1/2 out of 4 stars
Nobody will ever accuse the Argentine-born French writer/director Gaspar Noe of caving into studio commercial concerns, sacrificing his visions or even considering deferring to better judgment regarding good taste. In the span of two decades, Noe’s previous four features have netted a tad more than $1 million at the U.S. box office, which, even by fringe arthouse standards, is pathetic. Most of the largely forgiving, open-minded and dedicated regular patrons of poor-taste experimental film have never plopped down a single dollar to see even one of Noe’s past movies. His movies make most other “cult” titles appear to be blockbusters by comparison.
Far surpassing the audacity of Lars Von Trier or Darren Aronofsky with only a smidgen of their insight and (relative) nuance, Noe makes movies designed to shock, upset and frequently disgust the viewer. This isn’t a major sin as such as hundreds of filmmakers over the decades have done essentially the same thing (think Ken Russell or John Waters) but Noe’s movies have no subtext, point or wit. It is cruelty and punishment without the all-important ingredients of enlightenment or reason. Noe is a fourth-grade boy with a magnifying glass frying insects on the pavement with no understanding of the power of the glass or the pain endured by the creatures he’s killing willy-nilly.
Set in the mid-1990s and supposedly based on a true story, “Climax” opens with a shot of someone bleeding and crawling through the snow, followed by the first of two odd credit sequences — the second coming at the halfway point — followed by overlong interviews of French dancers trying out for a show that will be touring in America. The images are seen on a tube TV set surrounded by VHS tapes, among them the original “Suspiria,” the Italian dance/horror film from the 1970s, which was recently remade. Other obscure European titles are shown, and any serious fan of the art horror genre in general and that period, specifically, is given a clear indication of what will soon follow.
Apart from French DJ Kiddy Smile, the only other “known” performer in “Climax” is Sofia Boutella as choreographer/lead dancer Selva. You may remember Boutella from the first “Kingsman” installment — she was the assassin with the deadly prosthetic sword legs — and Charlize Theron’s lover in “Atomic Blonde.”
Selva leads the cast in an opening sequence that recalls “Step Up,” “Strictly Ballroom,” “Fame,” “Black Swan” some “Flashdance” and a lot of Busby Berkeley, and it is not nearly as magical as some have claimed. It, like most of the film, is improvised and is more dumb luck than great choreography. Another not dissimilar group scene shot from above shows up later with equally “meh” results.
As any wise leader would do after intense try-out/rehearsals, Selva sets aside some downtime during which the performers can relax, chill out, catch a buzz and socialize. Unbeknownst to Selva — and all but one other — the celebratory sangria punch has been spiked with a hallucinogenic drug. Based on the reaction and subsequent behavior of everyone, the substance is likely LSD, and what follows is an audio/visual montage of Noe’s concept — or firsthand knowledge — of what a bad LSD trip would look like.
Whatever the case, the remainder of the film heads straight for the bottom of the barrel and is merely an exercise in cinematic chicken. Noe presents a number of scenes which range from the casual and banal to sexually violent opinions of two male dancers to failed hetero and homosexual couplings to a woman on fire and a child given a certain death sentence by choice from his own mother.
To be fair, the manner of which Noe presents his story could be perceived as daring or challenging, but so could many other past failed attempts at dark and nihilistic artistic expression. Putting a crucifix into a jar of urine might be original and shocking, but does it qualify as art?
Luckily, or unluckily for Noe, MOST people in this country and others don’t consider what he does to be artistic or entertaining or even interesting. Any stoner with a good eye and a high-end smartphone could get the same results at a rave dance gone wrong as Noe does here. Being extreme isn’t the same thing as being intellectually daring or avant garde. It just says you have the ability to imagine sick stuff happening to others, which, if you think about it, requires no talent of any kind whatsoever.
Perhaps Noe’s biggest achievement here will be in getting unsuspecting patrons to actually plop down money for the privilege of viewing his “art.” Given Noe’s abysmal track box office record thus far and his forays into base exploitation posing as commentary on the human condition, his view here into masochistic, drug-fueled pain porn isn’t his most cringe-worthy film — that would be “Irreversible” — but that doesn’t prevent “Climax” from claiming the early front-runner status as the worst film of 2019.
Presented in French and infrequent English with English subtitles.