Gaspar Noé provokes again, this time with LSD as fuel, in ‘Climax’
One does not attend a Gaspar Noé movie for rosy messages about the human condition. The French provocateur (“Irreverisble,” “The Void”) likes to make audiences squirm, scream, look away — and every so often feel overwhelmed with something like compassion. “Climax” is the first Noé film, though, to flirt with the novel sensation of boredom.
It takes a while to get there. If the first third of “Climax” might be called Heaven and the second act Hell, then the final stretch is a chaotic Limbo of limbs, savagery, and murk. What has brought the characters to this state? A heavy dose of LSD in the sangria, it turns out.
The plot turns around a group of dancers celebrating their final rehearsal before embarking on an international tour. “Climax” introduces us to the nearly two dozen characters by way of videotaped audition interviews — they’re a multicultural lot, young and edgy and European — and then deposits us into an astonishing dance routine, shot in one eight-minute take with Noé’s camera occasionally lifting above the group for some Busby Berkeley action and the choreography and individual solos pushing the limits of what the human body can do.
It’s an intoxicating sequence, after which the dancers relax in the industrial warehouse space and start partying. We see flirtations and rebuffs, heavy-handed come-ons, secrets divulged, a brother and sister team with underlying tensions. Then things get weird, because someone has spiked the punch bowl with high-test acid.
Noé is a connoisseur of dread — in both his characters and audiences — and as the drugs kick in “Climax” coolly observes (in mostly extended traveling shots) the breakdown of civilization even as the participants know what’s happening and are powerless to stop it. Who laced the drinks? Suspicion falls on one dancer who didn’t partake of the sangria (he’s Muslim), then on another (she’s pregnant but hasn’t told anyone), and it doesn’t end well for either. When we see the 8-year-old son (Vince Galliot Cumant) of the group’s choreographer (Claude Gajan Maull) lingering near the punch bowl, our hearts leap into our throats at the thought that Noé might go there.
He doesn’t, though. He goes somewhere worse.
Before the night is over, murder will out, along with incest, self-mutilation, third-degree burns, and more. This reversion to our primal sins is viewed by the filmmaker with horror and glee but mostly with the understanding that our animal natures are always one molecule of brain chemistry away from erupting into view. “Irreversible,” the 2002 shocker that put Noé on the map, wound its way back in time from a revenge murder, the agonizing rape that spurred it, all the way to two lovers deliriously happy in innocent ignorance of the tragedies to come. The movie’s final frames were as moving as anything I’ve ever seen.
Compassion doesn’t appear on the menu in “Climax.” If there’s a main character, it’s probably Selva (Sofia Boutella of “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “The Mummy”), a headstrong, affectionate dancer lusted after by the creepy David (Romain Guillermic) and various others. But a “main character” in this context mostly means being a watcher at the circus, so I guess we’re all main characters, too.
“Climax” is a technical feat that eventually wears itself down. The final scenes unfold in the dark-red glare of emergency lighting (the power’s gone out; don’t ask why), the disco-bass grinding at subsonic levels, the camera upside down so that the revelers appear to be crawling and coupling on the ceiling. It’s like a Hieronymus Bosch painting except you can’t tell what’s going on. Surprisingly, hell turns out to be not very interesting when seen close up, and “Climax” is a bad trip that crashes before its characters do.
Written and directed by Gaspar Noé. Starring Sofia Boutella, Souheila Yacoub. At Boston Common, Kendall Square. 95 minutes. R (disturbing content involving a combination of drug use, violent behavior, and strong sexuality, and language and some graphic nudity. Basically the works.) In French, with subtitles.