CLIMAX review: Go ahead and drink the laced sangria

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Gaspar Noe brings a gorgeously-shot LSD-fueled nightmare to life. (A24)

Anyone familiar with French filmmaker/bad boy Gaspar Noe knows that he not only likes to push your buttons during his films– he enjoys ripping them off and leaving you in an uncomfortably naked state, all the while you’re sitting there, wondering what the hell you just witnessed.  (And how you feel so dirty afterwards.)  In other words, Noe’s films are of an acquired taste, and his nightmarish dancing film Climax may be one of his boldest and strongest to date.

In 1996 France, we meet a group of young dancers practicing a choreographed routine (all are real dancers, but amateur actors- except for Sofia Boutella, by the way).  After finishing up their practice for the night, they throw a party, where one of the dancers brings out some homemade sangria, which most of the dancers enthusiastically start pouring into their plastic cups.  In between truly stunning dance sequences, at the film’s halfway point marks the realization that someone has spiked the sangria with LSD– and a descent into unimaginable madness begins, as they all experience the throws of a really bad high.

Without spoiling anything, some of the insanity you endure/(kinda enjoy watching) involves tripping balls, incest, consent, individuals burning alive, and suicide.  There is no other feasible way to explain Climax‘s plot, other than a straight-up nightmare come to reality for those who have (unwittingly) dabbled with mind-altering substances.

The film’s biggest achievement is its many frenetic and confidently performed and directed dance sequences– most of which even rival the entrancing ones in last year’s favorite, the Suspiria remake.  Climax‘s dazzling 5-minute choreographed sequence in its first act– which gives each of the twenty or so individual dancers moments to shine– will make you want to crawl into the screen and start dancing with them.  (Not that any of us have half of the capabilities that these dancers do.)  Absolutely mesmerizing.

Speaking of Suspiria, Noe rightfully pays homage to the original 1977 film, as well as other dance horror flicks like Possession, within the film’s opening.  As each dancer is getting interviewed, documentary-style, and you learn tiny snippets about their backgrounds and personalities, VHS tapes (remember, this is the ’90s) adorn the borders of the frame.  Film buffs will have a field day reading all of the titles that Noe most likely drew inspiration from to create this film.

In addition to the superb physical dancing, the film’s overall sound design is awards-nomination worthy.  The blasting soundtrack will be stuck in your head for days (in a good way).  Pulsating, uptempo, ’90s dance music permeates the bulk of the film, which effectively contrasts the sounds of people fighting violently and screaming children– in a way that makes everything feel authentic.  Particularly, the bone-cracking sounds from one of the male dancers, high off his ass, contorting his body into surreal positions, will make you cringe.  Sound design as a whole is one of the major keys to Climax‘s success.

With such little plot to work with (since Noe only had a general treatment for the film instead of an actual word-for-word script) the performances were impressively bold.  As I mentioned previously, Sofia Boutella is the only cast member who is an actress– the rest of the cast were professional dancers and not actors– and she and the other cast members go above and beyond to give us performances that feel real and harrowing.  Boutella screams into mirrors in artful frustration, while some of the other dancers cry, pout, laugh, turn against each other, and viciously argue in ways that make you forget that this is only a movie.  I’m certain Noe is partially to credit for this with his direction to them, as not even one single performance drags the film down.  Just like the dancing sequences, each of the members from this ensemble cast gets several moments to show off their newfound acting capabilities– and no one disappoints.

Aside from his accomplished direction for his performers, Noe masterfully lays out the camerawork as well, servicing as one of the cinematographers of his own film.  With loopy, upside down camera angles, ceiling shots of dance sequences, and scenes in which the camera shakes as it follows running dancers through narrow halls, Noe makes all the right, subversive stylistic choices that force you to feel as if you too are experiencing the bad LSD trip.  (Unfortunately, however, his annoying, choppy, black-out screen style of editing is still at play here, which I hate in his other films too.)

Noe puts much emphasis upon the French flag, which is lurking closely behind the party room where the dancers occupy most of the film.  The glittering blue, red, and white flag is frequently talked about amongst the dancers, as some express their gripes with it and how some members of the group equate it to religion, while others show a bit of a nationalistic attitude while they brag about “shitting” on the United States– an important theme that gives so much interesting promise that Noe disappointingly does little with by the film’s conclusion.

Even though the film’s ending leaves more to be desired after this wild night we all have experienced, Climax sets out to do what Noe reportedly wanted to do in the first place: create a film that shows what happens when people are completely uninhibited.  Through all its madness, Climax effectively transforms these dancers into full-on feral animals, suffering from a lack of control (even when it comes to public urination), and sooo much desire derived from their own instincts, that it becomes quite terrifying. When we humans let our guards down, we are capable of horrifically violent, vile behavior, and Climax never lets us forget that, which I commend it for.

Like most Gaspar Noe films, combined with the marriage of A24’s production, Climax will most certainly not be for everyone.  Its style of art is of the same kin that other directing provocateurs like Lars von Trier, David Cronenberg, and even Yorgos Lanthimos are similarly known for, and it will (and already has) turned some critics off.  But if you are like me and are up for the challenge, Climax is not only worth watching– it’s worth experiencing.  Let go of your inhibitions and sip the sangria.

Grade: A-

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