Climax, from French provocateur Gaspar Noé, opens with an overhead shot of a woman making shapes in the snow, but they are not angels, and she leaves a trail of blood as she thrashes about.
The camera soon leaves her, moving away to pause on a blank empty expanse of white, and that about sums it up — life is suffering, and then oblivion.
Is there anything else? Well yes, in between you have to go to a really awful party, like the one depicted here, which Noé claims to have based (one hopes loosely) on an actual incident that took place in 1996.
In Climax, it’s an all-night rager involving members of a dance troupe, introduced to us via excerpts from their audition interviews. They are young, cocky, attractive, and almost certainly in peril. The director calls attention to the copy of Suspiria on the shelf next to the interviewed dancers, so we suspect the story will not be kind to them.
We then switch to a impressively long, one-take shot of the troupe performing — lively, athletic, sexually charged, which is a fair description of the dancers themselves (including Sofia Boutella, a dancer by training). When the number is over, the happy company assembles for a post-rehearsal party, and we eavesdrop on their conversations, centering on the hookups likely to occur when everyone has had enough sangria.
It’s all good fun until somebody puts LSD in the punch bowl, and things take a turn. By that I mean one minute everyone is laughing, the next a woman is doing a drooling zombie swaying and urinating on the floor (Noé assumes we’ll be shocked by this, but in fact it looks almost exactly like the conclusion of the high school reunion episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).
There are bad trips across the board. A woman sets herself on fire, another takes a knife to herself, a pregnant woman is assaulted (there are several references to pregnancy and abortion, the relevance and meaning of which I could not decipher).
It’s becomes hard to watch.
No, I mean physically hard to watch, with your eyeballs.
At some point Noé turns the camera upside down, and the whole movie goes darkroom red, as pounding house music competes with the screams of the acid casualties. One of Noé’s innovations and disruptions here is to insert the credits at random points in the movie, so it’s maybe two-thirds in when we are assaulted by neon lettering telling us that the song selections feature Soft Cell and the Rolling Stones.
I wonder if Noe is familiar with the work of Three Dog Night, and their 1970 rumination on a party gone bad, “Mama Told Me Not to Come.”
Its lyrics apply here: “I’ve seen so many things I ain’t never seen before. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t want to see no more.”
Climax. Directed by Gaspar Noé. With Sofia Boutella, Kiddy Smile, and Giselle Palmer. Distributed by A24.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 mins.
Parents’ guide: R (sex, violence)