Forget Nancy Reagan — Gaspar Noé’s Climax is by far the most effective anti-drug PSA to ever hit the screen.
Before you commit, let me warn you that it is physically uncomfortable to watch — dizzying, nauseating, crawl-up-the-wall uncomfortable. But even as the thrumming, near-constant bass and whirlwind camera made me queasy, I was unable to look away. It’s the kind of thing fictional Velvet Buzzsaw critic Morf Vandewalt would kvell over: pure, unadulterated sensation. (Also, I cannot guarantee that coming into contact with movie won’t cause a series of violent but aesthetically pleasing deaths.)
The story takes place in 1996, when a troupe of young French dancers take over an abandoned school for an intense three-day rehearsal retreat. In the middle of a celebratory wrap party, someone doses the sangria with high-grade LSD, causing a mass psychosis. That in itself isn’t exactly groundbreaking (according to Vice, it’s happened a surprising amount of times in real life), but what makes Climax feel like such a visceral cinematic experience is that the action unfolds in what feels like the characters’ real-time ordeal. You feel the heat rising off their bodies as they dance, the panic as they realize they’re no longer in command, the fear as it all spirals out of control. It makes for an entirely exhausting 90 minutes, but one that stays with you in the way only a handful of films do.
Early on in the film, a static shot of an analog TV set plays audition footage from each of the dancers. It’s an instant mood-setter. VHS tapes of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Pier Pedro Pasolini’s Salo and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou frame the set, stacked alongside books by Nietzsche, Fritz Lang, and Stefan Zweig, all of which screams: This is not going to be warm and fuzzy.
And while not exactly subtle, it’s an effective way of priming us for what comes next. Our would-be protagonist, Selva (up-and-comer Sofia Boutella) is both choreographer and dancer, but in reality Climax has next-to-no explicit character development — you will likely not remember, or even ever really know, anyone’s name. Still, the film manages to make every person in this dance ensemble feel like living, breathing people. They have petty dramas, relationships, power struggles, and grudges — some of which we overhear as the camera lingers over their conversation. Benoît Debie’s camera is almost constantly on the move, following this person, and then that one, carrying us from one group to the other, echoing the real dynamics of a party. Theirs is a crowd we have the privilege of spying on for a while, even as we remain outsiders. (For American viewers, this is true in more ways than one. A title card explicitly declares this to be a “a French film, and proud of it,” and indeed some of the overheard conversations would be unthinkable in a Hollywood film.)
And then there’s the dancing. Keep in mind that it’s the ‘90s, so krumping and waacking are a Thing. The opening number is a mesmerizing swirl of contorting limbs, vogue-ing, and bacchanalian abandon. In another scene, the camera remains fixated overhead as the bodies writhe below, weaving in and out of the frame.
Noé punctuates the action with vibrant, flashy title cards with names like “Existence Is A Fleeting Illusion,” and “Birth Is A Unique Opportunity,” which only add to the overall sensation of bad trip. Life, and motherhood are a clear source of fascination. At one point, a dancer reveals she’s pregnant only to find herself kicked in the belly; a mother screeches in horror when she realizes her toddler son has been sampling the contaminated booze, but is unable to protect him from her own, unraveling brain. (It’s what I imagine Darren Aronofsky wanted mother! To feel like, instead of, well, what mother! felt like.)
At its peak, Climax becomes almost unwatchable. These people have descended into hell, and we’re right there with them. The demonic orgy of violence and drug-fueled possession lasts a beat too long — at some point, you’re wishing for it to end. But then again, it echoes the helpless feelings of those trapped in this involuntary trip, desperate to get out. Even the killer soundtrack (which includes Daft Punk and Soft Cell) becomes oppressive, a wall of sound that seals you in.
Noé’s films are known for their shock value — Love, available to stream on Netflix, is essentially porn but, you know, art. But this one feels more substantial somehow, as well as thematically cohesive. It’s an homage to cinematic greats that packs just as much of a punch, leaving you gutted, drained, and a little hungover. How many movies can claim to do that?
“Climax” hits theaters March 1.