Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. A24 releases the film on Friday, March 1.
In “Climax,” the camera twirls around, peering up and down at its doomed characters as they careen into the depths of a drug-induced frenzy, as hypnotic beats dominate the soundtrack. Yet no matter its nauseating effects, Gaspar Noé’s remarkable psychedelic ride is his most focused achievement, a concise package of sizzling dance sequences and jolting developments that play like a slick mashup of the “Step Up” franchise and “Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” not to mention the disorienting cinematic trickery of Noé’s own provocative credits.
“Climax” shares much in common with the levitating camerawork of his divisive “Enter the Void,” but unlike that sprawling endeavor, this 96-minute odyssey feels like just the right length to encapsulate his talent for disorienting viewers while inviting them into his madcap intentions of overtaking their senses. It might be his best movie; it’s certainly the best snapshot of a talented filmmaker committed to fucking with your head.
“Climax” takes place in 1996, and focuses on the experiences of a dance troupe in a remote lodge surrounded by snowy emptiness, where late night dance battles take a dark turn after someone spikes the sangria with LSD. Noé takes his time establishing the vibrancy of the setting before tearing it apart: an ominous opening that finds one woman crawling through the snow, the ostensible final girl in the horror movie to come, followed by a prolonged introduction of the colorful ensemble in a series of audition tapes.
From there, the filmmaking ambition begins its steady climb. From an astonishing long take of voguing throwdowns, Noé keeps rolling, following the characters through the room as they trade party banter and gossip. With the typical acrobatic intensity of cinematographer Benoit Debie as his ideal vessel, Noé never allows a single frame to rest. For a time, it seems as though he could just hover here, but the smooth ride can only last so long before the mayhem begins.
While it doesn’t follow one specific arc, “Climax” sketches out the dynamic between a handful of characters: Selva (Sofia Boutella, “Kingsman: The Secret Service”), the stern manager of the group who’s at once keen on the hedonistic vibe and resentful of everyone, and Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull), her energetic partner-in-crime and the mother of a small child (Vince Galliot Cumant) she has made the dubious decision to bring with her. Daddy the DJ (French DJ Kiddy Smile) keeps the beats going without fail, while various other dancers share vulgar jokes and argue about pithy matters while catching their breath.
There’s visible tension in the room, much of it stemming from the pouty Psyche (Thea Carla Schott), who resents everyone around her for unexplained reasons, and sexist men eying the girls in the room like candy. None of them receive more than perfunctory backstories, but they’re irrelevant once the drugs come for all of them.
“Climax” is already a quarter of the way through the movie before the conflict takes shape, but its main fixation sits at the center of the movie from the start, setting the stage for the hypnotic spectacle to come: The dancing, an extraordinary blend of fast-paced improvised maneuvers and Nina McNeely’s choreography, suggests that nobody gets along better than when they let loose with their best moves — and when they lose control, all bets are off.
A few tidbits of exposition later and the lunacy begins. Little by little, the dancers realize they’ve been drugged, and Noé briefly allows them to take part in an angry game of whodunit before they lose the capacity to even contemplate their circumstances. Then it’s a hellacious plunge into rapid-fire snippets of violence, shrieking bouts of fury and pleasure-seeking, the camera roaming through the hallways as each character loses track of the narrative thread.
Each restless frame veers into the next one with a riveting sense of uncertainty, as some characters meet their grisly ends while others drift into otherworldly states from which it’s unclear if they’ll ever return. In one astonishing shot, a woman falls to her knees in terror while another contorts her body into elegant shapes in the background, epitomizing Noé’s commitment to conjuring extreme emotional states across a full spectrum of possibilities. By the end, the frame has turned upside down and stays there, as if stuck in a permanent state of confusion.
Though Noé has often been pigeonholed as an empty provocateur, “Climax” benefits from a clarity of purpose. Its setting, in the early days of Daft Punk and the violent specter of the Algerian Civil War, encapsulates a counterculture both eager to shrug off the world’s problems and trapped by its continuing dysfunctions. Nobody’s safe: The drug comes for all of them.
But “Climax” is also a celebration of living in the moment, or at least a tribute to visceral intensity of trying to survive each new one, and Noé includes his own creation intentions in that ethos. The director embraces self-indulgence with a second credit sequence halfway through the movie, which includes his own name flashing across the screen in several different fonts, signaling the complete immersion into his intoxicating aesthetic. Various scenes are interrupted esy abrupt Godardian proclamations, including the written assertion that “Life is a collective impossibility” and “Existence is a fleeting illusion.” In any other context, these declarations might induce eyerolls; in “Climax,” they make a weird sort of sense.
Still, there’s a stunt-like quality hanging over the proceedings, and the mounting mayhem devolves into a stew of deep-red haziness that holds less appeal than the roving camerawork leading up to it. Even here, though, the beats remain consistent on the soundtrack — which features everything from “Pump Up the Volume” to The Rolling Stones’ “Angie” — and they provide an underlying rhythm that fuses the chaos into a riveting single package. Even with its morbid finale, “Climax” implies that the dangerous party’s never really over, and the dance never really ends.
“Climax” premiered in Directors’ Fortnight at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.