France | 2018 | Directed by Gaspar Noé
Logline: A group of dancers living and rehearsing in a disused boarding school are subjected to an intense and horrific experience after inadvertently ingesting LSD.
The infant terrible returns with his latest extravagant indulgence, which will do for party Sangria what Jaws did for swimming in the ocean.
Set in the mid-90s, a group of urban dancers have gathered in a mostly empty, disused boarding school within a forest, blanketed by thick snow. It is here for three days they will finish rehearsing their show, and get to cut loose, let down their hair. They are a bunch of mostly ethnic, highly-strung, charismatic, arrogant, oversexed young adults. One of the eldest is Selva (Sofia Boutella).
A prologue sets the mood, as a bloodied dancer stumbles through the heavy snow, crying out in anguish and pain. Then we have an introduction to all the dancers via individual pieces-to-camera being played back on a small monitor. Books and movies on either side of the television indicate sly references to Noé’s influences (Possession, Suspiria, Fritz Lang). We cut to the big red rehearsal room, and with a DJ at one end, the dancers launch into their choreographed show. It’s a single-take extended set piece with “Supernature” as the musical bed, and it’s a showstopper. In fact, it’s worth the price of admission alone. A sexy, sensual, elastic, hip-hop/disco ensemble piece that Noé films essentially in one wide take, occasionally floating the camera up over the dancers, then back down to near floor level. It’s Bob Fosse meets David Lynch on acid.
Yes, LSD is the silent partner of this ensemble horrorshow. After the rehearsal the dancers immediately move into party mode, imbibing, and dancing free form to the DJ’s thumping disco and new wave selections. There is a bowl of sangria that most of the dancers partake in. It has been spiked with acid, and it soon becomes apparent that this dose is a bad batch, sending many of the dancers spiraling into a psychotic meltdown. Hidden agendas are exposed, paranoia rears its ugly head, and accusations and bad behaviour spill forth.
Whilst a few manage to cling to their sanity through whatever methods of madness, others disintegrate psychologically, or are bullied and injured into a ruinous state. By morning light, as the camera visits each inert form, the party debris is wide and tragedy has struck. This climax is more la petit mort than orgasmic happy ending.
Apparently written, shot, and edited in four months, with just fifteen days of principal photography, Noé insisted on shooting as quickly as possible, in long takes, with the camera roving around the actors, like a character itself. It makes for a visually compelling experience, especially with its heightened sensory state of pulsating dance music, intense colour palette, and the induced hysteria that overwhelms the characters, but as a narrative overall Climax fails to illicit the kind of empathic response of his controversial and brilliant nightmare Irreversible.
The stunning Sofia Boutella is the obvious stand out, and her own quasi-dance acid turn is memorable. But the real star of Climax is the disco-electro soundtrack, featuring the aforementioned Cerrone song, a beautiful rendition of Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedies” by Gary Numan , an extended instrumental version of Patrick Hernandez’s disco anthem “Born to be Alive”, the hip-house favourite “Pump Up the Volume”, and more sleazy club fare including Lil’ Louis’ “French Kiss”, Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker”, and the non-stop erotic cabaret of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go”. Finally there is a rare instrumental take of The Rolling Stones’ “Angie” … reverberating as the dawn light spills over the stained dance floor.
Climax is more of Noé purging his dreams and nightmares – throwing in pretentious platitudes as chapter inter-titles – but as the chaos erupts so early, and overwhelms so quickly, there is little to no time to get to know any of the characters, and as such, there is little empathy, little connection. The mise-en-scene becomes as unreliable as the dancers’ affected psyches. The volatile camera weaves this way and that, at one point remaining upside down for ten minutes or so as it snakes around the writhing, body-popping victims of this unexpected hellish trip. Ultimately Climax is much less the emotionally powerful psyche rollercoaster ride as it is a noisy endurance test with a bunch of self-involved, frequently obnoxious, mostly hysterical, albeit good-looking, wankers. Still, if that’s your cup of Mickey Finned punch, then jump in. If anything, for that amazing opening dance scene.