Gaspar Noe’s ‘Climax’ is a Hypnotic Descent Into Hell

Climax movie poster

I will never forget when I first watched Terry Gilliam’s cinematic adaptation of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.” Seeing the main characters played by Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro descend into a drug-fueled inferno proved to be one of the most insane and chaotic cinematic experiences I’ve ever had to where I felt like a hammer was constantly bashing at my head. I was in college at the time, and I described it to my friends as being one long acid-trip nightmare. One friend, her name Wendy, looked at me and said, “Oh yeah, like you would know!” This led to another person, Matthew, across the table laughing and responding, “Hey Wendy, he’s right.”

Seriously, you don’t need to have any experience with drugs of any kind to call “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” an acid-trip nightmare, and the same goes for “Climax,” the latest cinematic opus from Gaspar Noe. Like the majority of his films, it proves to be exhilarating, hypnotic and gloriously out of control as we watch a group of dancers try to get a hold of their sanity after they discover the sangria they have been drinking has been spiked with LSD. Whether or not you have had any experience with this drug, you will agree the trip these characters go on is not the least bit pleasant.

“Climax” takes us back to the winter of 1996 and opens with a series of audition tapes featuring dancers who are being considered for a French dance troupe being created by Selva (Sofia Boutella) and DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile). Each dancer makes clear how intense their passion is for this particular artform and what they will do to make a career out of it. What’s interesting about this opening we are watching them on an old-style tube television which is surrounded by VHS tapes and books, all of which have influenced Noe’s filmmaking and personal beliefs. This includes such cinematic escapades like “Suspiria,” “Salo,” “Hara-Kiri” and “Possession,” and among the books are one by Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, famous for his ultra-negative views on life and humanity, “Junkie” by William S. Burroughs, “LSD Psychotherapy” by Stanislav Grof, and “Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo” (“We Children of Bahnhof Zoo”) by Christiane F. Seeing these materials around the TV set should make it clear that Noe is not about to play it safe for anybody.

Following this comes one of the most exhilarating dance sequences I have in a movie in a long time as we watch a five-minute-long scene in which characters perform with utter abandon as they contort their bodies in ways which amazed me to no end. As the camera swoops over the performers, we are sucked into their dance space to where I wanted to feel the passion they felt. Seeing this reminded me of when I first watched the music video to Madonna’s “Lucky Star” on MTV, back when they actually showed music videos, and of how I wanted to experience the same level of joy she was having.

Noe is up to his old tricks again as he starts “Climax” with the end credits first and then give us the opening credits about 45 minutes later. As for the title, it appears exactly where it should. It does take a while for things to get crazy as Noe takes his time introducing us to these dancers as they discuss the sexual conquests and/or the future they hope to have sooner rather than later. As this goes on, the techno music plays non-stop, and once you notice it slowing down all of a sudden, you know this shit is about to get real.

Once the characters begin to realize they are under the influence of a psychedelic substance they were not planning on ingesting before their performance, the movie becomes a slow descent into chaos, and I could not take my eyes off the screen for one second. Even as the events became more and more horrifically chaotic, I was sucked into the madness everyone was trapped in, and I had no idea of where the story was going. This kind of unpredictability is very rare in movies today.

It’s especially impressive to learn that “Climax” was shot in just 15 days and with a script only five pages long. Learning of this made me believe this film could have been an enormous mess were it in the hands of another filmmaker, but Noe gives this sheer chaos a structure even as the performers let themselves run wild with the material. Some will complain this movie has no real story or plot, but I am certain anyone who has taken LSD can assure us how most psychedelic trips do not come with a three-act structure.

Once again, Noe employs his and Harmony Korine’s favorite cinematographer, Benoît Debie, who gives us such striking and absorbing colors throughout. Whether the lighting is dark green or blindingly red, Debie captures the insane madness in all its visual beauty, and when the white of the snow appears it feels like such a relief. This makes me look forward to Korine’s upcoming movie “The Beach Bum” all the more as Debie is the cinematographer on it too.

Noe has gone on record in saying the production of “Climax” was the most peaceful he ever had as a director, and this is regardless of the movie’s content. Apparently, there were no arguments on set, and no drugs or alcohol were used by anyone during filming. The latter is worth pointing out as the cast does an excellent job of looking like they are being ravaged by a narcotic they didn’t plan on taking. They could have easily looked ridiculous to where the movie could have been laughable, but everyone looks to be on their game here.

The cast is made of both professional and non-professional actors, and the one who stands out the most is Sofia Boutella. The French-Algerian actress has long since made a name for herself with such memorable performances in “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” “Star Trek Beyond” and “Atomic Blonde,” and watching her here is mesmerizing as she takes her character of Selva from a place of sanity to the polar opposite of it. She could have easily fallen into the trap of emoting here, but she never does as she makes Selva’s helpless predicament all the more frightening as this trip she is forced to take offers no easy escape for her or anyone else.

“Climax” may not reach the nightmarish heights of “Requiem for a Dream,” but it stands out as one of Noe’s strongest efforts. It doesn’t reach of what I feel is his masterpiece, “Enter the Void,” but it is stronger than his last movie, “Love 3D” which many were quick to dismiss as just another porno flick (I disagree). I for one am glad such daring filmmakers are still working in a time where superhero movies continue to dominate everything in the cinematic landscape. We need at least one filmmaker to break the rules, and Noe is no doubt one of them.

