Climax, the dazzling new film from Gaspar Noé, is "wildly exuberant", according to a rave review in the Hollywood Reporter, "demonically inspired", by the Guardian's account, and "sexy tanztheaterwerk of pure Boschian decadence and derangement", says the Telegraph.
"I like what they have on the poster here," says the director. "'Climax is Fame directed by the Marquis de Sade with a Steadicam.' I am not the Marquis de Sade. But it is good for my dancers. That people are comparing them with the only dance film that most people can name."
How can this be? Gaspar Noé, the most terrible of all enfants terrible and the most extreme practitioner to emerge from the New French Extremity, is getting the best reviews of his career. He isn't sure what to think. At the premiere of Climax at Cannes, the director, whose film Irréversible caused outrage and fainting fits at the same festival in 2002, scored a record low number of walkouts.
Speaking to Collider last spring, Sofia Boutella, the star of Climax, recalled the film-maker's post-premiere shock: "He's so funny. At the after-party he came up to me and said, 'Oh, the reviews are incredible! They're so good.' I said, 'That's great!' and he said, 'No, I don't know what to do! I don't know how to behave and how to be when everything is so good.'"
Months later and Noé remains bemused. “It’s my best-reviewed movie,” he says. “I didn’t set out to do anything different. I think that the characters in the first half of the movie, they are so brilliant in their own way, people get attached to them more than probably do with my previous movies.”
Krumping and waacking
Climax, a post-Pasolini dance-horror, is set in 1996 and concerns a troupe of dancers who have gathered on the outskirts of Paris to krump and waack to the strains of Daft Punk and MARRS ahead of a proposed American tour. The spectacular dance sequences were inspired by the director's visit to a voguing ballroom last December. By February, the film, which was shot in three weeks, was ready for its Cannes debut.
“It even won an award at Cannes,” says Noé. “We shot in chronological order so that if anything went wrong with any of the dancers – if someone broke his knee – we could put it in the script, but from the beginning, nothing did go wrong. We wanted to make a very unique movie with a very simple set that’s half-documentary and half-narrative. I wanted dancers going crazy. We had one month to cast all the dancers. We started with the kind of dancing that I like to watch: voguing, krumping and waacking. We went to ballroom battles and talked to the dancers we liked the most and they introduced us to other people. We looked at websites. We found the set and shot the movie in December, we were in post-production for two months and then we went to Cannes.
“Myself and my main producer were sitting there, looking at the screen. We could not believe that it had taken just four-and-a-half months to conceive, shoot and edit the entire thing. As any woman will tell you, you need at least seven months for a baby. I was thinking maybe I can be like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and make three more films before the end of the year, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
The intense shoot required five hours of daily rehearsal and anywhere between 13 to 17 takes of each lengthy sequence. The script was five pages long.
"I got used to long takes with Irréversible and Enter the Void and also with Love," says Noé. "I like not cutting scenes. I like going from one head to another head talking. I like that energy. I knew since the beginning that I would shoot it with very long takes. And it's much better to start shooting rather than just rehearsing, even if the first take is totally useless. Towards the end of each day we managed to achieve the scenes that we had planned for each day. And because I was behind the camera I could advise and control what was in the frame. I would have a problem directing a scene like most directors do, in that TV style. I would get bored, I don't enjoy editing in the classic way."
I'm annoyed by a culture in which death is always considered something bad
He laughs: “I’m not even good for that.”
Long time Noé watchers will surely warm to the director’s use of text and intertitles: “A French movie and proud of it,” announces the opening credits; “Death is an extraordinary experience,” heralds the film’s messy coda.
"Death is an extraordinary experience," he reiterates. "I believe that. No one can really tell you what it is like because once you've experienced death, you are done. But it only happens just once in your life. By its nature it is extraordinary. If you are suffering or in pain, death is the best thing that can happen. I'm annoyed by a culture in which death is always considered something bad. In hospitals people never talk about death in a natural or positive way."
Climax is structured, Noe says, so that the first half is a rollercoaster and the second is a ghost town. No kidding. After the film's blistering opening number, the post-rehearsal punchbowl is spiked with an unknown substance. Dozens of energised youngsters experience mass psychosis and they descend into increasingly unhinged behaviours, including fighting, self-mutilation and burning. Picture Pina Bausch staging Hieronymus Bosch.
It’s easily the scariest anti-alcohol film ever made.
It’s educational, the director cheerfully suggests. “I’ve seen so many violent situations because people got too drunk in a bar or at a party. They’re among friends, they mix rum with vodka and a joint and then they become stupid. People – all of us – have multiple faces. And when your brain becomes dysfunctional, people behave in very cruel and unexpected ways. Most of these people turn around [and] become angels again. So no one character is better or worse than the other ones in the film. Some feel more threatened or paranoid because of the situation, and when you turn paranoid you become aggressive.”
The 90s setting allows for an opening sequence that is festooned with similarly themed films from his own contemporaneous VHS collection: Un Chien Andalou, Suspiria, Possession and Querelle. The period is partly the equivalent of the scene in a horror movie when the characters discover they have no signal, explains the auteur, and partly because this is Gaspar Noé's Titanic.
"You can't do this kind of story nowadays," he says. "People would have cell phones. They could make a phone call or send a text message. I've always loved movies about perfect worlds collapsing. Like David Cronenberg's first feature, Shivers. Or Titanic, because you see people partying and drinking champagne and then they are all going to die. I loved the movies of this type that came out in the 70s – The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure – in which people are making plans for the future and suddenly they have no way to escape."
The positive notices for Climax are all the more discombobulating when one considers the reception afforded the filmmaker's 2015 3D sex film, Love. By now, Noé – who shot a live birth and scenes from inside a slaughterhouse for Carne (1991) – is used to being perceived as a provocateur. But the reviews for Love, especially some of the American ones, left the Argentine-French auteur reeling.
“They hated the film for the wrong reasons,” he says. “In some of the reviews, the spectators didn’t like the characters or the psychological portrait. But most of the issues people had about the movie were about the male genitals. Why did I feel the need to show male genitals on the screen? And I thought this was so stupid. That you cannot show men and women naked anymore. It’s so far from real life.
"The world is turning weird when it comes to the representation of sex. We are going back to the 19th century. I can't believe that all of the magazines like Playboy that were around during my adolescence have disappeared. Erotic drama has disappeared. Horror movies have no sex. If this movie makes any money I will go back to erotica. You don't see any male genitals in this movie, but in the next one they are going to come back."
- Climax opens September 21st