Gaspar Noé movies are as easy to pitch as they are challenging to review. Climax, the French director’s fifth feature, follows the pattern. The simple part is this: a dance crew spends one wintry night cooped up in their rehearsal space looking to blow off some steam, but someone spiked the sangria with LSD; hell on earth ensues. The hard part is knowing what to make of Noé’s latest hell.
If you know anything about his routinely graphic, drug-addled, formally inventive films, you might already have an idea of what Climax is like. It’s not supposed to make you feel good; it probably rejects the notion that it’s supposed to do anything. As always, Noé movies seem more about what they can depict than those depictions themselves.
Perhaps, though, we could lay out a contrast. Noé’s most famous work for American audiences is the 2010 bad-trip gauntlet Enter The Void, nearly three hours of hallucinating and voyeurism from a Tokyo drug dealer whose eyes constitute the movie camera. (Whenever he blinks, the screen is actually black for a split second.) Beloved though it may be by the hardest-core cinephiles, what weighs down Enter The Void more than the needlessness of its length, graphic sex, and extra-textual interludes are its haphazard attempts at profundity. In addition to blowing your mind, Enter The Void tries unsuccessfully, for my money, to feed it — with shallow but densely presented ideas about rebirth.
Climax keeps the edge but ditches the druggy philosophizing. It contains six “scenes,” including a long take of the LSD kicking in that must last in excess of 30 minutes as the dancers wander around their rehearsal space throwing up, hooking up, and bleeding out. Noé mounts this as an exercise, in a good way, driven by the physicality and sexuality inherent to 20-somethings whose whole lives hinge on moving their bodies in transgressive ways. Juxtaposing 10-minute dance sequences with choppy camcorder interviews, Climax does an indulgent but relatively clean job of communicating that these French dancers are capable of great beauty when in motion but covetous, messy, and violent when left to their own devices. If their dance is controlled expression — portrayed in an immaculate setpiece of an opening scene — watch what happens when the routine breaks down and they fall out of step.
Unlike some of Noé’s previous efforts, Climax is also a very well cast and acted film. A dozen characters are made distinct mostly based on the way they move and present. Sofia Boutella (The Mummy, Atomic Blonde) is the most recognizable of the troupe, and we follow her for the deepest slogs of the trip. But minor characters are tagged well enough to develop them ever so slightly. There’s a pair of aggressively straight brothers who dance mostly via punching, a statuesque German who treats the night as her own personal dance marathon, a mother figure to the troupe who’s unfortunately brought her actual young son along on this fateful voyage to nowhere. In this way, Climax works as a well-balanced horror movie. You know the shit will go down, but we have some reason to care about who survives or at least keep track of who won’t.
Ultimately, this is a “recommend” to only the most adventurous 5-10 percent of filmgoers, but compared to some of Noe’s previous work that’s a swath. A24 is distributing, and as they’ve done with filmmakers like Paul Schrader (First Reformed), Ben Wheatley (Free Fire), and Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room), there’s a certain clarity demanded from what’s still a cinematic challenge. Against all odds, it’s almost comforting to experience Noé bottling up his ambitions and characters in a prison of time (90 minutes) and space (a building). The nihilism, the lust, the hatred, the helplessness are all highly concentrated. And puzzling though it may be to praise a movie by thanking the cruel gods of its universe that it ended quickly, it’s a backhanded compliment that, in this case, I dearly mean.