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Gaspar Noe’s latest work is a beguiling assault on the senses

“Going nowhere fast, we’ve reached the climax/We’re together, now we’re undone”: the words of Usher on his song ‘Climax’ could apply just as easily to the protagonists of Gaspar Noé’s new film of the same title. In the movie, a young and diverse group of dancers, rehearsing for a tour of the USA in an empty building, descend progressively into a terrifying sort of stupor and then all-out dementia following the mysterious spiking of their drinks with LSD. The result is an uneven and frustrating but somehow beguiling film, full of verve and chutzpah.

Climax gets off to a rocky start, with Noé getting up to his groan-inducing bad-boy tricks, as a stunning cold open of a woman crawling across a snowy landscape, filmed quite stunningly from above, is followed immediately by… the film’s closing credits! Ah, that Noé, eh? What a rule-breaker. Following the opening closing credits, we cut to a fixed shot of a television displaying audition tapes from the members of the dance troupe. The TV is on a table, surrounded by books and DVDS – films like Possession and Suspiria, which are clear inspiration for the film, and books like ‘Suicide: A Handbook’. These set the tone for the madness that will ensue. But for now all is well, and the audition tapes are a fresh and engaging start, capturing the young actor-dancers with zest, humour, and a lovely feeling for their character.

This extended section is followed by a thrillingly exciting and contemporary group dance, which is a clear highlight of the movie. Noé is evidently inspired by his young cast, because the set-up of his camera, and its movements, timed to perfection with the choreography itself, are full of imagination. Filmed from the front, the dancers crunk, vogue and death-drop in wondrous combinations, before the camera flies overhead to film them from above and pick out different dancers, new motifs, exciting dynamics. It’s spectacular, not least because once the dance has finished, Noé stays with his dancers, roving around the room in an extended, unbroken shot full of movement and adventure. His very filmmaking is choreographed, but it feels natural and easy. This sort of welly is hugely impressive, and continues throughout the film, even as the tables turn.

The structure of the film is simple but ingenious: following the audition tape we see a group dance, which then breaks up into different groups of dancers, which is followed by a sequence where they discuss each other in pairs: Noé is breaking down the group dynamic, until only individuals remain. In the beautifully edited sequence where the dancers pair off, Noé drops a little information, some exposition: he’s heavy-handed where character is concerned, and his writing is not lyrical. We gather various sexual ties between the dancers, the internal politics of the group, and can sense that a falling-out must take place.

This is where the film starts to tip into insanity, as a first dancer suspects her drink was spiked. From here, Noé amps up the maddening EDM soundtrack and gets the bright reds and greens in his film strobing with a demonic intensity, as the dancers descend into suspicion of each other, violence, and finally a sort of crazed satanism. All the while, Benoit Debie’s cinematography is slut-dropping with the best of them, his camera whirling and somersaulting, capturing the sheer havoc with baffling beauty. A woman suddenly pisses on the floor standing up, a little boy is electrocuted, a pregnant woman is kicked in the stomach; people writhe, scream and fuck: Noé’s cynical provocations (including a ropey presentation of male homosexuality, as per) are forgivable, because he makes such a compelling aesthetic case, and there is so much here that is arresting. Unlike so many other directors, he manages to create something truly warped. There is also something interesting and disturbing in the treatment of a multi-ethnic, polysexual group of young French people descending into a sort of terror, particularly with regard to recent French history.

Climax, filmed over a couple of weeks on the fly, shows how enthralling film can be when it’s buzzing with energy, flooded with noise, saturated with rich and dazzing colours, and lit up from within by the pizzazz of young and beautiful people. That the film should show them dancing themselves half to death is neither here nor there: it’s the journey that counts.

by Caspar Salmon.

Climax opens in cinemas nationwide on September 21st.

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