How does one classify a film as brilliantly deranged as Climax, Gaspar Noé’s latest all-out assault on the senses? It’s a profanely funny hangout movie that morphs, with scary speed, into a claustrophobic freak-out, a better Suspiria than the Suspiria remake. It’s an unholy club-banger musical, like a Step Up sequel set in the deepest circles of hell. And in its microcosmic vision of society in collapse, it might be the closest that Noé, French arthouse cinema’s “edgy” showboat extraordinaire, has ever come to actually saying something, to finding method in madness.
Every new movie by this filmmaker is a kind of trip. He wants to get you high while taking you low, into humanity’s grim and grimy underbelly; even Irreversible, the heinously violent scandal on which Noé’s whole bad-boy bomb-thrower reputation rests, has its trancelike stretches—the moments when it’s just trying to blow your mind, not permanently scar it. But Climax makes the narcotic quality of the director’s work more literal than ever before. Unfolding over a few hours, somewhere in France and sometime in the early ’90s, the film retells (and presumably embellishes) the true story of a group of dancers who collectively lost their minds after being unwillingly dosed with LSD. It’s a simple, primal premise, covered in 96 intense minutes and perfectly suited to Noé’s abrasive, hallucinatory style.
With the exception of Sofia Boutella, who left a career in hoofing to be slathered in prosthetics for Hollywood blockbusters like Star Trek Beyond and The Mummy, the cast is made up entirely of dancers, not actors: a diverse makeshift ensemble of nonprofessionals plucked from YouTube and Krump battles, most making their screen debuts. Noé introduces his characters, a cross-section of ethnicities and orientations, through a montage of polite Real World-style audition tapes. It’s a traveling dance company that they’re all applying to join, though they might well be lobbying for a position in a social experiment—which, in some extreme sense, is what Climax has in store for them.
Like a board-the-windows zombie potboiler, the film forces everyone into a single location, the combination rehearsal space and dormitory where the troupe convenes one snowy evening to practice its routine for an upcoming competition in America, before cutting loose a little with a night of partying. For a while, we could be watching an especially randy Richard Linklater bash (think: Everybody Wants Some Ecstasy), as Noé pairs off his performers for some crosscut conversation. Slowly, however, interpersonal tensions emerge. So do characters: Selva (Boutella), the group’s cheerful star; the aggressively oversexed David (Romain Guillermic), who’s hooked up with half the company and wants to try his luck with some of the other half; siblings Gazelle (Giselle Palmer) and Taylor (Taylor Kastle), the latter a little too protective of his younger sister; troupe leader Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull), who’s ominously brought along her grade-school-age son; and at least a dozen others.
“I’m ready for some crazy shit,” one of the dancers remarks, as though reciting an inadvertent incantation. She gets her wish when someone spikes the sangria with a powerful psychedelic, and the communal fun curdles, almost immediately, into mass dread and hostility. (Pointedly, the first person blamed for this “prank” is Omar, the teetotaling Muslim character played by Adrien Sissoko, who’s ejected from the building.) It should come as no surprise, after the excesses of Noé’s Enter The Void and Love, that Climax becomes an apocalyptic bacchanal, an orgy of sex, violence, blood, sweat, piss, and fire. What the film captures, with spooky accuracy, is the waking nightmare of a really bad high: the paranoia, the hazy disassociation, the feeling of being locked in a private crucible you desperately want to escape. Here, the director’s habit of stretching out scenes into psychedelic slow-motion waltzes serves a real purpose. Noé is pulling us into the subjective bubble of his characters’ shared ordeal, syncing our clocks to the disorienting drug-time crawl of theirs.
There’s a spontaneity to Climax—a naturalistic immediacy born of its exceptional, energetic cast of unknowns, firing off entirely improvised jokes and insults and threats. At the same time, the film often feels as carefully orchestrated as an MGM musical. Noé’s camera prowls the dance floor, following characters in and out of the fray, trailing them down the narrow hallways of the single setting, spinning upside down, creating a perimeter around every volatile confrontation. The dance sequences themselves are truly spectacular; the first one, captured in a single virtuosic take, is a marvel of choreography, creating synchronized and contrasting lines of activity as figures crisscross the frame. But even when the characters aren’t technically performing, Climax’s constant motion, timed to a mixtape of techno classics, suggests a kind of dance. And Noé uses the group’s shared passion to track the order and disorder: The opening showstopper conveys an all-in-one unity that will soon completely break down, while Boutella—the nominal protagonist—writhes her way through an anxiety attack of a solo number, as though trying to dance her way out of her own doped hell.
Few would call Noé a filmmaker of ideas. He’s more of a brash sensation junkie, hooked on his ability to do to our brains what those old anti-drug commercials did to an egg. But Climax, which begins with its ending (and end credits) but otherwise progresses linearly, is more than just an hour-and-a-half of panic and hedonistic disarray—more than a rollercoaster ride of very bad vibrations. There’s something almost utopian about its first few minutes, presenting a multicultural dance troupe, moving in unison, working together to represent France on the international stage. By the end, that dream has died, the film’s surrogate family having torn itself apart from the inside. It doesn’t take an altered state of consciousness to pick up on what Noé’s saying about the state of his country, and maybe of the world outside of it. He’s made a horror movie of uncommon topicality and resonance: a danceable nightmare for our now.