‘Climax’ Film Review: Is It a Movie, or an LSD Trip?

Cannes 2018: Director Gaspar Noé unleashes a troupe of Europe’s most nimble dancers to vogue you, krump you and pop-lock you through one very bad trip

Directors' Fortnight

If you’re worried that any part of director Gaspar Noé’s reference-laden dance freak-out “Climax” might go over your head, well, have no fear. For all of its other considerable pleasures, this loose-limbed hallucination comes with its own course syllabus.

After his usual wink where he runs the end credits at the very top, Noé opens the film on a shot of a TV flanked by worn out paperbacks on one side and ratty VHS tapes on the other. He keeps that shot a long time, introducing each and every professional dancer that makes up the cast, as well as hinting at their eventual conflicts.

Allow your eyes to wander, note the copies of Argento’s “Suspiria,” Zulawski’s “Possession” and Pasolini’s “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” and you’ll have yourself a most efficient user’s manual for everything that’s about to come.

Not that you’ll really need it! The unrelenting action is never hard to follow, and for all its winks and homages, the film’s central conceit could not be simpler. In some abandoned factory in some unknown part of France, a troupe of Europe’s most nimble dancers are going to vogue you, krump you and pop-lock you through one very bad trip.

The “Enter the Void” director has already claimed the label of “foremost chronicler of chemically induced delirium,” but with this latest work he takes that obsession and pushes it to a new — ahem — high. The film is structured like a LSD odyssey, hitting in undulating waves — first a burst of energy, then a mellow lull interrupted by a sudden drop, and then nothing but fear, loathing and euphoria all the to the climax.

The loosely adorned narrative finds this diverse band of dancers — all of them non-professional actors except for “Atomic Blonde” star Sofia Boutella — prepping for an upcoming dance competition in the U.S. (They dance in front of a tricolor flag and the film announces itself as “A French Production and Proud Of It.) They’ve just come off three days of hard training and just beginning to kick back when — whoops! What do you know? — someone’s spiked the punch. Or introduced LSD into the sangria, as it were.

In an impressive, nearly 10-minute take, the swirling, whooping camera introduces every dancer and gives them their moment in the spotlight before they break off to go their own way. The 30-or-so minutes before the drugs really kick in offer a number of droll character beats, with the funniest being the macho swagger of two hard-presenting bros who clearly have the hots for one another but have to flirt with macho “locker-room talk” (in the words of a certain president).

Then the acid hits, the bottom falls out, and we’re off to the races, never looking back. The film’s style matches the various phases of the trip, with director of photography Benoit Debie’s fluid camera moving in lockstep with the legion of feral performers, tracking their bodies in unceasing motion as they dance through paranoia, ecstasy and delirium.

As in “Suspiria,” the violent color palate matches the sudden swings in mood; as in “Salò,” the once tight unit begins to break down into functions and mob violence.

And just like “Possession,” this tale of stylized hysteria is an absolute scream.