WARNING: This articles contains spoilers for Climax
To call Gaspar Noe’s Climax an “uncomfortable watch” would be an understatement. After all, since the beginning of his career, Noe’s raison d’etre has been to make films that offend, outrage, and provoke widespread criticism. He wants people to walk out of his films in disgust, he’s even said so.
From the neverending racist, homophobic and misogynistic diatribe of I Stand Alone to a horrific nine-minute rape scene in Irréversible, the director yearns for scandalous notoriety in the film world but with Climax critics have seemingly embraced it like no other. The film premiered at Cannes this year to glowing praise and it has since played at Toronto International Film Festival which has only served to increase its positive reviews.
I myself adore the concept, aesthetic and cinematography of the ‘90s set horror musical, about a dance troupe gone violently and sexually mad during a bad trip on LSD. Sofia Boutella leads a posse of non-professional, but extremely talented dancers, and their frenetic movements are hypnotic to watch, however, as the film progresses and their characters’ inhibitions became increasingly lost and chaotic Noe has, purposefully or not, perpetuated a barbaric stereotype of black people.
In the first half of the movie, after a brilliantly choreographed dance scene featuring the refreshingly diverse cast, Noe gives us snapshots of conversations between members of the troupe as they wind down and the party gets started. These no-holds-barred moments of exposition show their playful, free-spirited, sometimes antagonistic and overtly sexual personalities, but the most explicit discussions of sex are reserved for two black male dancers.
Noe repeatedly goes back to Cyborg and Naab’s graphic banter about rough and brutal sex that is far more extreme than the stuff the lighter-skinned men, Omar and David, were spewing. Their words are predatory, which continues the archaic and problematic narrative that has historically positioned black men as sexual predators. And this happens before the LSD has even kicked in.
Noe then begins the second half of the film, where the demonic euphoria really explodes. The spiked sangria starts to affect its drinkers and we begin to see, as he put it, “the moment we start losing control of the logical brain [and] we go to a psychotic way of thinking,” but the black people’s thinking is presented as more aggressively violent and sexually deviant than their non-black counterparts.
Mounia, a black female dancer, brutally kicks Lou, a light-skinned pregnant woman, in the stomach, twice, then she and several other black dancers shout and scream at her to kill herself and coerce her into self-mutilation. It is the same black voices that are the loudest when they turn on Omar and David; the former is kicked out of the school into the cold and the latter is violently assaulted in what turns into a racially-charged attack.
As the film reaches its frantically disturbing climax the audience is confronted with a hellish orgy that sees Cyborg having aggressive intercourse while the most taboo encounter is reserved for black siblings Taylor and Gazelle. We wince as this brother’s increasingly obsessive control over his sister contorts into distressing scenes of incestuous rape and assault. This is not to say the lighter-skinned characters don’t engage in psychotic reverie, but their actions are not presented through such a barbaric lens.
Noe has said he wanted to show the regression of human nature, and Climax does that, but in doing so he’s made black people look like the most violent and primitive race, and that’s the hardest thing about this movie to watch. It feels like an ugly step backwards when in recent years we’ve seen a cinematic movement to show the beauty of black culture which has served to ameliorate a faux image forced upon its people.
It’s hard to say whether Gaspar Noe intended to present black people this way or not. Not because I think he’s a racist, though after his comments about Black Panther some have accused him of being one. No, it’s difficult to define because his past work has proven that he has no qualms in using bigotry and extreme sexual violence to make his audience feel wretchedly uncomfortable so Climax could simply be a continuation of these shock tactics he’s used since 1998.
When a race is seemingly demonised in the process, though, that’s when it becomes a problem. That’s when its time to rethink and consider the wider ramifications of those narrative decisions and its effect on the audience’s social consciousness.
Knowing Noe though, I doubt he will.
Climax is in cinemas now.