That a film can be simultaneously entrancing and nauseating is compellingly demonstrated by this new effort from self-proclaimed cinematic provocateur Gaspar Noé. “Climax” begins with a thrillingly choreographed and shot sequence of a dance rehearsal but then turns into a grotesquely disturbing portrait of an after-party that degenerates into drug-induced mayhem.
After an obscure opening shot of a woman writhing on snow-covered ground, the film begins with audition clips of young dancers answering questions posed by choreographer Selva (Sofia Boutella). They are soon shown in a run-through of an intricate ensemble piece, stunningly staged by Noé (and choreographer Nina McNeely) and shot in hyperkinetic widescreen by Benoit Debie.
Afterwards, both exhilarated and exhausted, they gather around the table of refreshments Selva has prepared for them, while DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile) keeps up background music for dancing. Unfortunately, somebody has spiked the sangria with LSD, and soon most of them are affected. They accuse one another of adding the drug, and get violent (one kicks a pregnant woman in the stomach, like Nero); Selva locks her little son, who has been happily joining in the fun, in an electrical closet for protection, but the boy is soon screaming hysterically, apparently having drunk the punch himself, and his mother has lost the key; and the horrors escalate until the next morning, when rescuers break in.
The rehearsal sequence that dominates the first half of the movie is, cinematically speaking, a breathtaking exhibition of combined choreography and camerawork; but the climax of “Climax,” which occupies the film’s second half, is, while equally skillful from a filmmaking perspective, totally repulsive. That’s quite deliberate: Noé’s purpose seems to be to depict, as stylishly as possible of course, the depths of depravity of which humans are capable. You might argue that at least he seems willing to suggest that the intervention of something like drugs might be needed to push us over the edge, but the suspicion remains that the concession is a reluctant one.
As to the cast, they come across as outstanding dancers, each in his or her own way. As actors, though, they all leave something to be desired. In a way that’s not a terrible problem, since in the film’s descent into degradation Noé employs them more as pieces on a chess board, moving them around to create confrontations, than as fully rounded personalities. Certainly their audition interviews haven’t told us much, other than that they’re all pretty desperate to make an impression. And while their moves on the dance floor show marked originality, that’s not enough to convey distinctive personalities.
“Climax” doesn’t work as a whodunit—we never learn the identity of the culprit who spiked the sangria—or even as a whydunit (presumably malice is enough of a motive). It does demonstrate that Noé can deliver his dark message about the human condition with cinematic flair. But whether experiencing the exuberance of the dance sequence, however mesmerizing it might be, is worth suffering through the sludge of the post-rehearsal meltdown is doubtful. Of course, you could just leave at the halfway point.