Dance drama/horror, rated R, in French with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 1.5 chiles
What starts out as a celebration turns into a nightmare in Gaspar Noé’s technically masterful but nihilistic portrait of humanity. Set in the 1990s, Climax concerns a dance troupe of French twenty-somethings who’ve gathered to rehearse in a remote school building in the dead of winter. When the rehearsal ends, they throw themselves a party. Unbeknownst to them, someone douses the sangria with a load of LSD. A collective bad trip ensues. Before the evening is over, some will suffer bouts of fear and paranoia, some will die, and few will be left unscathed.
It all begins, typical of Noé’s disorienting style, by showing the end credits first as a bloody survivor struggles through the snow, uttering screams of despair. Cut to an earlier time when, one by one, the dancers discuss their hopes and their fears in videotaped interviews that seem to presage later events. The interviews play on an old television surrounded by books and movies that give some indication, perhaps, of Noé’s inspirations: director Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and titles by Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, who was noted for his pessimistic views of humanity.
In the old school building, the camera follows the characters for long stretches as they roam from room to room. But the action always circles back to the dance floor. As the LSD takes effect, the dancing morphs from electrifying, well-choreographed feats of physical dynamism to spasmodic and ghoulish gesticulating. The interior setting grows claustrophobic. Bouts of sudden violence erupt. A child — locked in a utility closet to protect him from the drugged-out revelers — begs incessantly for his mother, and his desperate cries reverberate through most of the last half of the film. One dancer engages in a grievous act of self-harm while the others egg her on. The small world they inhabit turns upside down.
Noé inverts the camera for long, dizzying stretches — a pedestrian trick that has the subtlety of a ball-peen hammer. He’s a master of the long take and a virtuoso with the queasy cam, but he takes too literal an approach. You can’t just watch a film like this. He’s intent on making you feel it in your gut.
Climax is not as brutal as Noé’s controversial 2002 film Irreversible, but it also lacks that film’s poignancy. There’s no one you can identify with, no one who serves as a voice of reason, and no one you can like. The dancers’ conversations aren’t deep or sophisticated. They’re ruled, it seems, by baser instincts. But Climax seems less an indictment of a society with no moral center than a film that lacks one itself.