Alone, Irreversible and Enter the Void.
Shot in 15 days, Climax, like all his work bar the very weak Love, is intent on creating a mood of maximum discomfort, achieved equally through sound design and montage as much as the trademark seesawing camera movements. The volume is set to rock-concert loud as the narrative follows a trajectory mimicking stages of drug-taking and its increasingly euphoric effects. He might well have picked this pulsing, febrile vibe up from Daft Punk’s music. Rollin’ and Scratchin’ (from Homework) soundtracks one scene, a tune whose whistling beat builds and builds to the point it threatens to collapse in on itself somehow. Contact, from Random Access Memories, performed a similar task.
In another canny moment, after it has been established the LSD is kicking in, the camera lens momentarily loses focus, an ordinary dance hall starts to become an oppressive space, the lighting becomes shinier and bolder, eventually resembling something like out of an Italian horror film. As we enter the final stages of the party, as peak madness hits, the dancers are reduced to withering masses of flesh exposed by what looks like infrared light. The camera roams among sweaty body parts like Noé wanted to reinvent the Rectum nightclub scene from Irreversible.
Among the cast only Sofia Boutella is recognisable. It’s a committed performance and in one cruelly funny sequence, she gets entangled in her own tights, then navigates through a series of rooms bombed out of her gourd and is a reduced to a quivering wreck when she captures her own reflection in a mirror. Gripping a boiler pipe because of the sensual feel it offers to her buzzing skin, Noé suggests if they’d just gone with the trip instead of reacting so negatively against it, the kids might have had a fun time. But a fun time is not on the cards because people will ruin anything – even a party.
Love was a change of pace in the wrong direction, and we always knew Noé had a bad film in him, but Climax highlights he’s capable of doing something a bit different, making what is a youth movie, and despite the incest, the forced abortion and self-mutilations, he makes this a fun movie. Because this is Noé in fun mode, it’ll just test everybody’s definition of the word.
The 71st Cannes Film Festival takes place from 8-19 May.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn