If you are familiar with the work of Argentinian-born filmmaker Gaspar Noe and thought he was mellowing out just ever so slightly with his last film, the sexually and emotionally graphic Love, forget about it. His new movie Climax is both an astonishing visual and technical achievement while also being a harrowing and horrifying descent into the depths of human degradation. It is also reminiscent in its unflinching gaze of his early films I Stand Alone (1998) and the still-controversial Irreversible (2002).
As with those, Climax is not really a film you “like” but an experience you endure, although the director never does anything, no matter how shocking or brutal, without justification or meaning. After a brief, enigmatic prologue in which a bloody woman writhes on a snow-covered landscape, we are introduced (via videotaped interviews) to the potential members of a French dance troupe, a racially and sexually diverse cast of hopefuls who express their yearnings and dreams to the unseen viewer (although it’s hard not to be distracted by the titles on the stack of videotapes next to the vintage TV monitor).
Cut to what looks like an old, rundown event hall-slash-dormitory, where the ensemble is now going through its last rehearsal of a new dance. This where the aural and visual assault of Climax begins in earnest, albeit on a strikingly beautiful note: in one long, uninterrupted sequence, we watch the troupe perform the entire number–a kinetic, pulsating, elaborate combination of waacking, krumping, voguing, and other styles–led by choreographer Selva (Sofia Boutella from Kingsman: The Secret Service, the only “name” actor in a cast of professional dancers) and overseen by manager Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull).
It’s a jawdropper of a sequence that’s almost matched in its intensity and physicality by a second scene a bit later on, in which the team members spontaneously break into a circle dance that Noe films from mostly overhead. Between the two sequences, the director introduces us to the group via a series of brief dialogue exchanges, in which different dancers discuss who among their peers they are lusting after, who they like and dislike, and other bits of gossip. This is where we get to know these young artists just enough to prepare us for what happens next, as it soon becomes apparent that someone has spiked the post-rehearsal party’s sangria with LSD.
All too rapidly the jubilant and erotically charged atmosphere turns horrific and surreal, as various members of the troupe become disoriented, deranged and ultimately violent. The first person suspected of dosing the team gets thrown outside into the freezing cold, his fate unknown until the very end; the second person accused of the crime is subjected to a punishment that is even ghastlier because we see it happen right in front of our eyes. By the time the power goes out and red emergency lights flicker to life, it’s already become clear that Noe is sending all these folks straight into the depths of a drug-induced hell.
The larger meaning of all this atrocity is evident as well; the filmmaker wants to show us how quickly a seemingly well-assembled, tightly-knit and multicultural society (or in this case a microcosm of one) can come apart at the seams and descend into chaos and depravity. Could Noe be talking about his adopted homeland of France? Most likely, although these days such disruption and anarchy is likely to happen anywhere you stick a pin on a map.
Through it all, Noe and cinematographer Benoit Debie keep the camera moving with the throbbing, hypnotic soundtrack moving right along with it, following the cast members around the main hall and through darkened corridors and bedrooms, the image twisting, bending and even turning upside-down at one point as it mirrors the mental disintegration of the dancers. We continually hear screams, get glimpses of other nightmarish occurrences–someone accidentally catching fire, rape, incest, a dancer who seems to warp his body into agonizingly impossible shapes–and ultimately surrender to the hopelessness that has shrouded this once exuberant little community like a burial shroud.
Does it all have a point? Well, yes. Although Climax doesn’t end on the totally nihilistic note one might expect, Noe’s bizarro mash-up of Step Up and Suspiria (with a little Day of the Dead thrown in, although fortunately no one starts eating anybody) still arrives at a place of profound grief. There is a hint at the end of who engineered this cataclysm, but that’s really not important. What is crucial to understand is how all things human can collapse into pieces so quickly and easily, without us even realizing what is happening until it’s too late.
Climax begins with the dancers expressing themselves fully and freely through the pure joy and abandon of dance and music; the film ends somewhere visibly close to the diametrically opposite. We are all capable of both that joy and savagery, Noe seems to say, and Climax expresses his sadness for the loss of the former even as he plunges us ever into the latter.
Climax is out in limited release Friday, March 1 and will expand in the weeks following.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye