Updated: Sep 10, 2020
Let's get controversial for a minute. The independent French cinema scene has gotten away with some pretty shocking film choices including 2001's very young exploration of sexuality in Fat Girl, and most recently 2017's Blue is the Warmest Color, which is to this day considered pornographic even to modern audiences. But the movie that is to this day and from the release date considered a truly shocking and divisive outlier of French cinema is Irreversible. Gaspar Noe, inspired by the late great Stanley Kubrick which is reflected in some of his cinematography is a definitive auteur, with a musical and fluent approach to some of his best work. He's also a truly offensive filmmaker with almost no line left to cross in his repertoire of work.
His 2002 release Irreversible is perhaps his most famous achievement featuring Monica Belluci and Vincent Cassell in starring roles. This film is probably most famous for its controversial assault scene, (which lasts an inappropriately long ten minutes) but also significantly accoladed for its interesting narrative direction. The entire film ala Memento style, is shot in a backward structure, with the revenge sequence and killing of the rapist in the first ten minutes. We don't actually get to the assault sequence until about halfway through the film, and even then we don't get a full picture of the characters until the ahem, 'climax'. It's an extremely divisive film, with some hardcore fans for its narrative and purpose and those who consider the shocking moments exploitative. There's even a rumor Gaspar Noe himself digitally included a masturbatory scene of himself in a nightclub sequence early on. (Ew.) So what separates him from the true talent of French cinema?
Gaspar Noe and his influence from Kubrick is apparent from even the earliest sequences of Irreversible in which we are kaleidoscopically propelled through a neighborhood of deviants, with the camera dipping in and out of vertical framing, sometimes balancing upside down to enter windows of its subjects, each with stories to tell. The filming quality is expressed through the entirety of Noe's work, Irreversible included. He's clearly talented he just enjoys pushing the envelope. His later work would include a 3D filmed erotica movie, and a entirely POV film in the perspective of a druggie going through life and the after-life in Enter the Void. So in 2018, when he took on the true story of a 1993 event where French touring dancers found themselves victim to a spiked drink during an after-party at a dance rehearsal. To the Noe effect, none of which happens actually occurred, and we are involved in his narrative as soon as the twist comes in.
But truly even before the spike, we are witness to the end credits sequence, (a commonality in Noe's work) and then an interview screening of each of the dancers on a tube-TV, which brilliantly sets up the context and background of each character. We understand the motivations, limits and flaws of each dancer, of which there are many, before they even hit the dance floor. It's a lot to digest and it transpires in one of the films consistently long takes of almost 8 minutes in the sequence. From there on out we receive the best the film has to offer with one of its many one-take dance sequences, to original music from long-time collaboraters of Noe including Daft Punk. In typical fashion of his he plugs the artists and his own name throughout some of these dance sequences, to an almost admirable sense of self-indulgence. We are talking about a movie that begins with the ending-credits for goodness sake. What works so well in this film is the scenes on the dance-floor, unbelievably choreographed in their one-take glory, with amazing, limb-bending theatrics and incredible timing.
There in lies perhaps the most interest in our characters lie. With multiple races and gender-profiles each character is established as a unique entity with their own motivation and desire. We even receive a 12 minute sequence of these characters, in multiple cuts, talking among themselves of their interests and desires and attractions, so that the audience isn't completely aware of each and every character's motivation. It's astounding how Noe in a 97 minute format can juggle between 12-16 characters and their intricacies. This is an extremely divisive movie, as is most of his work, but I would argue its his best and most easily approachable.
Climax works its way through multiple arcs and does not shy away from some of the ugliness of its interactions. There are one or two brutally visual scenes, but no more, something I couldn't necessarily say of any of his earliest work. It almost seems like he's having fun here, the shooting style sweeping in and off the dance floor as the dancers experience their in-toxicity, along with some fascinating visual flourishes off the floor. It exists in the same tempo as a song, with the highs and lows of the beats existing between the characters as they suffer and equally are stimulated in their surroundings. Each character has their own approach to the drunkness, some of the most amusing is with the body-contortionists who continue to dance throughout the goods and bads and 24 hours of extremity within the building. Our lead (Sofia Boutella) who gets the most screen time but just as much weight as any of her co-stars, stumbles through each scene, in the limited size of the complex, witnessing horrors and decisions made under the influence of each character (there's one brother and sister arc I'll let your own imagination figure out).
This whole film exists and could not be possible without the style of the director who exhibits both his own incessant and selfish design to include himself in each production, along with his honest talent as cinema's dark horse, a truly controversial but not without merit director. He rose this movie from the very loose true story into its own entity. It's own style. It's own levity. It's a phenomenal film with tons of weight, style and talent. Gaspar Noe may be a divisive outlier director, but one day he will recognized as the talent he truly is. That sick puppy.