Movie Review: Climax

By Victoria Alexander

Gaspar Noé is intoxicating and CLIMAX is brilliant. A dazzling evocative, creative sensation. It will influence filmmakers and heralds a new, totally visceral experience. CLIMAX cannot be missed, but be warned, it’s not a Hollywood movie.

I brought a copy of Noé’s I STAND ALONE (1998), and that is saying something since film critics get a vast number of DVDs from various studios at the end of the year for their Top 10 lists and awards voting. Can I wait until November for A24 Films to send me a copy of CLIMAX and a CD of the music (the best candomblé music ever)?

In my intense admiration for daring filmmaking, Noé does not “stand alone.” Along with Lars Von Trier, Abdellatif Kechiche (BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR) and François Ozon, I consider Noé one of the champions refusing to whitewash their view of reality for general consumption by the movie-going public.

Noé’s feature films are IRREVERSIBLE (2002), ENTER THE VOID (2009), LOVE (2015), and now, once again, the brilliant CLIMAX.

The controversial IRREVERSIBLE has been associated with a series of films defined as the cinema du corps (“cinema of the body”), which according to author Tim Palmer, share affinities with certain avant-garde productions: an attenuated use of narrative, assaulting and often illegible cinematography, confrontational subject material, and a pervasive sense of social nihilism or despair.

Well, that sums up CLIMAX.

CLIMAX begins with audition interviews of dancers. Many are street dancers and self-trained. It’s the winter of 1996 and the last night of rehearsal. The dance troupe has been staying in an abandoned warehouse preparing for an upcoming tour of the U.S. Isolated and trapped in blizzard-like snow, we get insights into the highly charged dancers’ personalities. The long, hypnotic dance rehearsal is enthralling. There one take that lasts over 42 minutes.

The only way to see CLIMAX is in a theater. It’s the only way to hear the music.

The troupe then engages in “knockout battles”. In the lingo of street dance competitions, it’s called “cypher qualification.” Dancers gather in a circle and, one-by-one, dance inside that circle. The DJ will usually play music for 30 minutes to an hour and a half.

Slowly, a frenzy begins to build. Some of the dancers are going wild.

CLIMAX centers on Selva (Sofia Boutella), the troupe’s leader and Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull), the tour’s organizer. It’s the last night of the rehearsal and Emmanuelle has prepared an after-party and brought along her young son Tito (Vince Galliot Cumant). The pulsating, hypnotic music is by a skirt wearing DJ, Daddy the DJ (DJ Kiddy Smile).

Everyone starts drinking Emmanuelle’s special sangria and the dancing begins to take on a more violent dimension. The guys begin accessing the girls and making sexist remarks. Selva is not interested in David (Romain Guillermic), who keeps pushing himself on her. As the dancing continues, rivalries and tensions begin to mount.

The dancing, choreographed by Nina McNeely, is brilliant. The dancing never ends, even when Noé follows some of the characters through the maze of rooms where the troupe has been staying.

One of the dancers, Lou (Souheila Yacoub), declines the sangria saying she is not feeling well. Soon everyone is feeling strange and paranoia begins to spread in the group. What did Emmanuelle put in the sangria? Did she dose the sangria with something? If it was her, not only was she drinking, but she watched as her son accepted some sangria from a dancer.

It’s assumed the sangria has been spiked with LSD, but what transpires is more like an unknown experimental drug that excites a psychotic “fight or flight” instinct in a nightmare. When the hallucinatory effects begin to build, screaming drowns out the music and jealousies ramp up.

If it is LSD, it’s not like anything I experienced. LSD is now back but being marketed in a brilliant strategy by someone who had a lot of LSD. What to do with all that LSD stored in the garage? So now it’s called “microdosing LSD.”  And it’s being touted as a new wonder drug to enhance wisdom, open-mindedness and, as Hollywood has claimed, the mysterious thing called “creativity.”

WIRED had an article titled, “Under pressure, Silicon Valley workers turn to LSD microdosing.” The article tag line says, “Professionals are taking tiny hits of LSD before work to make them smarter, happier and more productive.” New York magazine’s The Cut did a very thorough guide: “Microdosing’s Microment” and the bible of Hollywood, The Hollywood Reporter, also ran a story on LSD microdosing:

“Many in the Hollywood media, art, tech and fashion communities whom THR interviewed said that by microdosing — consuming usually one-tenth to one-twentieth of a recreational dose of the psychedelic three to five times a week for a period of a few months — they have seen an increase in creativity, empathy, mental cognition and spiritual awareness.”

The dancing continues but starts moving into aggressive posturing, Sufi swirling, and uninhabited sexual provocation. Petty disagreements become magnified and the stench of violence, pulsating music, and dervish movements create circus-like mayhem of people possessed by angry deities. Some dancers have moments of clarity and know that the sangria has been tampered with. Who did it and why? One dancer, Dom (Mounia Nassangar), decides to find out who drugged them and throw that person out in the snow.

Psyché (Thea Carla Schøtt), one of the strongest characters, appears completely at peace in her hypnotic state and is disinterested in her unhappy girlfriend, Ivana (Sharleen Temple).

Noé is relentless. He does not stop for one moment to satisfy questions. The screeching screaming takes over. Even though they all begin to know they have been dosed, they are experiencing a nightmare they are incapable of explaining. They are under the control of something foreign and frightening. There will be no wisdom or enlightenment. Noé and cinematographer Benoit Debie push the hellish scenario forward. There is no pause. Each person is inside a personal horror that has no boundary.

Astonishingly, the actors are 100 percent believable. Perhaps Noé did a brilliant job casting; I prefer my explanation:  Noé drugged the actors, crew, and himself.

How else can CLIMAX be explained?

However the production – which took a mere 15 days – was created, it is best not to know and just acknowledge that Noé has done something evocative, creative and dazzling.

I’ve seen CLIMAX two days in a row.

Victoria Alexander is a member of the Las Vegas Film Critics Society. Victoria lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, and answers every email at victoria.alexander.lv@gmail.com.

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