Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Gasper Noé has a brief but incredibly bold filmography. Climax, his fifth and latest feature-length film, is appropriately distinct and provocative. Climax is a sadistic, hellish film about the intersection of dance, madness, intoxication and violence. The film presents some heady observations about life and death that it occasionally supports with dizzying cinematography and relentless energy. The story itself is unfortunately slim, especially towards the final third of the film, but there are subplots scattered throughout that cohere and fall apart, often in horrific fashion. The overflowing sense of feeling and passion in the film is magnetic, demanding your attention even in the most harrowing and disturbing moments.
The story of Climax is deceptive as it oscillates between engaging and flimsy; a group of dancers have a party and drink sangria that they later discover has been spiked with LSD. The first third of the film introduces the ideas of Climax before it introduces its characters. After creating some thematic groundwork, the film largely takes place in a single location, an empty building outfitted for a night of dancing and drinking. The dance scenes are electric. The performances from the actors/dancers are fantastic both on and off the dance floor. With lesser performers the fifteen minute probing dialogue scene that catches snippets of every character’s conversations about their wants, needs, fears and desires might be pretentious and rambling but the casting is uniformly perfect.
Once the acid begins affecting the dancers what ensues is more or less a nightmare-trip that defies the phrase “bad trip”. Some of the dancers begin turning aggressive and physical. There are some who are paranoid about the identity of the person who spiked the sangria starting a mad, hallucination induced witch-hunt. Climax reaches unforgiving heights of brutality, no character is spared a grisly and unflinching end. There is murder, incest, hardcore violence, filicide, addiction, group-assisted suicide, and excessive drug-use all before the credits role. Noé makes an argument that death is an extraordinary experience, albeit only under extraordinary circumstances, and in this respect he does not shorthand the audience a bit.
The conclusion of the film, however, leaves a cold sense of disillusionment. There is technically a “twist” or a “reveal” but it is at once boring and plainly unambitious. For a film with so much to say the last ten minutes are a steady disappointment. Many of the ideas about dance and it’s driving force in the lives of the individuals were carefully and cleverly sculpted towards the beginning but were mostly ignored in the final moments. The story reaches a satisfying conclusion for certain characters, there is thematic resonance in the deceased, but the plot feels lifeless and hollow by the end which left an empty feeling in my stomach that spurred me to wonder “was there ever that much there to begin with?”.
Climax is bursting at the seams with wonderful ideas and philosophies. It’s an anxiety-inducing thriller that exposes the beating heart of the French dance world. As a love letter to dance, being, and the wonder of our mortality, Climax is a complete success stylistically, visually and it’s performances are some of the most committed you are likely to find anywhere. It falters occasionally as a film only because it cannot seem to balance the things it wants to say with the story it wants to tell. Noé has created a delightfully imperfect mess of a film that is far often more enthralling than it is frustrating.