GASPAR NOÉ, director of Climax (Cert. 18), is an atheist who believes that paradise and hell exist. “They’re right here, right now.” His films aren’t for the faint-hearted. Irréversible (2002) turned audiences into guilty bystanders as they witnessed excruciatingly prolonged scenes of violence and rape. After that particular descent into hell, some more recent features have begun, rather tentatively, to explore heaven. Enter the Void (2009) chronicles a spirit’s attempts at reincarnation based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Climax is a kind of realised eschatology, dealing with the Four Last Things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. It won this year’s Art Cinema award at Cannes. There is definitely a cinematic talent, one better at depicting the darkness associated with Hieronymus Bosch and Francis Bacon paintings rather than the heavenly light to be found in certain works of, say, William Blake or John Martin.
Climax begins well enough. An electrifying single-shot dance routine is a glimpse of paradise, exuding irresistible energy. Its racially mixed and, as we learn, sexually diverse performers bond in purposeful unity at an audition. Afterwards, the troupe take a break and are plied with drinks. The camera moves around the characters, eavesdropping on their various and occasionally disturbing life stories and current predilections. It’s somewhat similar to the show A Chorus Line, where characters emerge from behind their dancers’ anonymity. And, like that musical, in Richard Attenborough’s film version just as much as on stage, it confines itself entirely to one place: no opening-out or flashbacks that might be expected.
This is also the point in the film where the road diverges. One leads into hell, the other remains heaven-bound. If only Noé had continued along the paradisal route, one less travelled by him, it would have made all the difference. He prefers something too familiar to him. The dancers’ drinks had been spiked with LSD. Instead of transporting its users into spiritual ecstasy (unless you count sybaritic revelries), it leads to a danse macabre, to the sounds of Dopplereffekt, Daft Punk, and Aphex Twin.
This time, the camera is positioned high above, from, allegorically, a heavenly point of view. God could not but weep at the sight of people doing horrifically cruel things to one another. It is a venomous take on Sartre’s Huis Clos. (We’ve earlier been treated to a display of books on existentialism.) There is no exit from this inferno, no redemption; there are no further heavenly visions. The depravity on show stems from the director’s low opinion of people, what he calls “the shimmering vacuity of the human experience”.
If Noé seriously believes in paradise then Sartre’s “Hell is other people” outlook needs balancing with someone like Donne’s. Would that these young people were able to “watch not one another out of fear” and that “love all love of other sights controls”. In that scenario, we would have seen the rehearsal room transfigured into sacred space. It is not that the film refuses, quite rightly, to confront our evil tendencies, but that it eschews full recognition of our capacity for goodness, humanity’s aspirations to transcendence.