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Review: Climax

March 1, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Gaspar Noé has always been a filmmaker who revels in the extremes, and the director’s latest film Climax sends us into sensory overload with its often hallucinatory cinematography, thumping club music soundtrack, and hellish setting.

The year is 1996, and the film unfolds almost entirely at a dance studio that seems to be situated in the middle of nowhere in France, and unfolds on the night of a party that is being held to celebrate the successful rehearsal of their new dance routine.

Everyone is circling around the bowl of sangria that dance teacher Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull) has made, but somebody at the party has spiked the alcoholic beverage with LSD, and almost everyone has been drinking it, meaning that it’s only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose.

A mix of European art house film and schlocky midnight movie, Climax is often an exercise in style more than anything else, and there isn’t much substance to the one-note characters who are forced to face the consequences for their hedonism, meeting various fates as the film goes on. The second half of the film basically devolves into a complete horror show, where the underlying jealousy between the dancers becomes apparent and they all start to turn on each other, leading to all sorts of depravity.

The film is mostly meant as a commentary on the devolution of modern society, and how group dynamics break down when everyone is predominantly looking out for themselves. But this is all very broad, and Climax doesn’t develop its characters that well or offer enough subtext for these themes to really stick. I would compare the general feel and intensity of the film’s second half to the riot sequence in Darren Aronofsky’s divisive but brilliant mother!, but that movie had much more going on beneath the surface which made its vision of hell far more fascinating.

So yes, it’s largely style over substance, but the style of Climax is still compelling enough to make the film worth seeing. Benoît Debie’s cinematography is often mesmerizing, including a visually dazzling, several minute long dance sequence partway through the film that is shot directly from above. The big dance rehearsal near the beginning of the film is shot in an incredible long take that extends into the early stages of the party, taking us through the room to show all of the characters interacting, which gives us a sense of their relationships to each other.

This transitions to a somewhat less interesting sequence made up of quicker cuts that show the dancers mostly broken off into pairs, gossiping about each other and who they want to have sex with, framed in standard medium closeups. But it’s not long before the film descends into madness, culminating with a stylish climax that makes good use of colour and literally turns the camera upside down.

Aside from Sofia Boutella as the choreographer Selva, the majority of the cast is made up of amateur actors, and they do a good job of grounding the film as it becomes a nightmarish and disturbing drug trip gone wrong. The result is a visually impressive and often overwhelming film that immerses us in its madness through sound and image, even if it doesn’t really go deeper than that.

Climax is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

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