How does one even begin to describe Gaspar Noé’s latest psychedelic dance thriller? Intense? Baffling? Unrelenting? A sick and twisted Boogie Nights had a grunge baby with Black Swan? Yes, yes, yes to all.
After introductory, voyeuristic interviews with the cast of aspiring French dancers, screened on an old television with stacks of VHS tapes — including sinister mood-setters Suspiria and Possession — on either side, the leisurely tempo gets cranked up to 11 as the action shifts to an abandoned Parisian dance school in the winter of 1996.
There, the infectious sounds of Cerrone’s “Supernature” perfectly syncopate with the dance troupe’s hypnotic rehearsal in which each performer is given a chance to shine with distinctly supercharged solo moves. They all appear to be possessed by the same psychosexual dance demon, but each character quickly piques one’s interest with his or her own brand of animalistic, sensually fluid gravitas.
Once the dance ends, however, Climax soon devolves from a carefree cast party into a drug-induced dramedy of horrors. The trust the troupe once had for one another melts away with every LSD-laced glass of sangria and the disoriented search for who spiked the beverage elicits guilty viewer delight as the drugs kick the characters’ reptilian brains into overdrive and they begin to ruthlessly destroy one another.
Those first transfixing 20 minutes will have you glued to your seat, and the stellar soundtrack will echo throughout your cerebellum for days afterward. With song titles like “Sangria,” “Rollin’” and “Scratchin’” (all from Daft Punk) as well as Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker” and Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” Climax’s tracklist brilliantly heightens the highs and lowers the lows of each dancer’s wicked acid trip, mirroring the hell brewing within each character as it leaches out in guttural screams and silent fits on the dancefloor.
Though the plot slows considerably in the second half, favoring topsy-turvy surveillance over detailed descents into madness, the overabundance of indelible images — from a bird’s-eye view of a bloodied woman dragging her body through the snow to a half-naked German woman named Psyche silently dancing upside down on a red ceiling — make Benoît Debie’s haunting cinematography and Noé’s defiant directing a truly experiential spectacle.
It wouldn’t be a Noé film without a few shocked viewers fleeing the theater, but for those who choose to brave the depravity, the payoff feels equal parts traumatic and dazzling. Climax is undoubtedly made to disrupt your morning (and afternoon and evening), but ultimately it forces you to watch its hallucinatory horror unfold with untethered excitement. I couldn’t look away for one second and, frankly, I’m so glad I didn’t.