A Hell of a Dance Party
Writer-director Gaspar Noé’s “Climax” starts with an intimation of a bygone horror. Lou (Souheila Yacoub) walks through snow, hugging her bloodied midsection until she falls. She seems to be a dedication, and brings to mind a child in utero. The film brigs together ecstasy and agony as we understand that she died while miscarrying.
Lou desperately proclaims her innocence after it’s discovered that a member of her dance troupe who spiked their communal sangria with LSD. Inside a building in the middle of nowhere, this racially and sexually diverse crew of dancers and others gather to rehearse a routine that attests to the possibility of a new social order. The choreography of their first rehearsal reflects the structure of the music.
The film arrives at a message about how all incivility isn’t equal—how biases in eye of the beholder. As these young men and women increasingly lose themselves to the effects of LSD, the camera anchors itself capturing everything.
The camera itself feels as if it’s slowly experiencing the effects of a drug. Early on, Noé happily cedes the stage to his characters, shooting them from above as they take turns plying their signature moves before capping the spectacle with a montage of the names of the dancers, as well as the musicians on the soundtrack. And then the camera becomes increasingly one with the dancers and the music, as in the film’s most extraordinary sequence, which locks on to the group’s de facto leader, Selva (Sofia Boutella), as if in a trance, following her as she submits to the throes of a Possession-inspired freak-out, and all the way to her collecting herself and walking past Taylor (Taylor Kastle) as he contorts his body into what seems like an optical illusion. The ultimate gag—no, masterstroke—of Noé’s career may be this perfect communion between his art and that of these bodies: a thrilling expression of the fear that to stop moving is to undo the social fabric of the world.
“Climax” is as much a full-on party as it is a piece of cinema. Depicting a group of dancers having a celebration that descends into full-on chaos, this is the cinematic equivalent of a drug experience.
It begins in the mid-90s, and a group of dancers have just finished a long few days of rehearsals ahead of their big trip to America. With the exception of one Russian and one German girl — the latter ironically here to get away from the Berlin drug scene — everyone else is French.
There are a lot of characters, and they fade into one other in one of the opening scenes, a fantastic one-take dance rehearsal that becomes the start of the party. To distinguish each from one another, we are introduced to these people via VHS audition. \ Despite working hard all day, most of the group are still full of energy. We observe them talking about who they want to have sex with, and how they want to have that sex. It looks like the movie might just be an orgy, but things start to go terribly wrong once it becomes evident someone slipped drugs into the sangria.
“Climax” is effortlessly enjoyable and has moments of brutal comic value. It portraysa descent into a hellish state after its divinely physical first half. With boundary-pushing sex-and-drugs fixation and a vital presentation of wildly exuberant dance and movement, the film is seductive in its rhythms and bold visualization of the young dancers. There is a lot of dance that is filmed in ways that mesmerize — straight on and from above in bold and mobile compositions, fresh and colorful and expressive of the often extreme positions and exertions of the performers.
The throbbing techno music is lulling and addictive and a lot of choreography looks like it started out as dance party moves. The first 45 minutes end with a bang and sense of aesthetic fulfillment. Then, many of the dancers seem to spiral to an unnaturally achieved low. The good vibes are gone, something is off. They are mostly women, suffering miserably, writhing around in great pain. There’s a lot of finger-pointing about someone having spiked the drinks and victims seem like they would rather die than keep enduring the pain. The heaven of the film’s first half becomes hell in the second.
Noe gives us an artful picture of an earthly creative paradise followed by a fall into physical torment. His way of doing this is bold, visceral and simple. The fluid, flowing camerawork and nuanced musical choices play major roles in achieving the film’s goals.
This is controversial brio film-making, perhaps admirable in its way. It is very strong stuff, with disturbing content involving a combination of drug use, violent behavior and strong sexuality, as well as strong language and some graphic nudity.