Gaspar Noé is drawn obsessively to the dark and decadent corners of human experience. Squalor, sexual taboos, substance abuse, and violence are as crucial to his toolkit as handheld cameras and eye-popping color as he spins carnal stories of love and fury. With Climax, this Argentine provocateur explores passion and fear by following a dance troupe through a life-changing night of partying, panic, and LSD.
Written and directed by Noé, Climax begins in a field of pristine white snow into which a young woman, pale, dressed in black, and striped with blood, stumbles, falls, then thrashes, moving forward as she screams, creating music for her horrific dance. This is a terrible and tantalizing tease of what’s to come. In 1996 France, a sprawling and motley crew of dancers is brought together to create a new show for a tour that aims to conquer America. Sofia Boutella, who’s been a sultry scene-stealer in Atomic Blonde and Hotel Artemis, stars as choreographer Selva, who is giddy to toast the talented team after three-days of intense rehearsals. But this isn’t exactly Boutella’s movie. Climax is an ensemble piece, filled out by a small army of professional dancers. And much like the dance number that gives the first act an intoxicating jolt of adrenaline, Climax will turn over its spotlight to each of the characters for solo moments and wild interactions. Once rehearsal has ended, the party begins. But the fun times fester once the crew realizes someone spiked the sangria with a hallucinogenic drug. Paranoia breeds accusations, bullying, and violence as the night spins completely out of control.
Shot by Noé, the cinematography ushers audiences into this nightmarish experience. The party starts off slow and bit boring, so the cut jumps from one statically shot conversation to another. Occasionally, a frame of black will flicker in, as the screen is our own blinking, drowsy eyes. Later, as things heat up, an aerial shot gives us a jarring perspective on the dancers as they playfully dance battle, giving their bodies a strange new dimension as the drugs start to kick in. But mostly, Noé’s handheld camera embeds us with his dancers. In their opening number, we bob and weave around them as if waiting for our turn to join the dance. Later, as panic begins to pick up, his camera follows Selva down the rehearsal space’s narrow halls, into dorms where others weep, scream, and fuck. But we are a wanderer, manifested in a string of continuous and carefully choreographic yet spontaneous feeling long takes. The camera’s attention hooks on some other pretty and depraved thing, following another dancer to a fiery fight, a contentious flirtation, or a trapped child. And off we go. This party is a maze, and Noé’s camera makes us a mouse trapped inside, lost and looking for a way out. Then, as the film spins to a gruesome crescendo, the camera spins on its side and upside down. Our perspective is distorted by pulsing lights and unkind angles, making everything on screen surreal and sinister.
The sly shift from debauchery to danger is likewise displayed in the dances. The opening act is an amalgamation of different styles and diverse people working together in a thumping, thrilling harmony. Krumping, waacking, and rhythm gymnastics vibe as well as dancers from different nations, genders, sexual orientations, and races. Later, a dance-off seems frenzied but fun, until hands begin to lurch into the center stage circle, pulling at the solo dancers while their moves to maintain it seem more and more like fighting. Throughout the film, dances will continue. But the contortions that once seemed cool become demonic. Sexy moves become aggressively pornographic. Motions once strong turn threatening, then to divisive attacks. And Selva’s mounting hysteria becomes her dance partner in a number that is a disturbing display of a mind on the brink.
Noé’s use of cinematography and choreography is inspired and ambitious. His cast is fearless and frenzied in their performances, offering up their bodies, baring them and pushing them to unsettling extremes. The whole film is a provocation. With a blaring soundtrack, abrasive characters, graphically vicious events, and a violently vivid color palette, Climax is a willful assault to your senses. And yet I felt numb for much of it. I was in awe of Noé’s technique but bored by the film itself. Even at 95 minutes, it felt indulgent. Because for all the visual elements Noé crams into his frame, he neglected to create an emotional core.
Characters come and go spouting gossip and nicknames, making it tricky to tell who’s who and what’s up. And Noé will not assist with helpful cutaways to clue us in. With so many characters, it’s a challenge to become invested in any individual. And even if you are snagged by an especially tragic thread, your empathy has nowhere to go when that character abruptly disappears. None of these characters ever become more than abstractions, so I struggled to hook into the stakes of its horror. Of course, this is a film of frenzy and a communal experience turned hellish. So perhaps providing a central arc or leaning into such commercial film conventions would be counterintuitive to Noé’s premise. But without it, Climax feels as emotionally hollow as a middle-schooler spouting curse words for shock value, and just as juvenile.
Climax opens March 1.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com