Climax operates on one very simple premise. What if someone spiked the communal drink with LSD? Various movie directors may approach this premise in various ways, but this is Gaspar Noé we are talking about. This is the man who shocked the Cannes Film Festival with 3D unsimulated sex scenes in 2015’s ‘Love’. So when you say ‘dance troupe unwittingly drugged by LSD’ and ‘Gaspar Noé’ in the same sentence you know the resulting movie is going to be an…experience.
This is the point in the review where I would normally go into more detail about the plot. Except, I have already detailed it above. There isn’t any more to add. Noé is famous for having little in the way of script, but he outdoes himself on Climax by not having a plot either. He gave the setup and some suggestion directions to the actors and let them workshop and develop their characters as they saw fit.
Even the word ‘actors’ is disingenuous because the majority of the cast are actually real-life dancers, with little to no acting experience. So with no plot and no actors, what is left? Well, watching Climax is an intense experience due to unusual cinematography, the enclosed setting, and the descent into madness that ensues. The movie consists of very long segments that come and go in chunks.
After the cold open (in which the full credits swoosh past straight off the bat) Noé fills up 8 minutes with a collection of ‘audition tapes’ which give us insights into the various dancers’ personalities. This is followed a 7 minute unbroken (and superb!) dance routine which is filmed in one shot. Next, we have 8 more minutes of various conversations intercut where the unscripted nature of the dialogue is very very apparent. And then the LSD starts to kick in…
If you are expecting sunshine colours or wavy hallucinations as the stereotypical acid trip on camera then you are very wrong. There is no obvious hallucinogenic effect in the movie, just the uncoupling of minds from consequences. The group starts off argumentative and throw accusations around as to who spiked the sangria, but they become increasingly confused and impulsive, splintering from the main practice hall to the sickly lit corridors that tangent away from it.
Noé swoops in and out between them in long unbroken shots – one shot lasting a full 42 minutes – and he uses the enclosed space to distort perspective with tilted and rotating angles. The camera is the trip. The lighting is the descent. And the people are their own darkness.
If Climax is keeping you engaged with this approach then it becomes intentionally deeply unpleasant for the last 30 minutes. By using long, unending shots Noé gives the audience no respite as the LSD truly kicks in and things turn violent, sexual, and lethal. To talk about how the 24 different characters crumble would not be possible nor desirable, but one particularly harrowing thread involves a young boy who unwittingly drinks the spiked punch only to be locked by his panicking mother into a room with an open electrical relay box. Mercifully the camera stays outside that room. Unmercifully, his increasingly desperate cries fade in and out over the constantly pounding dance music.
Climax, like other horrors or thrillers of a similar genre, is a deeply unsettling watch. Even before things go so horribly wrong the very long segments drag. You end up just tapping your fingers waiting for the next part, desperate for some variation. When I learned that the movie was stocked full of non-actors, was unscripted, and was borne from character workshopping, this was in no way a surprise.
As a whole, the people populating Climax are uninteresting and one-dimensional. They behave as you would imagine a drama class putting on a mood piece about psychological breakdowns and the moments that actually engage you are few and far between. The camera work is frenetic enough to keep things going visually but Climax ultimately grinds on itself too long to force itself to an unsatisfying shudder at the end.
Words by Michael Record