With the exception of Lars Von Trier, Argentina-born French director Gasper Noé has perhaps been the most controversial filmmaker of the last 15 years or so, delivering polarising, provocative productions such as Irreversible and Love. Therefore, it goes without saying that his latest release was always going to generate plenty of anticipation and scrutiny. However, those expecting Climax to be something on which they can focus their outrage will be very disappointed as, by Noé’s standards, this is a somewhat subdued effort, which isn’t to say that the film is devoid of disturbing moments. The events of the film take place in 1996 with a dance troupe confined to a remote lodge preparing for an upcoming tour of France and the United States. In fact, the action never leaves the lodge, which only enhances the level of tension and unease that pervades the group as the various characters unravel in an orgy of psychosis and paranoia as their late night dance battles take a dark turn.
After an ominous opening in which we see an injured woman crawling through the snow, we switch to a series of audition tapes in which the hopeful young dancers respond to a series of questions from an unseen interviewer. We don’t really learn a lot about the various performers here, nor at any stage throughout the film, however, the shelves that surround the television offer some insight into the influences at play, with VHS copies of Suspiria, Salò and Harakiri amongst the collection. From here we move to the lodge for a captivating long take of the troupe in the throngs of a dizzily choreographed dance sequence in which the sheer physicality of the performers is difficult to describe but mesmerising to watch, as the eclectic collection of dancers move in and out of the frame. When the rehearsal ends, we finally get to learn a little about some of the dancers as the camera glides around the room capturing the various conversations, gossip, flirtations and party banter. One dancer is pregnant, a revelation that provokes violent responses, and another is a mother whose young son drifts helplessly through the chaos before being locked in a room. A couple of male dancers engage in grotesque sexual braggadocio that is particularly disturbing given their comments are directed at some of the women in the group.
It soon becomes apparent that the sangria they have been drinking has been spiked with something akin to LSD, bringing tensions between them to the surface and sending the group spiralling into fits of psychic and physical torment. There is no main protagonist as such, although much of the suffering is seen through the ordeal endured by Selva (Sofia Boutella). As more and more people become afflicted, chaos reigns, tensions mount, speculation and blame abound and tragedy inevitable follows. With minimal plot to speak of, from this point we simply watch as the vibrant, creative paradise that Noé (who also wrote the screenplay and co-edited alongside Denis Bedlow) established through the first 45 minutes transforms into a seething mass of madness.
The performers have clearly been cast because of their ability to dance and whilst the physicality of the dance sequences are impressive, once it has ended many of the characters lose the vividness and vibrancy that made the performance so dynamic. As such, it is the fluid camera work from Benoît Debie (Spring Breakers) and a pulsing soundtrack featuring the likes of Daft Punk, Giorgio Moroder and Soft Cell that maintains the momentum. Exploring notions of lust, envy and hate, Noé has again delivered a daring, disorienting and, at times, disturbing vision of humanity and, seemingly aware that the audience will be longing to escape the claustrophobic hell he has created, he doesn’t linger any longer than is necessary, with Climax achieving exactly that within 90 minutes.