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Climax provokes the question of how much punishment is too much

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Gaspar Noé is known for being a provocateur; for better or worse, his latest work cements his reputation

The troupe dancing in Climax.
The dance troupe in Climax.
A24

The fantasmagoric, visceral new film Climax transforms from a dream into a nightmare. Those familiar with director Gaspar Noé’s work won’t be surprised: Enter the Void featured a sequence that explicitly entered and navigated the inside of the human body; Irréversible became infamous for its violence and graphic depiction of sexual assault. But the fall from grace in Climax, which begins with a party and devolves into a roil of sex and violence, is so awful to watch that it’s easy to wonder if such misery has value. Is there salvation waiting on the other side of dance hell?

When the dance troupe at the center of the film begin their rehearsal, they’re stunning to watch, communicating a boundless energy and joy in their dancing. However, the tone of the film changes when the sangria they’ve been drinking, spiked in secret by one of the dancers, kicks in. Revelry soon turns to violence, with Noé twisting the already physical act of dance into a horror show with a body count. Climax is a viscerally, physically affecting film. It’s also a completely draining experience.

The intention isn’t to be grueling for its own sake — interstitial text cards that ruminate on life and death (“death is an extraordinary experience,” “life is a collective impossibility,” etc.) suggest a sense of humor about the mayhem, and the film is impressively shot and just as well-acted. The stumbling block is that it’s a difficult film to want to continue watching, and one that more likely than not will cause any viewer to wonder why, if anything, Noé was trying to get across.

Sofia Boutella shrieking into a fellow dancer’s face.
Sofia Boutella shrieking into a fellow dancer’s face.
A24

Certain filmmakers prompt that question more often than others. Noé, like Lars von Trier, Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, or even horror stalwart Eli Roth, are known for punishing experience. Critics and viewers alike will often call their work cruel or sadistic. In part, it’s a subjective matter — everyone’s tolerance for on-screen violence and despair is different — but it’s also a question of when we’re willing to tolerate such extremities, or rather, when it can be said to be justified.

There are films that I love that I know I’ll never watch again. It’s not a matter of not having the time or necessarily the inclination, but how emotionally grueling I know it’s going to be. Haneke’s Amour, which focuses on an elderly couple coping with aging and death, travels into uneasy — but tremendously affecting — territory as one of the pair suffers a stroke. As events worsen, the film becomes more and more punishing to watch, to the point that it’s hard for me to imagine watching it again, as much as I may want to.

I’ll likely never see Climax again, either, but for different reasons. It’s not just the emotional effect of the film, though that’s not a comment on the quality of the work, but rather the way I was struck by the content — or lack thereof. The further into chaos the film spiralled, the more I wondered — and could come up with no answer to — what the point was. The pain in Amour at least seemed to be digging at something, namely how to deal with the suffering of a loved one. Watching — and now thinking back on — Climax, I can’t divine anything deeper. It’s the filmic equivalent of hot sauce that’s spicy but doesn’t have any flavor.

Audiences at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival turned their noses at Lars von Trier’s latest film, The House that Jack Built, which starred Matt Dillon as a serial killer with a particular penchant for victimizing women. Many reactions accused von Trier of trolling his audience rather than producing a work of art. I have always thought of von Trier to be smarter (and more empathetic) than a cinematic torturer, and those willing to look past the film’s bloody trappings will find that The House that Jack Built ultimately damns the actions of its serial killer central character. The events of the film are still awful to watch, but the sense that von Trier has a larger point about what makes art worthwhile — or, at the bare minimum, cares about his characters — makes it bearable, and even strangely rewarding by the film’s end.

Gaspar Noé himself at the turntables.
Gaspar Noé himself at the turntables.
A24

Ironically, Noé has said that he liked The House that Jack Built and found it “extremely playful.” “For me the graphic violence in the movie is just funny,” he said, “And I enjoy how much [von Trier] likes playing with the audience.” He’s not off the mark with that assessment, as von Trier pokes fun at Jack (Dillon) throughout (and ends the film with, of all things, “Hit the Road Jack”). But on top of that, von Trier is inspecting the very nature of art through discussions between Jack and a largely off-screen presence, coming around to the conclusion that it must come from a place of empathy. It’s that added layer that makes the film more than pure provocation. (Jack is damned for his heartlessness.)

That center is harder to find in Climax. The introduction of a child character (to which one of the dancers explicitly notes that the party is no environment for a kid) feels like a twist on Chekhov’s gun, and when it’s fired, the carnage feels needlessly cruel. Knives, fire, electricity, and an awful instance of abortive violence come into play, too, as Noé’s fascination with dance travels into a much darker sphere — with no apparent intent except to shock its audience. One never gets the sense that he cares about his characters; there’s no discernible moral or end goal in mind when it comes to their suffering. If Noé doesn’t care about his players, then why should we? Every piece of the puzzle has been put in place in order to shock rather than to beg any investment.

When I was in high school, a history teacher told my class that every story ought to have a point, and that if it didn’t, to add, “And then I found five dollars on the ground,” as a thin substitute. There’s no such cash prize to Climax — style (which Noé has in spades) doesn’t equal substance, and the horrors he puts his characters through don’t map out a journey so much as a faceplant. It’s not enough to look flashy when there’s no core to back it up, particularly not when that flash is in service of such provocative material. The king of pushing the envelope may have finally gone over the edge.