Chris­tos Tsi­olkas on Gas­par Noé’s psy­che­delic Cli­max

What starts as a dance film to ri­val Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz switches to gi­allo hor­ror as the di­verse cast of Gas­par Noé’s Cli­max de­scend into a ly­ser­gic hell, writes Chris­tos Tsi­olkas.

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I have a friend who on read­ing about Gas­par Noé’s new film, Cli­max, made the de­ci­sion to see the film for its ex­u­ber­ant and wildly joy­ous first act, and then to ju­di­ciously pick up her bag and slip out of the cinema as its darker, ver­tig­i­nous sec­ond act be­gan to un­fold. Though I want to en­cour­age those of you who will see the film to stay right to the very end, I ac­knowl­edge the film’s for­mally and vis­ually dis­so­nant sec­ond half can tax the pa­tience of a viewer. There’s a punk­ish and de­lib­er­ate play­ful­ness at work in Cli­max, even as Noé con­tin­ues to as­sert his bleak and pes­simistic view of hu­man­ity. He’s be­ing deadly se­ri­ous in this film, as he is in all his work, but he’s also ced­ing that an au­di­ence can get frus­trated by the de­lib­er­ate provo­ca­tions that mark his films – the bursts of hor­rific vi­o­lence, his punc­tur­ing of liberal mantras, the abra­sive sound­tracks, and a mise en scène that es­chews nar­ra­tive co­her­ence. Half­way through Cli­max, the screen sud­denly erupts into ly­ser­gic and vivid cred­its that name check the ac­tors, dancers and the mu­sic in the film. Here, Noé is wink­ing at us, dar­ing us to con­tinue on the ride. If you’re go­ing to leave early, this is the point when you should pack your bags.

The film is set in 1996, and we are told in the end cred­its – which in a typ­i­cally Noé stratagem, be­gin the film – that it is based on a true story. What­ever the in­spi­ra­tion, it is clear early on that Noé is not in­ter­ested in ve­rac­ity or re­al­ism but rather, as in all his work, in ex­plor­ing how cinema can best rep­re­sent ex­treme forms of con­scious­ness and ex­pe­ri­ence. The set-up is ter­rific. In a se­ries of straight-to-cam­era video in­ter­views, we are in­tro­duced to a group of young French dancers who’ve been as­sem­bled to work on a dance piece that will travel to the United States to demon­strate the vi­tal­ity of con­tem­po­rary French cul­ture. The dancers are male and fe­male, black and white, straight, gay and bi­sex­ual, and their ob­ser­va­tions and dec­la­ra­tions of­fer up a fas­ci­nat­ing mo­saic of con­tem­po­rary France. These aren’t pro­fes­sional dancers. They are mostly work­ing-class kids who have dis­cov­ered their love of dance on the streets, in hip-hop clubs and at techno raves.

Quickly and ex­pertly, Noé sets up the themes that are cru­cial to Cli­max. As we lis­ten to the dancers’ tes­ti­monies, we are asked to de­ci­pher what they might mean for mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, for iden­tity, and for the ten­sion be­tween na­tion­al­ism and a pop­u­lar cul­ture em­bed­ded deeply in Amer­i­can mu­sic and fash­ion.

The edit­ing is abrupt as we cut from one talk­ing head to an­other, and our at­ten­tion is fur­ther di­verted by a col­lec­tion of VHS videos on one side of the frame and a col­lec­tion of books on the other. There is a copy of Pa­solini’s Salò, or the 120 days of Sodom, there is Dario Ar­gento’s Suspiria and also Buñuel and Dali’s Un Chien An­dalou. Of the books on dis­play, I es­pied a mono­graph on the Ger­man Ex­pres­sion­ist di­rec­tor Mur­nau, a book on ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and cinema, and copies of Pierre

Petit’s Molin­ier: une vie d’en­fer. Of course, none of this is ac­ci­den­tal. Noé is telling us that Cli­max is in­flu­enced by a trans­gres­sive and sur­re­al­ist mod­ernist cinema, and that what we are about to watch will also be a hor­ror film.

