There’s moments of jaw-dropping beauty and agony in “Climax”. It’s such a wild and hypnotic beast of a film; one that imparts a real sense of nauseating fear on the viewer. This, in terms of content, is the most accessible film French-Argentinian director Gaspar Noé has made, but compared to every other movie currently in theaters, it’s the monster under the bed; a disturbing, unpredictable beast that represents all of the worst human impulses that exist beneath our skins of logic and compassion. This is an awesome movie.
In an empty school building during a snowstorm, twenty dancers rehearse their routine. The viewer can tell by the opening sequence how talented they are, as Noé and his genius cinematographer Benoit Debîe show us a 10-minute unbroken shot of one of the weirdest and most satisfying dance set pieces put to film.
All of the dancers seem to like each other as they work side by side, but after the dance they split off into their cliques, chug sangria, and begin to brutally gossip about everyone out of earshot. The viewer realizes that the most likable of the dancers are also the most selfish, and the worst are potentially violent.
The dancer the audience is most likely to root for is Selva, played by real-life dancer Sofia Boutella (she also played a handicapped supervillain in “Kingsman: The Secret Service”). She seems nice: a free spirit with a genuine appreciation for dancing.
For a while, the viewer glides from conversation to conversation, learning tidbits about each of the characters. If you go into this movie not knowing what its about, these scenes might test your patience. But once it dawns on the viewer that somebody spiked the sangria with LSD, the entire mood shifts. An atomic bomb of insanity is about to drop on these unsuspecting dancers.
Noé shows the viewer every second of the destruction once the LSD consumes the group. The expressive, challenging, intricate cinematography by Debîe—who also worked on “Spring Breakers” and “Enter the Void”—lets the camera movements convey to the viewer that they’re watching the events from a ghost’s POV, using extended, unbroken shots to make them feel as though they’re wandering, hesitantly, from one cruel act to the next instead of jumping suddenly. This is an immersive film, one that’s visually spellbinding regardless of whether or not you take Noé’s advice and watch the film under the influence of a mind-altering drug (he recommends this diet for all his films, having grown up a psychedelics user and appreciating their cinema-enhancing abilities).
During the LSD riot, the performances transcend dancing ability as each actor finds their own way of expressing their breakdowns. The daring physical commitments made to pulling off the film’s biggest scenes deserves a standing ovation, as Noé’s script was only five pages long, making the audacious decision to have all of the actors ad-lib and improvise for most of the runtime. The risk paid off because every performance in here is extraordinary. The most moving, however, is Boutella’s as she shows confused mercy towards the dancers who have disintegrated entirely. The viewer also feels safe around her because she is tripping the least hard.
“Climax” is an astonishing, frightening, relentlessly energetic film. It’s 50% dance party, 50% pure hell. That said, it’s also surprisingly fun. Noé’s movie is alive, exhilarating, sad, and more active on a minute-to-minute level than most of the movies you’ll watch all year. “Climax” refuses to slow down, and as chilling a movie experience as it may be, it is also the first great narrative film of 2019.