'Climax': Film Review

Dance substitutes for sex in Gaspar Noe's rousing return.

The latest from French enfant terrible Gaspar Noe revolves around a dance party that descends into hellishness.

The sensationally titled Climax might have just as easily been called Gaspar’s Inferno, so intensely does it portray a descent into a hellish state after its divinely physical first half. Pairing his usual boundary-pushing sex-and-drugs fixation with a vital presentation of wildly exuberant dance and movement, Gaspar Noe has made a film that’s seductive in its rhythms and bold visualization of his young dancers’ sometimes beautiful, other times brutal somatic expressiveness. 

Finished just in time for Cannes after a 15-day February shoot and opened in France in September, this rousing work could break through with young audiences keen for something radically different from their normal cinematic diet.

After going, finally, all the way sexually with his last and least feature, Love, three years ago, congenital French bad-boy Noe returns seemingly rejuvenated by the young and, by his standards, very large cast. From the outset, Climax feels like it’s firing on all cylinders, the work of someone ready to startle and impress again by doing something recognizably his own but nonetheless quite different from his previous work.

A disturbing opening shot of a woman struggling and appearing to die in the snow is followed by young dancers’ quick testimonials about their love for what they do, and then by a unique title card: “A French film and proud of it.”

Then there’s dancing and a lot of it, shot in ways that rivet the eyes and mesmerize — straight on and from above in bold and mobile compositions, fresh and colorful and expressive of the often extreme positions and exertions of the performers. The performers are young and racially diverse, looking as though they got their starts in clubs rather than dance schools. Several are especially partial to wild flurries and contortions of their arms and hands behind and above their heads and necks.

The throbbing techno music is lulling and addictive and a lot of choreography looks like it started out as dance party moves. The way Benoit Debie’s cameras take it all in during the virtuoso 15-minute opening sequence invests the action with such riveting intensity that you don’t want to even blink.

After this successful rehearsal, some personalities, very few of them named, are pushed to the foreground: There’s the surly young man who claims he’s had sex with virtually every woman in the room but still seems angry as hell; two other guys who laugh and brag to each other about their sexual endowments and exploits; someone who claims to another that the surly guy represents "a ticket to STDs"; a woman who’s got a little kid in tow; and a couple of sullen blondes with an aversion to being agreeable with anyone, including themselves.

The film’s buoyant first 45 minutes end with such a bang and sense of aesthetic fulfillment that the packed house at the Cannes Directors' Fortnight world premiere applauded as if they thought the film was over. But no, Noe has not decided to become the Busby Berkeley of the club music age. After this giddy mid-way high, many of the dancers seem to have hit a steep slide to an unnaturally achieved low. The good vibes are gone, something is off, everything that goes up must come down, and so it is with those stragglers still around at this late hour.

They are mostly women, suffering miserably, writhing around in great pain. There’s a lot of finger-pointing about someone having spiked the drinks and victims seem like they would rather die than keep enduring the pain. The heaven of the film’s first half becomes hell in the second, and much of this is seen through the ordeal suffered by a young woman played with wrenching intensity by Sofia Boutella.

In a succinct way that structurally resembles his breakthrough 2002 feature Irreversible, Noe paints an artful picture of an earthly creative paradise followed by a ghastly fall into physical torment. His means of doing so are bold, visceral and pleasingly simple, cleanly and unpretentiously done for maximum effect. The fluid, flowing camerawork and nuanced musical choices play major roles in achieving the film’s goals.

Underlying it all is Noe’s career-long stress on the dominance of physical impulses in life, for good and bad; some people control them (although rarely in Noe’s films) but you can’t escape them, and in Climax he’s found an ideal way of eternalizing them, this time through dance rather than just sex.

Production companies: Rectangle Productions, Wild Bunch
Cast: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull, Giselle Palmer, Taylor Kastle, Thea Carla Schott, Sharleen Temple, Lea Vlamos, Alaia Alsafir, Kendall Mugler, Lakdhar Dridi, Adrien Sissoko, Mamadou Bathily, Alou Sidibe, Ashley Biscette, Mounia Nassangar, Tiphanie Au, Sarah Belala, Alexandre Moreau, Naab, Strauss Serpent, Vince Galliot Cumant
Director-screenwriter: Gaspar Noe
Producers: Edouard Weil, Vincent Maraval, Brahim Chiolia
Director of photography: Benoit Debie
Production designer: Jean Rabasse
Costume designer: Fred Cambier
Choreographer: Nina McNeely
Editors: Denis Bedlow, Gaspar Noe
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight)

96 minutes