For a filmmaker who has made a career out of emphasizing fever-dream-like visuals, Gaspar Noé (Irreversible, Enter the Void, Love) may have topped himself with his latest, Climax. This film gives us a cinematic descent into drug-fueled madness that suggests Noé has lost what little subtlety he may have ever possessed. Climax opens big, with a spectacular, sensual, stunningly choreographed dance sequence put on a by a troupe of young performers about to celebrate their collaboration. The head of the troupe is Selva (Sofia Boutella, whose career began as a dancer), and the sequence is lit by the great cinematographer Benoît Debie (Noé shot the film himself). The music is pumping, and the bodies follow in kind.
Once the dancers celebrate the successful execution of the number, it’s time for a party and less formal dancing. Like any party fueled by sangria, a great DJ and raging hormones, the real personalities of these dancers (all played by professionals) begin to show themselves. Couples begin to fight while new couples form, if only for a few hours. But what no one realizes at first is that someone has slipped LSD into the sangria and before long these collaborators begin to accuse each other of drugging the partygoers. Rivalries reignite, realities twist and even violence erupts at times as the fabric of reality begins to erode. The combination of never-ending music, throbbing lights and fractured minds is on full display in the performers but also within Noé’s camera movements, which make the audience members feel like they’re tripping right alongside the dancers, and it’s often not a pleasant experience.
The vastness of the building where all of this takes place seems to go on forever, and the deeper into the cavernous space Noé takes us, the more fresh nightmares we encounter. Boutella (Atomic Blonde, Star Trek Beyond) is a marvelous guide through the chaos, but even she succumbs to the sensory overload that I’m guessing will result in quite a few audience walkouts at various points in the movie. Climax transitions from trippy exercise to endurance test fairly quickly, and if you make it to the other side, you and those around you can take pride in the bonding experience of reaching the end. Only a visual master like Noé could make such a film, but it also takes a certain brand of moviegoer to survive it. Climax is a cinematic dare.
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