French provocateur and filmmaker Gaspar Noé has built his oeuvre around the unholy yet blessed marriage of cinematic sensation and outré ideas. His latest film, “Climax,” is no different, as he plunges the audience into the center of what becomes the worst dance party ever when LSD is added to the mix. This whirling dervish of a film is visceral sensory experience, a bloody, screaming whirlpool of sex and violence that tugs us all the way down to the depths of inhumanity before a merciful release.
Thankfully, Noé starts it off on a high note. After an inscrutable opening where he informs us that down is about to be up and up is about to be down, we’re introduced to our cast of characters — a French dance company — via VHS recordings of their interviews for the gig (the film is set in the ’90s and is loosely based on a true incident). Noé cast most of the performers from YouTube dance videos and Parisian voguing balls. He does not deny us the pleasure of watching them perform an explosively exuberant routine choreographed by Nina McNeely, a blend of hip-hop, voguing and breakdancing that serves as a jolt of pure cinematic adrenaline.
We’ll need that rush because the group of young people is about to face plant into a chemically enhanced wonderland at their after-party, whether they like it or not. As the multicultural, sexually fluid group sip sangria and boogie in their rehearsal space, a run-down school in the middle of a snowy landscape, hips and tongues start to loosen. Noé’s fluid camera follows the action in long, fluid takes, whirling and spinning around the room as if another dancer, catching snippets of conversation and flirtation. The long, roving shots almost never cut, in a remarkable feat of staging and performance.
As the beats relentlessly nag and the couples pair off, things start to take a turn for the worse as it dawns on them that someone spiked the sangria. Tainted with a massive dose of LSD, the dance party immediately descends straight to savagery, as every perverse and violent instinct comes to the fore, whether it be sexual, scatological or murderous. Our only guide through the hellscape is choreographer Selva (Sofia Boutella), who tries in vain to talk sense into whomever she can through the veil of her own nightmarish hallucinations and hysterical breakdowns.
Ever the provocateur, Noé sprinkles acts of a shocking, offensive and vile nature throughout the melee. At times it does seem to be just a checking off of a list: incest, self-mutilation, child endangerment. But one does get the sense he hasn’t considered the implications or nuance of any of it at all, which is particularly glaring in the way he treats the black characters on screen, reduced to primitive stereotypes as violent, oversexualized thugs. Unintentional? Hopefully. Unfortunate? Definitely.
Because the film is such a technically dazzling marvel of staging, cinematography and sound, it is as physically and visually intoxicating as the punch, but Noé has loaded the transfixing, orgiastic display with landmines that will always keep you on your toes. It’s cinematic shock treatment for the audience, but one can’t help but wonder if Noé could do with a jolt to the system as well.