Sophia Boutella having good, clean, family fun in Climax.
Cast parties. You know how they go. You’ve been spending time rehearsing with this small group of people, and it’s been hard, but things are finally coming together. It’s time to blow off a little steam, with some music, light snacks, and sangria. Deep conversations and dancing happen, then some flirtations escalate to hookups. Everyone has a bit too much to drink and wakes up with a headache the next day and pretends to be scandalized when they find out who hooked up. The team is bonded, and friendships are forged and reinforced. Such is the function of the cast party.
This is the plan with the unnamed French dance troupe in Climax. They’re about to embark on an American tour, and the show is tight. Director Gaspar Noé shoots their routine in the first and greatest of many long, swooping takes to come — imagine Rope set at a rave. Because what do professional dancers do for fun? They dance more. Especially when they’re sucking down the excellent sangria made by tour manager Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull).
But some parties go beyond the healthy and fun to another level. You get the hint that this soiree is headed in a bad direction from the opening shot, a long drone track of a wounded dancer wandering in the snow, which tells you it’s actually the last shot in the film by fading into the closing credits, which come before the actual opening credits. Yeah, it’s one of the those movies. Arthouse pretension oozes from Climax’s every pulsating, sweaty pore. As one of the periodic flurries of text on screen puts it, “This is a French film and proud of it!”
Anyway, the first sign that the party is taking a dark turn is when one of the dancers pulls the old “I don’t have any cocaine, but that person over there does. They’re going to deny it, but don’t believe them, and don’t tell them I told you about their secret stash” trick. The conversations turn spacier and darker, and the dancing becomes even more frenzied. Things move from the “Is she having a good time?” phase to the “I think she’s having too good a time, because she just peed herself” phase. That’s the point when choreographer Selva (Sofia Boutella) figures out that somebody put LSD in the sangria, bumping the party phase up to “Cold War-era chemical warfare experiment”.
In Variety, critic Owen Gleiberman described Climax as "Fame shot by the Marquis de Sade with a Steadicam".
As Belgian cinematographer Benoit Debie (familiar from Spring Breakers) swoops and dives his camera through non-Euclidian angles, the party escalates through the “Is she still breathing?” phase into the “Lord Of The Flies LARP” phase. Debie’s philosophy in the film’s final act is, sure, this shot looks cool but wouldn’t it be cooler if it were upside down?
Gaspar Noé made his reputation as a provocateur with Irreversible and Enter The Void, which opened with another vivid psychedelic trip sequence. His earlier works all had a tinge of dare to them, as in “I dare you to face this horror.” There’s quite a bit of shallow button-pushing as Climax builds to its climax, but the director at least makes an attempt to balance it out with the joyous and technically daring early dance sequences. The outstanding soundtrack mixes new electronica from the likes of Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter with classics from Aphex Twin and M/A/R/R/S. (And isn’t it amazing that, after thirty years, Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go?” remains a signifier of New Wave naughtiness?)
Still, there’s no escaping the notion that the whole exercise is just an excuse for Noé to hang out with a bunch of dancers and do a lot of drugs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially given the huge cast of prime dance talent he has assembled, and the obvious quality of the drugs. It’s certainly a step up from the torturing innocent women to elicit sympathy sub-genre that Irreversible was an example of. Plus, it’s fun to vicariously hang around with all these cool Euro trash girls — at least until they start setting each other on fire.
Like other psychedelic film journeys, such as Easy Rider and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, the trippy peaks are thrilling, but the comedown is brutal. As the camera swoops from one blossoming psychedelic crisis to the next, all the plotless decadence starts to blur together. By the time it’s finally revealed who spiked the punch with ye ole lysergic, you can be excused if you have forgotten that it was even a question in the first place.