French provocateur Gaspar Noé’s Climax has been met with enthusiasm at this year’s Cannes—even from those who usually have little tolerance for the psychedelic horror-core aesthetic he’s been dredging since at least 2002’s Irréversible. Maybe that’s because the film, at an eminently approachable 95 minutes, aspires to a relatively more structured iteration of Noé’s anarchic chaos. It even has a fairly straightforward concept: Twenty dancers—played by 19 non-actors plus Algerian actress and model Sofia Boutella—gather in a performance space, dance, chat cattily among each other, then drink some LSD-spiked punch and descend into raving, violent madness.
The conceit here is that even when Climax’s characters are subjected to the full-tilt crucible promised by the film’s premise, their bodies’ convulsions remain dance-like. But broad concerns like concept and conceit have never really been Noé’s problem, and neither really has his style—which has always incorporated some form of choreography, and used vivid colors and a restless camera with inarguably visceral impact. What Noé’s films have so rarely evinced—and what Climax mostly certainly lacks—is the skill, imagination, and intelligence to develop concepts and conceits, to connect them with ideas that could keep the director’s vision from wearing itself out.
This is true of the film’s lengthy pre-credits sequence—the bulk of which consists of a long montage of conversations between the dancers followed by their pulse-pounding routines—and also of its, uh, climax: the daisy-chained vignettes of violence and panic that play out once the drugs turn the dancers’ cognitive and physical selves into manic impulse generators. While Noé’s shot choices in the film’s first part exude eye-popping visual flair, their repetitiveness sinks in quickly, and becomes a tell. Climax’s hyperactive latter half does seem to incentivize Noé to do more visually, but the methods of this section also settle into a fairly limited modus operandi consisting of skewed camera angles, long tracking shots through shadowy spaces, and extreme vacillating distances between the camera and its subjects.
In Enter the Void, the exhaustion of formal technique felt especially enervating by, say, the second hour of tracking shots that transmogrify a kind of wormhole through repeated push-ins to ceiling lights and desk lamps. Here, Noé’s relative narrative economy allows for Climax to feel like only a disappointing missed opportunity, rather than an egregious misjudgment. But despite fleeting moments of genuinely disturbed horror or twisted beauty, he just doesn’t fill his film with enough moment-to-moment ideas for it to register as more than a shallow occasion for provocation.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 8—19.