Moral Bankruptcy and Fast Footwork: Gaspar Noe’s Climax (2018)

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On Friday, along with a handful of other people, I piled into my local art cinema to watch Gaspar Noé’s new, darkly absorbing club-related movie, Climax. The plot revolves around a talented, multi-cultural group of dancers who rehearse in an abandoned French school, only to find their after-party turning sour because someone has put LSD in their punch bowl.

What follows is an impressionistic descent into human misery, marginally less jarring than Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (2017), and less venally depraved than Darko Simić’s notorious A Serbian Film (2010). The grim and grubby panorama that Noe paints, however, has moments which are, at times, equally as shocking and cruel.
To understand such recent descent films, I think we have to look not to cinema, but to society in an era of neoliberal capitalism: a time where the rise and rise of ubiquitous internet, reality television, vacuous talent shows, and always-on entertainment is counterbalanced by an accelerating free fall – one reflected in a crisis economy, disenfranchised citizenry, desperate daily life, failed democracy, managerial politics, dismal predictions of collective suicide, and glimpses of emerging nightmare fascism.
After some last ditch, closing credits, Noé’s film starts (!) with interview footage from the dancer’s auditions, shown on a normal TV set, surrounded by prescient books and video cassettes. 


Evoking a strange kind of nostalgia, the interview footage cues us to the present absence of the internet. It is a lovely touch, and reminded me of directors like Michael Haneke. Soon we are led into sexy and spectacular dance scenes, sequences worthy of judgement by Simon Cowell. Everybody, however – the director, cast, and us spectators – goes careering off once the after-party DJ cranks up the music and the group slowly descends into selfishness, cruelty, and various grim subspecies of animosity. As part of this, we also wander off-stage (ob-scene) into a seedy underworld of dim-lit corridors, dilapidated toilets, neglected cupboards, and grubby dorms – places where it seems more natural to unleash the human monstrosity on display.

The controversial director’s work makes few concessions to the mainstream. Part of me was surprized; I was – in the horror fan tradition – expecting people to die in ironic and creative ways. Noé offers that in the plot, but gives little genre-based spectatorial pleasure. Instead, he delivers lingering, absorbing, sensory cinema that slips into an increasingly horrifying whirl of affective moments. Climax touches on many genres – the whodunit, teen film, dance musical, horror flick – yet it answers to none. (I was reminded of the increasing number of academic papers I’ve seen, at all levels, which flatly eschew any critical engagement in favour of pursuing their own elaborate vision. What results is arrogant, audacious, and so much the poorer for it.)
The thing that I found interesting about Climax, however, was how clearly it held me in my seat and tested the sensory boundaries of cinema.
In an age where digital technologies are increasingly attempting to pull us into a fluid, sensory, embodied experience, it seems that cinema can now be understood as a pioneering medium. Students still gravitate towards it perhaps for that reason, as if they know that writing is old hat, an idiom not equipped for the instant immersion of the posthuman era. Yet cinema, even more than TV, remains guardian of the transition.
What Noé deliberately demonstrates is that the cinematic project can only go so far.
The Argentine director regularly chooses immediacy over naturalism. Rather than shot-reverse-shot, for instance, there is a lot of handheld footage. Deprived of cinema’s standard pleasures, I felt I was being overcompensated by deep hues and subtle sound design. The result was engaging: to some extent, I was enveloped into Noe’s nightmare world, and couldn’t escape. Deliberately, though, he refrains from showing inside character’s heads, or if he does, he refuses to announce it by departing from a kind of other focused, dark club realism. As I followed characters into the outer-recesses of the school, I witnessed their suffering, both internally (as the drugs intoxicate them) and externally (as shared madness possesses each)…
I couldn’t help feeling, though, that Noé’s Sartre-eque message (this is a contemporary ‘No Exit,’ after all) starts wearing thin underneath some of his more artful gimmicks.
Gaspar Noé’s club kids are drifters, postcolonial hipsters who have realized that they can achieve something through all the tools offered to them by contemporary youth culture. They’ve got attitude, they’ve got style. They act cool, they dress cool, they dance amazingly well, and they embrace sexual freedom and hedonism with a kind of weary duty. In other words, they both do all that is required, and have an attitude that is also required: a slacker’s distance from it.

From their starting point of being socially marginalized (by youth, by class, by racism, by nationalism, by sexism, by heteronormativity) they have deployed youth culture, and used their illusion to “buy in.” Yet the bargain has failed. The other side has betrayed them. Since their worlds have already been so diminished, Noé implies, their vengeance comes more easily. The LSD in the sangria bowl, in that sense, is a mere nudge rather than a full-on onslaught: beneath the veneer, these are people already simmering with hatred and fear. It is already expressed in the nihilism of their dissociated, party-hard attitude.
In a postcolonial, online era, dancing is “what they’ve got,” but it is also a way to conform to the faux individualism of the X Factor / YouTube world, a place where making a spectacle of oneself is entrepreneurial work for thousands of youngsters: techno-colonized subjects who soon become burned out by high competition, diminishing returns, and the urgent necessity to perform their funky individualism.
Behind the beat-up sofas, the peeling wall paper, and the tressle tables of party treats, lie strewn the nubile, tattooed crumpled, bodies of vloggers, sound cloud rappers, street kids, and ghosts.
“Hey guys, what’s up?… Make sure to leave a comment below this video, and follow us on social media.”
When the line breaks down between work and entertainment, what else can you do except dance the night away?
As the sangria starts to kick in, and you begin to realize the extent of your style drudge work, all your free labour… the conformity and exploitation beneath that mirror ball of flashy, hip, guerilla consumerism…
Is it too late? Is there any possible escape from hedonistic diversion, from infantile thinking, sexual selfishness, mental cruelty, and unjustified violence?
From the enveloping, social media echo chamber?
From hell?