A bowl of LSD-laced sangria. A thumping soundtrack. Dancers at the top of their game. With the lurid and kinetic Climax, Gaspar Noé takes a tripinto a memorable, manic and murderous all-night party. Loosely based on a true story that dates back to the 90s, it starts with a troupe busting moves, downing beverages and blowing off steam after rehearsals, then discovering that their drinks have been spiked. That said, 'discover' isn't really the best word to describe folks realising that their nightmare is real. It's wholly accurate, however it can't completely convey Selva (Sofia Boutella) and her crew's horrific predicament.
Writing as well as directing and co-editing, Noé isn't interested in explaining or describing, so that's about as far as his narrative goes.But, as the Argentine-born, French-based provocateur keeps demonstrating with each successive picture, he loves plunging audiences into hallucinatory and immersive worlds. From I Stand Alone and Irreversible to Enter the Void and Love, every movie on his resume involves a straightforward set-up, followed by a descent into chaos and mayhem of varying kinds. That said, Climax's might just be the most literal. One moment, everyone is eagerly strutting their stuff in a seemingly safe space. The next, an orgy of screams, tears, paranoia, sex, blood and death is the new normal.
From a largely non-professional cast that numbers 24, all trapped in a remote hall as snow falls outside, connective threads emerge. Selva isn't particularly happy with anyone, and David (Romain Guillermic) considers himself the ladies man of the gang. Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull) is trying to balance her career with being a mother to the young Tito (Vince Galliot Cumant), while everyone just wants to let loose as Daddy the DJ (Kiddy Smile) hits the decks. Personal squabbles, petty grievances and plenty of baggage all add to a jittery, claustrophobic mood, and that's before the acid takes effect. When the drugs kick in, so too do the group's fears and insecurities, the competitive vibe that comes with performing for a living, and the emotional and physical slaughter.
Epitomising the idea that style can equal substance (as he has across his entire filmography), it's how Noé spins this story that mesmerises. Whether he's watching the troupe unleash their stellar dance skills in Climax's hypnotic first half, or charting carnage in its second, there's never a dull moment. There's never an average or unengaging moment either, or one that doesn't want to get a rise out of viewers. All of the director's usual traits are on display, from the propulsive tunes that set a distinctive rhythm, to the fluid and floating camerawork by his now four-time cinematographer Benoît Debie, to his penchant for evocative red lighting. And yet, pairing them with dance is a masterstroke. Noé already has a handful of music videos to his name, including for Nick Cave, Placebo and Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter (who contributes a new song to Climax's soundtrack), but in mixing fancy footwork and horror, he might've found his true calling.
That's not to say that Climax doesn't have thematic bite as it both revels in and dissects hedonism, and posits that creation and destruction are two sides of the same coin. Nor does it mean that Noé isn't up to his usual tongue-in-cheek tricks (he introduces his main players via video auditions screened on a TV, with VHS tapes of boundary-pushing classics like Suspiria and Salò underneath). But the film is an experience above all else. Purposefully overwhelming the senses — and trying to shatter them, too — it pulls you in with a lengthy sequence of astonishing choreography. It gets your toes tapping until they can't stop. Then, it forces its pulsating frenzy into your soul. The result is Noé at his best, and is best summarised by a song by his regular collaborator Bangalter. In a sea of sweat and terror, Climax loses itself, its characters and its audience to dance in the most bold, unhinged and thrilling way.