Im­me­di­ately af­ter the in­ter­views, we cut to a hall in which the dancers have been re­hears­ing. This ini­ti­ates the film’s most au­da­cious and tech­ni­cally bril­liant se­quences. Scored to a se­ries of 1990s rave tracks, the dancers per­form the piece they have been work­ing on. The hard crunch of the sound­track is a fit­ting score for the ac­ro­batic, defiantly as­sertive danc­ing. It is in their danc­ing that the cast, who are largely in­ex­pe­ri­enced ac­tors, de­velop their char­ac­ters. Each dancer has a per­son­al­ity, and what is riv­et­ing about the dance se­quences is that even though each has their mo­ment of dom­i­nat­ing the floor, they are also in per­fect uni­son with one an­other. It is elat­ing to wit­ness the ca­ma­raderie these young per­form­ers share. It is a defiantly utopian vi­sion of lib­er­a­tion on the dance floor. Un­doubt­edly, these mu­si­cal scenes work so well be­cause of Noé’s phe­nom­e­nal control and flu­id­ity as a di­rec­tor. We are con­scious of the pre­ci­sion of the edit­ing – Noé edited the film along­side De­nis Bed­low – but the cut­ting never gets in the way of the dancers. It is as if the cam­era is the chore­og­ra­pher, in tune with the dancers’ breath and bod­ies.

In these mo­ments, Noé is as close as any other film­maker has come to equalling the work of Bob Fosse. I couldn’t help but read the first dance se­quence in Cli­max as a di­rect riff on that as­ton­ish­ing open­ing scene to Fosse’s All That Jazz, where a stage full of dancers is slowly whit­tled down to the few who will make it to be­ing part of the cho­rus line for a Broad­way show. Noé shares Fosse’s love for the eroti­cism of dance, and again, as with Fosse, the cam­era’s fo­cus on the body never feels pruri­ent or dis­tanc­ing. I was 14 when I first saw All That Jazz. When its first dance se­quence ended I had to stop my­self get­ting up in the au­di­ence and ap­plaud­ing. I had a sim­i­lar re­ac­tion af­ter my first view­ing of Cli­max. But a key dif­fer­ence be­tween the se­quences is that while Fosse’s film forced us to ac­knowl­edge the un­demo­cratic na­ture of tal­ent and abil­ity, Noé is cel­e­brat­ing the col­lec­tive en­ergy of his young dancers. No one is bet­ter than any­one else; each is stun­ning. If Cli­max had ended at this point, one would de­clare it a cel­e­bra­tion of mul­ti­cul­tural unity.

But Cli­max doesn’t end there. The dancers, hav­ing worked hard for three days, be­gin to drink from a san­gria punch that, un­be­known to them, has been laced with LSD. As the drug slowly be­gins to take ef­fect, the ten­sions

be­tween them be­come ap­par­ent. If the first move­ment of the film is utopian, then the sec­ond half quickly be­comes a de­scent into hell. The dancers are locked in a build­ing some­where in the coun­try and out­side a bl­iz­zard is rag­ing. Of course, this brings to mind Kubrick’s The Shin­ing. Noé has al­ways been forth­right about the in­flu­ence of Kubrick’s work on his cinema. His most con­tentious film, Ir­réversible, ended on a poster of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a di­rect ri­poste to Kubrick’s sug­ges­tion that hu­mans could tran­scend our war­ring na­ture.

Un­for­tu­nately, Cli­max lacks the rigour, the clear moral rage, that an­i­mated Ir­réversible, a film in which the shock­ing scenes of rape and vi­o­lence were me­di­ated by a clear eth­i­cal com­mit­ment to a rad­i­cally anti-hu­man­ist de­spair. That Noé is in­flu­enced by Pa­solini’s Salò makes per­fect sense. As with that film, Ir­réversible de­clares that life on Earth is hell. But Noé doesn’t share Pa­solini’s Marx­ism, so his an­guish is not grounded in pol­i­tics. He’s work­ing more from emo­tional re­sponses to chaos. But pre­cisely be­cause he is finding his way through such dif­fi­cult ter­rain through in­stinct, his films some­times al­low for in­sights that es­cape his con­tem­po­raries such as Catherine Breil­lat or Bruno Du­mont. I re­cently re­watched Noé’s first fea­ture, 1998’s I Stand Alone, and I was knocked out by how pre­scient he had been in that film in cap­tur­ing the work­ing-class rage that was set to ex­plode across the West­ern world in 2016.

