Sofia Boutella in Climax.
The sensation of watching Climax perfectly mirrors a drug-induced high—which the film’s characters actually experience—in its near inability to be described. Despite the thought ofwalking out of the theater halfway through momentarily crossing my mind, I felt deeply rewarded by the end of the film. I had stumbled through this acid-infused haunted house, managing to safely emerge from the other side.
The latest effort from polarizing Argentine-French director Gaspar Noé, Climax centers around a French dance troupe practicing a routine they hope to tour around the world. After a night of practicing, the group celebrates in their practice space with a party. Things unfold in typical party fashion: people dance, flirt, and drink the host’s homemade sangria. Party proceedings start to take a dark turn as the dancing dissolves, the group’s dynamics slowly revealed via numerous side conversations. While their dance routines had suggested a cohesive unit, the group is anything but that. Discussions of past flings with toxic undertones, deteriorating relationships, and suggestions of moving on from the troupe dominate these seemingly overheard mumblings. Subtly, these conflicts become more explicitly realized. This transition to more brazen behavior parallels, and is caused by, the characters slowly realizing that they are experiencing the effects of more than just alcohol. Someone in the trope has spiked the sangria with LSD. As the drug begins to settle into the characters’ systems, a panic arises as they promptly point fingers at each other.
While one might assume that the central mystery of who spiked the punch would lead to a classic whodunnit structure, one must remember that this is a Gaspar Noé film. The director eschews convention, segmenting Climax into distinct sections, not unlike those of a dance movement. The film, which takes place in the ‘90s, begins with a shot of an old television playing a VHS tape of bits of interviews with each of the dancers. Then, the opening credits roll, leading into one long take that tracks the group as they rehearse their mesmer- izing routine. This expertly choreographed scene ranks among the best dance sequences committed to film. The tracking shot continues after the dancing stops, following our lead character, Selva (Sofia Boutella), as she mingles with her fellow dancers. Slowly, the troupe begins to naturally divide into smaller groups, just like with any party, and the camera finally begins to cut back and forth to these conversations, no longer maintaining a singular shot. After these scenes, the camera adapts a bird’s eye view of a dance circle as the club music comes back in full effect. Maintaining the same frame, shots of each member of the trope showcasing their skills in the middle of the circle follow one another seamlessly. After each dancer has had their turn, more credits flash over the screen, this time showing the names of all the dancers, Noé’s name, and many of the artists’ and DJs’ logos whose music accompanies the film. Included in this list are many recognizable dance club artists, from Aphex Twin to Daft Punk (their older, real dance music being featured, don’t worry). Then, Noé returns to his signature long tracking shots as he captures the dancers collapsing into a hellish LSD-induced trip. This experimental structure cleverly calls back more minute details from the beginning of the film during the second half, when emotions become altered and intensified due to the laced sangria.The film’s harshly segmented nature, however, prevents the viewer from ever becoming truly invested in many of the less central characters, despite the film’s attempt to push their character arcs. Since the narrative itself is not always at the forefront of the film, the dance numbers are show-stoppers in every sense of the term, and the different storylines work to varying degrees. The inevitable conflicts that arise range from traumatic to gruesome to trivial. The film would definitely work as an effective “Don’t do drugs, kids!” public service announcement.
For the most part, trained dancers make up the entirety of the cast. Sofia Boutella, the closest the film gets to a lead actor, stands as the only recognizable entity in front of the camera. You probably recognize Boutella from her supporting roles in films such as Atomic Blonde and Kingsman: The Secret Service, as well as her having been covered in lots of makeup and CGI in Star Trek Beyond and The Mummy. Originally a dancer herself, Boutella easily delivers the best performance of the film, not just in her dialogue delivery and dancing, but also in her physical movements and embodiment of the drug’s effect.
Indeed, Boutella allows Noé’s complicated directorial style to work and remain as the film’s driving force. Some of the film’s most impressive moments come when Noé constructs dizzying tracking shots around Selva walking down hallways as she struggles with the effects of the LSD. Between the hell that ensues and the deftly crafted long shots, much of the film plays out like the last ten minutes of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! on acid. Working on heightened emotions and moments of pure horror and tragedy, the film disturbs audiences in its graphic depictions of sex and violence. Many film critics have ironically lauded the film for being Noé’s most accessible film yet, failing to point out just how low that bar lies. While many provocateurs such as Noé shock audiences for the seemingly sole purpose of controversy (cleverly played off in an alternate poster for the film), Climax sees the director making as much as a concentrated feature as he is capable of. The film and its most shocking moments remain with viewers not solely for their disturbing nature, but also as a result of the deft integration of a horrific narrative with hallucinating filmmaking that Noé presents a true sign of great art.
Rush is a Marketing Sophomore and Managing Editor.
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