Written and Directed by Gaspar Noe.
Starring Sofia Boutella, Kiddy Smile, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Claude Gajan Maude, Giselle Palmer, Taylor Kastle, Thea Carla Schøtt, Sharleen Temple, Lea Vlamos, Alaïa Alsafir, Kendall Mugler, Lakdhar Dridi, Adrien Sissoko, Mamadou Bathily, Alou Sidibé, Ashley Biscette, Mounia Nassangar, Tiphanie Au, Sarah Belala, Alexandre Moreau, Naab, Strauss Serpent, and Vince Galliot Cumant.
Young dancers gather in a remote and empty school building to rehearse on a cold and wintry night. The all-night celebration soon turns into a hallucinatory nightmare when they learn that their sangria is laced with LSD.
Climax properly begins (but not before giving the audience a taste of the nightmarish hell to come) with a revolving door of dance auditions seen on an antiquated television set with intentionally noticeable laid out VHS tapes of many similarly trippy experiences (Dario Argento’s Suspiria is a standout choice) that serve as loose inspiration for the unspooling madness. And I stress the term loosely, because for better or worse, there is only one Gaspar Noe, the French provocateur behind such extreme dives into depravity and violence (Irreversible contains both the single most violent scene in film and a prolonged sexual assault set to instrumental compositions scientifically designed to make the listener nauseous, alongside holding the honor of getting me into foreign cinema as a teenager). It’s also apparently based on a true story to some extent, and it’s your level of cynicism as a human being that will dictate what you’re capable of buying into here.
Anyway, these aforementioned auditions function as the backbone of what inevitably instantaneously transforms from mind-blowing nearly indescribable dance rehearsals (Gaspar Noe’s regular cinematography collaborator Benoit Debie in on-hand but the choreography from the revered Nina McNeely is paramount to the successful infliction of this extended state of hypnosis) to LSD-induced mass hysteria. There aren’t necessarily clues as to who spiked the sangria (although we do find out who did it, Noe couldn’t give a flying fuck about making this a full-blown mystery, instead concerning himself with the destruction of this tightknit troupe and shattering of their sanity), but their answers to various questions inform their roles beyond personality. The interviews, character traits, and dancing all become one coherent realization that appropriately functions alongside each individual’s descent into varying examples of deranged drug-fueled behavior.
The longer Climax went on, the more I wished I could remember more about these interviews and the brief conversations between multiple groups of characters all before reality becomes insanity. It’s also not Noe’s fault that it’s difficult to keep track of everyone; there are over 20 characters and their personalities resemble actual humans more than something formulaic, all to the point where you’re locked in on examining behavior more than distinct character traits. At the same time, I’m sure there are intriguing tidbits hidden away throughout all of this, which is why if Climax started playing every scene in reverse order following its conclusion, there would absolutely be enough reason to stick around and perceive hell from another perspective.
Even if there was nothing more to gain from watching it again, most viewers (specifically referring to those that can get on the wavelength of something expressively experimental in terms of extensive long-takes, topsy-turvy cinematography, and maddening as it repeatedly places characters in situations of disturbing behavior that is not limited to adults) probably wouldn’t be able to resist another journey through the flames (it’s incredibly fitting that once the effects really kick in, one character is set on fire almost as if the analogy has become literal). Dancing that was once graceful in the first half remains present, but takes on alternate forms due to the LSD, resulting in movements that now look like something straight out of a horror film. There are shots of characters in the background that could pass off as contorting zombies; it’s a testament to what the direction, cinematography, and choreography are capable of without even dramatically adjusting the performances from these dancers.
I also stress the term dancers considering Sofia Boutella (who is a wildly talented dancer in her own right dating way back before becoming a Hollywood star) is the only experienced actor in the film; the rest are all somewhat local dancers who apparently had some level of creative control over their own characters (much of the script is improvised and off-the-cuff, so it’s basically futile looking for a deeper meaning in Climax beyond that the closest of bonds can be torn to shreds once you introduce any unpredictably dangerous variable). They are serviceable with their speaking lines, but Noe is an intelligent filmmaker that is aware he needs to stick to the strengths of these people; dazzling and terrifying us with dancing and unhinged facials.
The behavior brought out from the LSD is also rooted in universal themes ranging from jealousy to bitterness to blame to irrational violence to sexual cravings and more. There is no protagonist; the camera floats from character to character throughout the five or so long-takes, wisely focusing on someone that generates sympathy. A mother is trying to protect her child, a brother nags looking after his sister inside the sexually charged environment even before shit hits the fan, a bisexual woman fends advances from the bad boy that claims to have engaged in sexual intercourse with every member of the group, and a pregnant woman tries to survive the night.
Climax doesn’t make the most of its characters, but makes up for that with Noe’s usual extremist filmmaking techniques; it’s transfixing in a way that leaves you stunned 90+ minutes have passed when the sun comes up. The only surprise is that it’s nowhere near as violent most people will likely anticipate based on Noe’s past work, but it’s still a one-of-a-kind feral experience that won’t be easily forgotten.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com