If you’re lucky enough to have never endured a bad acid trip, the next closest thing is now available should you choose to take a hit of Climax, director Gaspar Noé’s latest work of brutal psychedelia. Noé is best known for his unwavering tendency to shock, be it the nauseating violence of his revenge thriller Irreversible or the unsimulated sex of 2015’s Love. First and foremost, however, he’s a stylist, less focused on what he’s saying than how.
Like his previous films, Climax looks and feels like nothing else at the moment: long, unbroken takes slathered in neon and shadows; woozy Steadicams and a thrumming electronic score create what’s likely the most immersive theatrical experience of 2019. It’s an alternately gorgeous and punishing journey, even if by the end you’re not totally convinced the destination was worth it.
Climax doesn’t so much tell a story but rather depict a night that abruptly descends into hell. In a secluded building, a French dance troupe wraps up a rehearsal. All seems well during the following after-party until it’s revealed the sangria they’re drinking has been laced with excessive amounts of LSD. To put it lightly, the dancers don’t react well to this news, and it doesn’t take long for them to viciously turn on one another.
Compared to Irreversible, which began with a man getting his head crushed to bits by a fire extinguisher, the first 45 minutes of Climax is downright exuberant. In fact, the opening dance sequence could go down as one of the year’s most enthralling scenes, an expertly choreographed number shot in a single overhead take. It’s a perfect summation of what makes Noé a born filmmaker; he uses every element of the medium to full effect. The writhing bodies of the dancers, the hypnotic cinematography, the striking red backdrop of the dance floor and pulsing soundtrack merge in a way few directors are capable of pulling off.
While the first half of Climax is surprisingly infectious, the rest of the film finds the director up to his old tricks again. Imagine a Daft Punk music video by way of Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom: It’s a groovy dance party where the attendees eventually maim and violate each other in unspeakable ways.
This is the point of the movie at which many curious audience members may decide to leave the theatre, and it’s difficult to blame them. Sure, Climax contains its fair share of unpleasant imagery; however, more unsettling is Noé’s uncanny ability to immerse viewers into the suffering of his characters. Sofia Boutella (The Mummy) is top-billed here, and a hefty chunk of the running time is spent in single takes following her character as she walks down corridors, reacting in horror as she watches her fellow troupe members do awful, awful things. Shocking someone takes very little skill, but it takes a formidable craftsman to really make you feel the carnage on the screen.
If you tend to judge a film’s merit on whether or not it achieves what it sets out to do, Climax is an unqualified success. It’s thoroughly traumatizing and anxiety-inducing. There’s also no denying how mesmerizing it often is. For better or worse, Climax aims to be nothing more than a full-bodied, visceral experience, one that leaves you gasping for air once the lights come up. Whether that alone sells you on something is another matter altogether. There’s no compelling message here besides how cruel people can be once our inhibitions are dropped. Then again, those seeking to be thrilled and provoked at their local multiplex this weekend have their work cut out for them.