If the de­scent into hell in Cli­max doesn’t have the emo­tive force that pro­pelled both I Stand Alone and Ir­réversible, it is also be­cause there’s less con­sis­tency of vi­sion to this new film. I do like the flashes of cruel hu­mour that punc­ture the bad acid trip of the film’s lat­ter half, but there’s too much go­ing on. There’s the in­flu­ence of Kubrick but also a de­lib­er­ate ref­er­enc­ing of gi­allo hor­ror in the over­wrought colours and wob­bly cam­era work. I won­dered, too, if there wasn’t a send­ing up of Big Brother and the slew of re­al­ity TV shows that came af­ter it. But a viewer can’t be sure of how much is con­scious and how much un­con­scious or ac­ci­den­tal in the satire. That’s an in­evitable con­se­quence of Noé work­ing in­stinc­tively. As the char­ac­ters be­come more de­mented and violent un­der the in­flu­ence of the acid, the film grows slack and in­dul­gent. The only ex­pe­ri­enced ac­tor in the cast is Sofia Boutella. Most of the oth­ers lose their vivid­ness as their be­hav­iour be­comes more hal­lu­ci­na­tory or “pos­sessed”. Pa­solini also used non­pro­fes­sional ac­tors in Salò, but his re­work­ing of de Sade as a para­ble of fas­cist power was rig­or­ous and un­re­lent­ing, and that film’s fi­nal mo­ments were pro­foundly shock­ing and dis­turb­ing. Cli­max catches some of the woozi­ness of a bad drug ex­pe­ri­ence, but apart from a few very jar­ring and ef­fec­tive mo­ments of vi­o­lence, we never ex­pe­ri­ence the gen­uine fear of a bad trip. So we grow de­tached. Un­like Salò, we never feel the dis­ori­en­ta­tion and gen­uine ter­ror of what these young peo­ple are suf­fer­ing.

And yet, for all my reser­va­tions, Cli­max is gen­uinely thrilling. A declara­tory ti­tle card flashes at one point and states that this is a proudly French film. As with so much in the film, there’s a sense of the procla­ma­tion be­ing tongue in cheek, but the film earns this de­fi­ance. Noé is bold and takes risks, and his sen­si­bil­ity is ki­netic and se­duc­tive. It’s sur­pris­ing that there isn’t a copy of a Cé­line among the pile of books we see at the begin­ning of Cli­max. An Ar­gen­tinian mi­grant to France, Noé is the clos­est that any of French cinema has got to the in­cen­di­ary and un­apolo­get­i­cally


ar­got rhythms of this great and con­tro­ver­sial nov­el­ist. This con­nec­tion to Cé­line was ev­i­dent from I Stand Alone, and it is there in the di­a­logue in Cli­max. It’s the lan­guage of the street col­lid­ing with mod­ernism, and hear­ing it equals the high of a drug rush: it is gen­uinely ex­cit­ing. His bold­ness is in his risk­ing the provoca­tive ques­tion­ing of the pieties to diver­sity that un­der­pins so much of con­tem­po­rary cinema. Cli­max is ask­ing whether the demons of lust and envy and hate – and of tribe and creed and blood – can ever be tamed. The cli­max re­ferred to by the ti­tle comes half­way through. In the ec­static and or­gias­tic fi­nale of their dance, we are con­vinced that the re­sponse is a re­sound­ing yes. And then he pulls the rug from un­der us. The demons have not been ex­or­cised.

The dance troupe is go­ing to Amer­ica to prove that French work­ing-class cul­ture is equal to any­thing that comes from Amer­ica. Cli­max makes re­cent US film­mak­ing, from the block­busters to the art house, from Net­flix to YouTube, seem anaemic and gut­lessly cau­tious. It is ab­so­lutely fear­less and it kicks arse. In my

• reck­on­ing, that’s France 1 to Amer­ica’s 0.

CHRIS­TOS TSI­OLKAS is the au­thor of The Slap and Bar­racuda. He is The Satur­day Pa­per’s film critic.

Thea Carla Schott (above, cen­tre) and Kiddy Smile with Sofia Boutella (fac­ing page) in Cli­max.

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