Nikita Dmitriev reflects on Climax, the new film from notorious French-Argentinean film director Gaspar Noé that proves his ability to mix horror and sensuality, and positions himself as an insightful observer of contemporary mores
With his new film Climax, Gaspar Noé pays tribute to the world of techno nightclubs he’s been involved in for years and of which he is, as the ideologue of Kaliante raves in Paris, an important figure. Climax’s plot is quintessentially Noé-esque: in the middle of winter, a party concluding the workshop for young dancers in a remote country house turns into a bloody interracial bisexual orgy after someone pours LSD in a pot of sangria. Noé structures the film like a 18th century French philosophical play, respecting the classical unities (time, place and action), introducing stock characters and staging typical situations in a fictional and relatively anachronistic environment. A techno party, in this sense, takes the baton from a ball in the palace as its framing event.
Noé shares with the Enlightenment writers Nicolas Boileau and Voltaire not only a literary pattern, but also an objective: to demonstrate the typical, formulate the zeitgeist, rather than tell a unique story, to study the common rather than the individual. Climax’s characters, these Scaramouches, Harlequins and Polichinelles of the 21st century, are copied from real life with a great psychological veracity and sarcasm at the edge of the admissible: an overweight drug-queen, a Russian lesbian studying arts in Germany, an angry white guy rejected by all the girls, etc. Anyone who attended an actual techno party at least once in their lifetime will immediately recognise them.
Desire to represent the typical eliminates from Climax any kind of narration: virtually the entire film consists of dancing scenes and one-to-one conversations. Two black guys discuss the size of their genitals and positions during the group sex, a girl sniffs coke on the stairs, two other girls push a male dancer away from their room to hook up. The sequence of micro-situations is built like an encyclopaedia – another reference to the Age of Enlightenment – of today’s hottest and most scandalous themes: nativism, religion, homosexuality, abortion, interracial sex, drugs, harassment, Berlin’s art community. The latter, with all its splendour, occupies in the collective consciousness of Noé’s heroes the same place as the Versailles royal court for Molière’s characters. Noé puts his skills in depiction of violence at the service of the same goal of densifying and distilling reality. A fight between female dancers results in the pregnant dancer being kicked in the stomach, a girl in the state of drug induced psychosis sets herself on fire and cries choking in her own blood, a guy kicked out of the party dies in the snow.
With Climax, Noé confirms his position as an indulged radical, to whom, like to Sacha Baron Cohen, Slavoj Zizek, Lars von Trier or Michel Houellebecq, polite society forgives his provocative, ambiguous, right-wing-connotated gestures: Monica Bellucci’s rapist in Irréversible, Noé’s 2002 movie, wasn’t a priest or a Trump supporter, but a leftist intellectual, and the arrival of the police, illuminated by the glorious morning sun, is orchestrated in Climax’s finale as the salvation event. Noé doesn’t tell stories, but stages situations. His films function like large-scale paintings – courtly or mythological scenes, battles or natural disasters – with dozens of characters, in front of which one can spend hours studying their details.
In Climax, this anti-narrative paradigm shows all the signs of exhaustion. The nightlife, the Berghain world with its incredible mixture of the upper- and underclasses of society, of music, fashion, philosophy, art, homosexuality and drugs, is so crucial for contemporary culture that abstaining from the analysis of its structure, causes and paradoxes is irresponsible. Mere representation is not enough; while to analyse, something deeper and more narrative, than a sequence of isolated episodes, although well filmed, is needed. No one more than Noé, with his erudition, artistic talent, and the depth of his knowledge of this community, would be fitter to undertake it.
Does Noé mock the contemporary youth culture or love it? The film gives no answer, but makes visible some of his anthropological intuitions. Techno, like the liberal culture as a whole, is based on the idea that personal differences and those derived from class, education, race and religion are permeable, fading away during a rave. Climax’s action argues the opposite, and it seems to be much more subversive than all of its orgies.
Nikita Dmitriev is the assistant curator at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris