Climax
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

How do you sell the work of a director as divisive, as outright reviled in some camps and corners, as Gaspar Noé? The first poster for Climax, the provocateur’s latest assault on senses, good taste, and epilepsy, turns bad reputation into a cheeky hook, all but taunting everyone who “hated” his repulsively violent Irreversible or “loathed” his masturbatory head-trip Enter The Void into ponying up for another ride on the spiraling camera express. But is Noé really the public enemy No. 1 his marketing team would have you believe? The capacity crowd at last night’s screening in Cannes treated him more like a returning rock star. Walking onstage to thunderous applause, surrounded by most of his cast, Noé looked positively ecstatic. If the guy is as miserable as some of his movies, it didn’t show on his beaming face.

The other thing about that poster is that it’s already looking more defensive than was apparently necessary. After all, judging from the first wave of reviews and reactions out of the festival, Noé may actually have a critical darling on his hands. And for good reason, as Climax (Grade: A-) is more brilliantly deranged, in its microscopic vision of society in collapse, than anything the director has ever inflicted on us. It’s a party movie gone epically awry, a claustrophobic zombie-apocalypse potboiler in abstract, even a kind of ecstatically Satanic dancehall musical. And it finds, for once, the perfect application of Noé’s abrasive, showboating, hallucinatory style, locking the audience itself into the world’s worst collective freak-out, a drug-trip straight to the inner circles of hell.

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Noé introduces his massive cast of characters—played by a diverse spectrum of first-time or nonprofessional actors, plus Sofia Boutella—through a montage of polite, lightly revealing talking-head interviews. It’s a country-traversing dance troupe they’re all auditioning for, though they might well be lobbying for a position in a social experiment, which is, in some extreme sense, what Climax has in store for them. They end up convening at a combination rehearsal space and dormitory to practice their routine for an upcoming competition—a scene that’s essentially Noé’s own audition for a particularly kinetic Step Up sequel, no kidding—before kicking off a night of partying. For a while, we could be watching an especially randy Richard Linklater imitation, as the dancers break off into pairs for some crosscut conversation that lays out the ingrained interpersonal conflicts of their miniature society. Then someone spikes the Sangria with a powerful psychedelic, and the hangout vibe morphs, almost immediately, into pure, paranoid dread.

Climax
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

Has anyone better captured the prolonged, disorienting anxiety attack of a truly bad trip? Spiraling his camera upside down, through the narrow passageways of his single setting, and around elaborately choreographed confrontations between these writhing and possessed characters (Mother! comparisons have been made, and they’re not off base), Noé redeems and justifies his sensation-junkie insistence on stretching every scene into an endless, slow-motion death dance. (There’s method, even, to the repetitiousness.) But Climax isn’t just 90-some minutes of sustained sex, violence, and panic—a rollercoaster ride of very bad vibrations. In the hedonistic, mass-hysteric implosion of the film’s surrogate family—a wide cross section of ethnicities and sexual orientations—one can see the portrait of a multicultural Europe tearing itself apart from the inside. Noé may not be the thinking-man’s edgelord (paging Lars Von Trier, whose own new bad-boy provocation arrives later tonight), but with Climax, he’s made a horror movie of uncommon topicality and resonance: a danceable nightmare for our now.

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It’s also just one hell of an experience, unlike anything I’m likely to see this year, at Cannes or elsewhere. The film isn’t part of the main competition lineup. It’s been slotted instead into Directors’ Fortnight, that separate festival that takes place concurrently and down the street in the JW Marriott. Maybe it’s for the best; it’s hard to imagine the Palais sanctioning an encore live performance by Climax’s hoofing cast, as the Fortnight did last night—possibly, one might imagine, just to demonstrate that the actors are all okay in real life.

Every year, I make sure to mention that Cannes is really several festivals in one. The event proper includes not just a main slate, but also the second-tier Un Certain Regard competition, out-of-competition screenings, special screenings, midnight movies, shorts, and “Cannes classics” like 2001: A Space Odyssey, which screened on 70mm last year, appropriately around the same time as Noé’s own odyssey. There’s also Directors’ Fortnight; another simultaneous sidebar fest, Critics’ Week; and as I remarkably just learned this year, an actual fourth separate festival. By most accounts, ACID is even more of a crapshoot than the others—the true safety school of Cannes, featuring films of wildly varying quality. But I’ve already seen one worthwhile selection of the fest, albeit one whose good word-of-mouth began earlier this year at SXSW, where it won the Grand Jury Prize.

Thunder Road
Photo: ACID

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Expanded from a Sundance-selected short from a few years ago, the offbeat and intense Thunder Road (Grade: B) has an uncomfortably timely quality of its own. The film concerns a Texas police officer (Jim Cummings, who had a small role as an interrogator in The Handmaid’s Tale) on the verge of a meltdown, partially over resentment toward the wife who’s left him. Given that the film rather strictly adopts his anguished perspective, and doesn’t give said ex (Jocelyn DeBoer) more than a couple of very antagonistic scenes, one could argue that Thunder Road is more sympathetic than critical—which is to say, that it’s a movie that asks you to feel sorry for a white cop with serious women issues. If that’s an oversimplification, it’s because Cummings, who also wrote and directed the film, has delivered a remarkable tragicomic performance in the lead. The first scene, pulled directly from the short, finds his Jim struggling mightily through a eulogy at his mother’s funeral, and it really establishes his unusual mixture of aww-shucks politeness and raw-nerve emotion—the way Jim keeps pulling up to the very edge of an outburst, then self-consciously yanking himself back over the line. He spends the whole movie on that narrow ledge, resulting in a character I’ve never quite seen before, and an often surprisingly poignant showcase for him. Whether that mitigates the inherent troublesomeness of the logline is a question worth further discussion when the film opens Stateside some time later this year.

Tomorrow: Spike Lee’s new joint, produced by Jordan Peele and featuring John David Washington as a black police officer who infiltrated the KKK, is the hottest ticket in town.