Don’t let the title fool you: Climax is a non-stop descent into metaphorical hell
Gaspar Noé (Irréversible, Enter the Void) doesn’t make films for the faint of heart, or for the easily nauseated. Instead, his work is provocative and experimental, pushing the boundaries of what is considered good taste. Although Climax’s runtime is only 97 minutes, it’s a full 97 minutes of psychedelic delirium.
Inspired by a true story, the film follows a French dance troupe in the 1990s as they throw an after-party to celebrate their upcoming France-U.S. tour. However, when some of the dancers begin to suspect that their sangria has been spiked with LSD, what was meant to be a fun night devolves into a drug-fueled nightmare.
Throw in some pulsating lights, disorienting camerawork and frenzied techno music (featuring the likes of Daft Punk and Aphex Twin), and Climax also becomes a nightmarish experience for the viewer. It’s not just that the film shows some horrifying things, such as brutal violence and questionable sexual acts, but that the way the film is made makes it unpleasant to watch.
The spinning camera movements are enough to make most people slightly queasy, and the strobe light effect is both stressful and disorienting. While Noé is a master of the long take, his insistence in prolonging a single shot to a minutes-long sequence (without ever cutting) makes for a frenetic and tiring viewing experience.
That said, the film does have its redeeming moments. The choreographed dance sequence near the beginning (before things get demented) is a superb piece of film making in which the camerawork is fluid and the cast of mainly dancers performs brilliantly. The first and final scenes are also mesmerizing, once again mostly due to camerawork.
However, Climax suffers a lot from its inflated sense of self-importance. The use of intertitles with pretentious phrases such as “Dying is a remarkable experience” is especially annoying. The film also weighed down by an excessively long montage sequence of interviews of the dancers. While this provides some helpful characterizations, it’s to the detriment of the film’s pacing. This is also the case later on, when a sizable amount of time is devoted to showing conversations between characters at the party. These sequences would have been improved by being more dynamically shot, much like how the camera moves freely around in the rest of the film.
While Climax arguably has a method to its madness, it’s excessively maddening to watch. Unless you’re really into abstract stuff, it’s not the kind of film that you can just casually watch and enjoy. The highly choreographed visual style is hampered by the film’s pacing issues, and also by the cast’s painfully obvious lack of acting experience. Still, it’s worth seeing for the cinematography alone, or just to see if you’ll be able to watch it all the way through.