Noé’s LSD cinematic bad trip is a masterpiece.
With films like Irreversible, Enter the Void, and Love, Gaspar Noé has proven himself as France’s most controversial auteur. His films are distinctive and disturbing yet visually stunning. Climax, his newest feature, was promoted as the latest in a string of polarising films, but surprisingly received the best feedback of his career at its Cannes Premiere. Whilst that doesn’t make Climax friendly to general audiences, it is appropriate for one of the most hypnotic and engrossing films I’ve seen in a while.
A dance troupe in France, led by Selva (Sofia Boutella), are having a party after an intense practice. After drinking a lot of Sangria, they all realise that they have been drugged with LSD. They begin to lose their minds in a bad trip, harm each other, and have a variety of other troubles.
Unlike Noe’s previous films, Climax’s narrative is fairly straightforward; the entire story takes place over one night. This works in the film’s favour as it allows the bizzare events to play out uninterrupted. Noé also nails the tone of the film. The first half is lively and comedic, with banter about sex and relationships aplenty, whilst the second half is dark, violent and disturbing. Despite this tonal shift, Noé embraces a darker tone without using shock value. There are some disturbing scenes, but the atmosphere and implications for what occurs offscreen are far more frightening.
The characters are likeable and once things start going wrong you do care about them. Despite how many of them there are, most of them have distinct and fun personalities that prevent them from being interchangeable. The performances from the amateur actors are surprisingly strong. Although you can tell that there is a lot of improvising going on, that makes these characters more endearing. Sofia Boutella’s role is not complex, she gives it her all. There is a sequence that she carries all by herself and her physicality and emotion feel like performance art.
One issue that Climax runs into is pacing, particularly in the first half. Every individual sequence runs 5 minutes longer than it needs to and this part of the film feels slightly directionless. I was starting to lose concentration and checked my watch every so often to see how far along the film was. This and the crazy second half might turn some viewers off, but if you stick with the film, you will be rewarded. I started to get fully invested as soon as the first half concluded with something I have never seen be done in a film before.
The direction is fantastic for one main reason: the long take. Noe loves long takes, and almost every scene is filmed like this. Despite the aforementioned pacing issue, he at least films each sequence in a visually engaging style that makes use of camera movement, with the exception of two static sequences at the beginning. But it reaches a high point during the second half. This section of the film is one of the most intense, mesmerizing and well shot sequences I have seen in any film. The entire thing looks like one take and it rivals Birdman for most impressive sustained take in a film. Though the visuals are not trippy, the experience is the closest I have seen to taking a drug and having a bad trip, heightened by the gorgeous light and creative camera angles. The only technical problem is that two of the long takes at the beginning had focus problems, but this goes away after a while.
Climax is not a film; it is an experience. It might not be a good experience for many people, but it worked for me. Gaspar Noé’s crazed yet distinctive vision shines through this bizarre film, but he manages to execute the main story well without falling into self-indulgence, despite sometimes losing the pace.