Gaspar Noé is a filmmaker who literally wants to show you hell on earth. He wants to lead you into the pit, to make the ultimate shocking spectacle of our violence and addiction and depravity. He did it in two sequences of “Irreversible,” his 2002 drama of degenerate psycho horror: At a nightclub, a man smashed someone’s face — over and over — with a fire extinguisher, until his entire head was turned into hamburger. (When I first saw the movie, it looked so real that I thought, for a moment, Noé had filmed an actual murder.) Then, in an empty tunnel, Noé staged a rape sequence in a hideously long and unflinching shot — one of the most excruciating scenes ever filmed. You were practically invited to debate the morality of what you were seeing, yet there was no denying the debauched mastery of the button-pushing.
Ever since then, however, Gaspar Noé’s career has been haunted by a single question: Once you’ve taken your audience to hell, what do you do for an encore?
“Climax,” Noé’s latest plunge into the forbidden zone, lets you touch, once again, the hot blue flame of his talent. For about 45 minutes, it’s a compelling movie, and with its ensemble cast of 20 young dancers, it feels like a new flavor for this artist of scandal. “Climax” is much better than either “Enter the Void” or “Love,” in which Noé worked so hard to shove everything to the extreme — that’s basically his brand — that more quite quickly become less. And less. As a filmmaker, Noé is now a junkie of evil: He keeps reaching, through increasingly numb tolerance levels, for a higher high, and he has no idea when he’s crashing. Yet “Climax” works, at least when it’s willing to be a human drama. But then it sinks in that you’re watching “Fame” directed by the Marquis de Sade with a Steadicam.
The movie opens with videotaped audition interviews of the dancers (seen on an old TV), who’ve been assembled in a troupe that’s scheduled to tour France and the U.S. They’re all in their early twenties, with very rad hair, and they’re a racially and sexually diverse crew, bursting, in different ways (some sullen, some punchy), with hipster street confidence. The film then cuts to a dizzily choreographed dance sequence set in a dank rehearsal space (it looks like an empty wedding reception hall), set to throbbing ’90s EDM and photographed in a single hypnotically unblinking head-on shot.
It may be one of the most enthralling dance sequences you’ve ever seen. I don’t quite know how to describe what it is these dancers do, but they’re like krumpers or wackers or voguers doing flex dancing at astonishingly fluid speeds, so that their arms seem to be stretching out of their joints and rolling over their torsos. No one pose is held for more than a split second; they’re like living Cubist paintings. And though each of the dancers has a highly personal style of gymnastic flair, what they all express is the energy of the new world: sexually equal, driven by an aggression that’s splendidly uncontained.
Then the rehearsal ends, and everyone takes a break for a party, standing around flirting and giving each other a hard time as they guzzle the sangria that the troupe’s leader, Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull), has made for them. The music keeps on throbbing, and Noé glides his camera around, gathering the vignettes into one long predatory swirl of preening and boasting and nasty gossip.
The actors pulsate with erotic energy, to the point that we could literally imagine any one of them hooking up with any other. Yet their personalities come through, and we start to register who they are: David (Romain Guilermic) the conquering dick, Selva (Sofia Boutella) the bi-curious choreographer, Daddy (Kiddy Smile) the sweet-souled DJ. For a while, Noé ditches his single-shot technique, cutting among the conversations, and we actually start to get interested in who these people are. A funny charged dialogue about anal sex seems to catch the essence of toxic masculinity and undercut it at the same time.
I kept hoping that “Climax” would stay on this relatively sane level, with its balance of sensation and interaction. There’s a second extended dance sequence, this one shot from a high angle that looks straight down, and it’s another dazzler. If Noé ever decided to make a musical (and he should!), it could be killer. But “Climax” turns out to be — yes — one more Gaspar Noé film, another didactic dip into the inferno. Its tone is ominous, driven by the electricity of fear, because what we’re really asking ourselves is: What new atrocity is he going to show us now?
It turns out to be drug horror. Somebody has spiked the sangria with LSD, and just about everyone is drinking it. So they all start to go slowly out of their minds on acid. “Climax” never leaves the rehearsal space, though there are a few other rooms in it, and as Noé whips his camera around the place in a sustained voyeuristic frenzy, the veneer of civilization falls away. But even before the acid kicks in, there’s some nasty business: One of the women reveals herself to be pregnant, and another — who looks, unfortunately, like one of the furious bald amazons from “Black Panther,” which lends the scene an uncomfortable racial undercurrent — proceeds to kick her in the stomach. Is it horrifying? Yes. But I also didn’t believe it. And that’s the moment where Noé’s addiction to shock value, which he had kept under control until then, starts to get the better of him. Simply put: If we don’t totally buy what we’re seeing, how horrifying can it be?
There’s a young boy on hand — he’s the son of the dance troupe leader — and he ends up getting locked, by his mother, in an industrial closet, where he screams and screams, suggesting the kind of trauma that will now ruin his life. Why stage a scene like this one just to make the audience squirm? Yet even to ask that question is to place yourself on the uncool side of Noé’s game. According to the movie’s stoned logic, the depravity that takes over “Climax” doesn’t need to have rhyme or reason. It’s operatic and allegorical. It’s The Beast coming out, it’s the world turned upside down, and our job is to sit there and gawk at it.
Except that I felt my jaw going slack, and began to miss the personalities from the first half of the movie. The trouble with watching characters go out of their minds on acid is that (duh!) we’re outside their minds, completely cut off from what they’re experiencing; the real movie is in their heads. The dance music in “Climax” (Daft Punk, Aphex Twin) never stops, the way it kept pumping during the face-smash scene of “Irreversible,” and there’s no question that for Gaspar Noé, hell on earth looks like a Eurotrash dance club. But maybe it’s time that he turned the volume down and stopped trying to make the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah into the world’s most forbidden music video.