Few films have ever appealed so directly to my cinematic sensibilities and been grounded in as radically daring yet organic of a narrative approach as “Climax”. For over a year I’ve been hotly anticipating – more than any studio movie – this surreal mindfuck that combines electrifying dance sequences, pulsing techno music, kinetic camerawork and the delirious collective unraveling of a dance troupe melting down on a dangerous amount of LSD.
And holy hell, what an insane trip it is. You’ve never seen a dance film as exhilaratingly intoxicating nor a drug movie as magnetically mind-bending as this before.
French provocateur Gaspar Noé, the visionary director behind the psychedelic stunner “Enter the Void”, crafts a euphoric exploration of awe-inspiring energetic movement in the first half, until the come-up gives way to an all-consuming visceral freefall through the second half. Perhaps most impressive is how naturally it all works, as only the two most important characters had any acting experience and Noé developed just a basic five-page story – no script – before the quick production. This is a truly collaborative cinematic experiment, where the dancers improvised their dialogue and brainstormed ideas with Noé to shape the direction of the characters and the narrative.
“Climax” opens with an ominous glimpse of the traumatized hysteria to befall one character by the end, then lulls you into a more relaxed state with quick end credits. Interview clips follow that identify and reveal a bit of insight into each of two dozen characters, virtually all of them real-life underground dancers from an eclectic array of cultural backgrounds and dancing styles.
A remarkable five-minute dance sequence (choreographed by Nina McNeely) to Cerrone’s high-speed disco-pop ballad “Supernature” then exhibits the whole group in mesmerizing action. Together and individually, they showcase hip-hop hustling, furious arm twirling, angular vogue flaunting, powerfully possessed krumping, unbelievable contortions, sensual stripper sliding, and a swirling spectacle of dazzlingly synchronized moves. The connective might of their creative performance is a force to be reckoned with, captured in all its raw beauty with a long take that continues on for over seven more minutes as the rehearsal concludes and the after party unwinding begins.
The camera pulls our attention to the table of refreshments on the side of the large hall, where a bowl of sangria has fatefully been spiked with an excessive amount of acid by someone in the crew. Tense dynamics are uncovered between some characters as the dancers playfully interact with each other and unwittingly indulge, passing around cups of the drugged drink. That suspense simmers during a series of often funny two shots where personalities glow and gossip freely flows, as most pairs discuss sexual experiences and desires of who they want to hook up with next – like a bunch of theatre kids who all bang each other.
DJ Daddy (real DJ Kiddy Smile, who helped cast many of the dancers and supervised music) puts on another thumping track to initiate a dope dance circle, shot from overhead, where nearly everyone gets a chance to shine with bolder, sexier, more acrobatic and supercharged moves. A familiar feeling of giddy excitement and an intuitive boost to vitality radiates from them for six galvanizing minutes that make you want to get out of your seat and groove too.
The transition into the breakneck “What To Do” by Daft Punk‘s Thomas Bangalter (who also contributed weird and woozy songs to “Enter the Void” and Noé’s controversial breakout “Irreversible”) propels a final hurrah of group energy. Multiple dancers channel unrestricted bravura for athletic spin techniques or vigorous arm-flailing face-offs. But alas, this dance paradise wasn’t meant to last, and many of the group reach a tiring daze, overwhelmed and sloppily shaking or resting in a heap on the ground.
Cue the hyperactive credits, flashing to the relentless beat, smack dab at the film’s halfway point. They act as a buffer between the heavenly realm of self-expression the troupe had been inhabiting, and the nightmare trip through hellish madness they start spiraling down as the acid takes pronounced effect. An original Bangalter composition for “Climax”, aptly titled “Sangria”, kicks off the unnerving journey into the dark unknown now creeping within the characters’ psyches. The rising distortion and alarming repetitions over synth chords capture that scary feeling of speeding out of control, as a spellbinding 42-minute tracking shot commences to lock in the intensifying suspense and unease with no release till the aftermath.
If you’ve ever teetered on the hallucinogenic edge, or tumbled headfirst into a bad trip, the paranoia, lack of logic, hivemind mentality, memory lapses and missing restraint for consequential actions that infects these characters is a distressingly relatable feeling. The movie takes place in an isolated, converted school building in 1996, so there’s no cell phones to call for help. Because everyone is tripping so hard, they push each other further into the beyond, unable to rein it in.
While this is undoubtedly amongst the most directly focused films on the psychedelic experience, Noé’s central themes here revolve around a group’s creation of something amazing together that chaotically implodes under one person’s destructive action – and how fear plays into that collapse on a deep level. Indeed, this journey often steps into frightening territory, a fever dream of lost agency. Anyone who’s actually been drugged unknowingly, or suffered a traumatizing bad trip, may find this triggering.
Noé doesn’t visually alter the imagery to mimic LSD effects. Instead, he manages to crank up the drama and twisted craziness with virtuoso, effectively dizzying cinematography (from Benoît Debie, though Noé operates the camera himself) that follows the ensuing mania, violence, passion, and frenzied dancing unflinchingly.
Group choreographer Selva (Sofia Boutella) serves as the engagingly emotive audience guide through much of “Climax”, but the camera effortlessly slips between characters at intersection points, conveying the frantic states of mind and devolving relations in the crew. Screams sporadically echo through the hallways, first from one character’s young son whose return to the party raises the stakes and disquieting anxiety considerably, then from various characters in later stages of freaking out.
A lot of wild and disturbing shit occurs by the time the climax arrives, which finds the main hall bathed in strobing red lights like a hellish den of sin. The troupe’s world has figuratively turned upside down while the disorienting camera literally has – bewilderingly exhibiting a few couples copulate on the floor, some dancers move to the dreamlike disco track in demonic contortions, and a bit more violence erupt before the blackout. An epilogue montage as the police show up the next morning reveals what became of all 24 characters, ranging from tragic ends and brutal injuries to sleeping in the comfort of another’s arms. But the psychological scars will haunt them all, just as viewers will never forget this blazingly deranged dive through the depths of the rabbit hole either.
*Featured image Via Couramiaud -Laurent Lufroy and F*