Film Review: Climax (France, 2018) is an orgy of gracefully demented brilliance, drenched in LSD

French enfant terrible provocateur film director Gaspar Noe is back with his physically-impulsive, boundary-pushing sex-and-drugs approach. For those who don’t know, Noe is a prolific filmmaker who pushes the buttons of the audiences in extreme measures and beyond boundaries of good taste. His debut feature-length film, I Stand Alone, contained gruelling violence and references of incest, to name a few, while his next film, Irreversible, contained a rape scene that lasted for 10 minutes without a single cutaway.

His next two films were Enter The Void, which applied his approach towards the afterlife to dizzily psychedelic effect, while his last film Love, which revolved around the portrayal of sex, had a mixed critical reception as critics and audiences were getting a bit bored with Noe’s tendencies; he seemed to be wearing himself out due to his lack of filmmaking innovation, despite having the film formatted in 3D.

Now, we have his latest project, Climax, which is a psychedelic dance horror film that is set in one night, with the largest cast Noe has assembled, entirely with talented dancers with little to no prior acting skills (barring Sofia Boutella). With the fantastic premise, a thankfully short runtime (in comparison to his last two films), a sparse script (a treatment consisting only of five pages), a short film schedule of 15 days and the combination of all things mentioned with Noe’s approach, Climax is bound to be one hell of an experience. Will the film live up to Noe’s reputation as a provocateur once again?

The story goes like this: young people party by dancing, someone spikes drinks, hell ensues. Now let’s get into detail as to why Climax is Noe’s best film in a long time, which is a funny thing to say since in interviews, Noe was disappointed by the unanimous praise his film had received, as he expected a lot more people walking out of his film.

Climax starts off with an overhead shot (via a drone camera) of a woman sauntering out of a building into the wintry snow, struggling to maintain her balance, shrieking in pain while walking past a dead tree, with the entire scene accompanied by a remix of Erik Satie‘s Gymnopedies, by Gary Numan. End credits.

It is an disturbing and yet serene scene tells the audience what is going to be the inevitable fate of the dancers in the story and is a peaceful respite, much along the lines of how Noe approached the story of Irreversible, telling parts of the story in reverse, evident with the placement of the end credits.

After the credits, we see the vast cast of dancers, introducing themselves in a quick montage of testimonials, sketching the characterizations with efficiency and mirth while Noe shows the influences of his film via a pile of books or VHS cases like Andrzej Zulawski‘s Possession, Dario Argento‘s Suspiria and many others.

Then there’s the dancing, and there’s a lot of it. Thanks to Benoit Debie‘s stunningly fluid and mesmerizing cinematography, a well-chosen soundtrack filled with hits like Pump Up the Volume, Born to be Alive and other techno singles; Nina McNeely‘s dance choreography and the smooth editing by Noe and Denis Bedlow, the dance sequences are spectacular to witness in their expressionism, their grace and in their passion in the most extreme positions and movements.

But what makes the dance sequences truly stand out is how they convey dimensions of the characters succinctly. For example, the character of David is a braggart in how he boasts about how he slept with all the female members of the troupe. But when you make the comparison to his dancing, it becomes quite fitting, since the choreography consists of wild flurries and contortions.

The choreography also manages to convey the deteriorating state of mind of the characters incisively as well. The comparisons with the first dance number, which is synchronized, fluid and brimming with positivity; and the second dance number is extremely feral, uncoordinated and brimming with anger; make a compellingly stark contrast and manages to start end the first half brilliantly.

Noe’s contribution to the editing (along with Denis Bedlow) is also notable in how it compliments the portrayal of the gradual impending threat that inevitably hits the characters. The comparison between the testimonials and the interactions (after they have drunk the sangria) is a great example of that as well as a great view of what humanity is like when they lose control of their baser instincts.

Then we get to the characters, in which some of them are unnamed and they are all interestingly outlined and they have more depth than one would expect, considering the short-time-scale of the story. Some include David, who claims he’s had sex with virtually every woman in the room but still seems angry as hell; two other guys who laugh and brag to each other about their sickening (boring on hilarious) sexual exploits; someone who claims to another guy represents “a ticket to STDs”; Emannuelle, a woman who’s got a little kid in tow; a brother and sister, with the former being overprotective of the latter, whom herself is having fun being sexually active; and Ivana and Psyche, a couple of whinging blondes from Berlin with an aversion to being agreeable with anyone, including themselves.

But none of these elements would go well together as well as it does if it weren’t for Noe’s direction. His assured control of the slow-burn build up until the hysteria starts works wonderfully, as the film has a first half that is incredibly lively, buoyant and jovial to the point that Noe has the nerve to insert the cast credits signifying the halfway point of the film and ironically the complication of the story.

On the topic of humanity, Climax can be seen as a metaphor of society going into a state of disarray when outside forces come into play. It could be seen as a metaphor of the culture of France gradually losing its identity. Or it could be seen as a bonkers PSA against the use of illegal drugs. It is quite doubtful that Noe was going for anything meaningful or metaphorical here considering that in interviews, he said that most of the film was improvised from the introduction of the film to the inclusion of the French flag.

But much like Irreversible, Noe does accomplish in presenting a harmonious and jovial utopia of a first half, followed by a ghastly fall into incredibly punishing physical torment. While it is never as violent as his prior films (the sexual violence is surprisingly toned down), Noe can still push buttons in terms of shock value and he never resorts to ways that can be seen as pretentious or showy.

And speaking of showy, the cast of professional dancers are all natural performers with decent acting chops and they are all game to go along with Noe’s demented vision, especially when the drama starts. According to interviews, most of the dialogue was improvised due to the fact that the testimonials consisting of just edited footage of audition tapes, which would explain why the cast are such naturals on screen.’

The only established actor in the film is Boutella as Selva (which means jungle in Spanish), and she delivers a fantastic performance that goes from exuberantly jubilant to amazingly intense to wildly hysterical to almost laughably pensive (when she focuses on a particular image) in such a smooth fashion. In a ferocious scene, she executes a solo dance that looks like a psychological breakdown, similar to a notable scene in Andrzej Zulawski‘s Possession, and it is a sight to behold.

The entire film is like that to the point that it’s almost as if Noe had a drink of the sangria himself, since his work hasn’t felt this exuberant and vibrant since 2009’s Enter the Void. Climax is an orgy of youthful enthusiasm, beautifully humanistic repugnance, compellingly animalistic repulsion, dazzlingly choreographed exhilaration and assuredly controlled grace; all soaked in hallucinogen-spiked sangria.

Lovingly endowed by yours truly as You Got Served (LSD).

FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Climax releases in Australia on 6th December 2018.