I have never seen anything quite like Climax, the hallucinatory, drug-and-sex-fueled hour and a half of chaos helmed by Argentine-French writer and director Gaspar Noé. At moments it is beautiful, at others it’s manic and depraved, and at others it’s transcendent of its own art form. It’s horrifying, hypnotic, seductive, and impossible to look away from. That’s enough adjectives for now – my point is that this is one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
The script, reportedly only five pages long, keeps it short and simple. A group of French dancers all gather to rehearse for an upcoming performance. The venue for this rehearsal is a big, empty boarding school, closed off from the outside world thanks to a snowstorm that begins once everyone is inside. It’s also the 90s, so any chance of contacting other people via cell phones is nonexistent. The group dances and parties into the night, but things take a dark, terrifying turn when they discover that the sangria that’s been handed out to them all night has been laced with LSD.
If that alone doesn’t get you interested, I don’t know what to tell ya. Climax starts out as fun and joyful dancing and partying but then slowly dissolves into an absolute nightmare. While some are able to enjoy the surprise trip and continue to dance (or give in to their mutual sexual urges towards each other) others succumb to their neuroses, fighting amongst themselves, panicking, and forming a violent mob mentality in finding the culprit behind the nonconsensual drugging. People cut themselves with knives, others are set on fire, some have nervous breakdowns, a child is locked in a room with no one but cockroaches for company, and someone relieves themselves on the floor. Insanity is an understatement.
The film is split into four parts. It opens with a series of interviews with every member of the dance troupe, letting the audience get to know where they come from, why they dance, and a few personal details as well. The interviews are shown to us on a television screen, and to either side of the screen are piles of books and VHS tapes – films like Suspiria and textbooks on schizophrenia fill the borders of the shot, obvious inspirations for Noé and the story he’s about to tell. We then jump to the fateful night of rehearsal: one long, continuous take that catches the tail end of the performance (which is a genuinely impressive display of dance) and then moves on to the start of the party, with everyone mingling and gulping down the spiked sangria. It’s here that we learn a little more about the inner relationships within the group – how they feel towards each other and what’s going on in their lives at the time.
The rest of the film is an incredible continuous shot that lasts for what feels like thirty to forty minutes, every second of which continues to build and grow crazier and crazier. The drug starts to take effect and the dancers begin to trip, and trip hard. The music booms louder, the dancing comes across more like possession than celebration, and everyone’s minds teeter precariously on the edge of insanity. We switch perspectives and follow others and their terrifying trips without ever cutting, and with no edits happening during the entire, lengthy drug-induced sequence, the sense of horror and not being in control is truly allowed to take hold. It feels relentless, and the night only becomes more and more horrifying for the dancers. At one point the power goes out, and we can only see by the glow of an angry red emergency light – by the end, the camera is upside down, driving home the fact that these people’s lives have been turned the same way.
There aren’t any words I can really use to describe it that will do Climax justice. It’s shocking without being so for the sake of it, horribly violent without the need for excessive blood or gore, and hallucinatory without the use of fancy editing or visual effects. It’s an experience to witness – dance is one of the purest and most vulnerable forms of expression, and Noé takes that idea and flips it into something both beautiful and horrendous. It’s filmmaking at its most masterful.
5 / 5 Stars
Climax is now playing in select theaters.