Again, I don’t think you need any experience with psychedelic substances to realize “Climax” is one long acid-trip nightmare. While the late Steve Jobs found an amazing level of creativity after experimenting with LSD, I don’t think the characters here will be anywhere as lucky, assuming they survive.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’ Digs Deep Into His Life

gonzo-the-life-and-work-of-dr-hunter-s-thompson poster

I felt like I could never figure Hunter S. Thompson out. Whenever I saw films based on his work, he seemed like some crazed lunatic living in a world of his own creation and madness. After watching “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” I feel like I now know what he was all about. Hunter was as patriotic as any American can get, and while he always seemed to be losing his mind, no one can deny he was a true visionary. At the very least, he was never boring.

This documentary was directed by Alex Gibney who managed to get many people to talk on camera about Hunter who, whether they loved or hated it, had to admit to feeling the upmost respect for all he did. The fact Pat Buchanan participated in this documentary is a big surprise considering how Hunter described him as a “half-crazed Davy Crockett running around the parapets of Nixon’s Alamo.” The writings of Dr. Thompson are featured throughout, and the documentary is narrated by Johnny Depp who played the eccentric author in Terry Gilliam’s film version of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.”

Hunter is credited with creating Gonzo journalism, a style of reporting where reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree to where they become central figures in their own stories. He would take on assignments like covering a motorcycle event, and then he would veer off into something else like the death of the American dream. Through his writing, he got at the ugly heart of the matter and exposed it for all its misleading falsehoods.

“He was a reporter with a wild imagination.”

-Tom Wolfe

“He was not afraid to express himself in sometimes shocking ways.”

-President Jimmy Carter

We see Hunter take on his first big assignment when he meets the Hell’s Angels in California which he looked up to as the last outlaws in the world. This relationship, however, turned sour when he witnessed them gang bang a woman at their party. The group later suspected Hunter of trying to profit off of what he wrote, and they beat him severely. This whole experience ended up shaping him as a writer as he looked beyond the façade sold to the public on a regular basis.

One of the most interesting parts in this documentary is how it shows Hunter’s love of America and his sadness over the death of one of his favorite politicians, Robert Kennedy. It is made abundantly clear how Hunter so wanted to believe in the hope of a better future. His sadness only deepens when he is witness to the beatings at the Democratic convention which took place the same year Robert died, and he berated the Democrats for not doing their part to put an end to the violence.

I got a huge kick out of the section where Hunter runs for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, as it showed how visionary he was as he had all these plans for revitalizing the town of Aspen. He called for the decriminalization of drugs for personal use, but he also wanted to keep a ban on trafficking as he was no fan of people profiting off of them. Furthermore, he wanted to tear up the streets and replace them with grassy pedestrian malls, he proposed placing a ban on tall buildings being built as they obscured his view of the mountains, and he wanted to rename Aspen “Fat City” in an effort to deter investors who wanted to commercialize the city. Of course, Hunter lost the election which was no real surprise to him, but his run for the office was never ever forgotten.

“Gonzo” also does a great job of looking at the various relationships Hunter had throughout his lifetime. We get a look at his marriages and learned what it was like living with him. To know Hunter was to tolerate him. Perhaps the most interesting relationship documented here is the one between Hunter and artist Ralph Steadman who created some of the most insane drawings which accompanied Hunter’s feverish writings in Rolling Stone magazine. It is interesting to learn Steadman was actually a conventional artist whose work was no different from anyone else’s. But then Hunter turned Steadman on to drugs, and his work evolved into what he is best known for. There is a great moment where we see Steadman at work, and he has this utterly insane look on his face as if he is gleefully possessed. Who knows what would have happened to him had he never met Hunter.

Perhaps the most important section of “Gonzo” is when Hunter supports George McGovern’s run for President of the United States. McGovern was the democratic nominee running against incumbent President Richard Nixon. The Vietnam War was raging on, and hundreds of young American lives were being snuffed out day after day. McGovern sought to put an end to the Vietnam war which the whole country had since gone against. Hunter had a vicious hatred of Nixon, and he saw the possibility of Nixon going on to a second presidential term as a possible death blow to this country.

As important as this section of the documentary, it was a bit overlong and could have been shortened. It gets redundant as we clearly get the message of Hunter’s disillusionment with politics in general. Fortunately, “Gonzo” picks up in the last half as we see how Hunter became trapped by his fame to where his work suffered as a result. But the McGovern section is still important, especially when Hunter is interviewed in the documentary and says this, “I desperately wanted to put an end to that senseless war [in Vietnam]. I’m sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”

Sound familiar? No wonder Hunter got depressed when George W. Bush got elected and the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001. Hunter wrote about those events as if he knew exactly what they would lead to, another war overseas with America striking back in revenge mode. This was all another depressing example of how history repeats itself.

For the most part, “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” does an excellent job of making you understand him better and of where he was coming from. We need people like Hunter, people who challenge authority and get us riled up about the way the country is heading. His suicide, other than being very selfish and hardly noble, robbed us of a powerful voice we need in times when politicians continue to deepen the divide between the rich and the poor. Hunter was a crazy man at times, and he was also proof that if you take enough drugs, they will completely mess up your head. But you had to love him because he was never boring and always fearless. It is likely there will never be another man like him.

* * * ½ out of * * * *