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Review: Hellish dance musical 'Climax' is good for Gaspar Noé, but maybe not as good for you

Review: Hellish dance musical 'Climax' is good for Gaspar Noé, but maybe not as good for you
A scene from the movie "Climax." (Couramiaud)

The climax of “Climax,” Gaspar Noé’s cheerfully deranged and feverishly protracted rave-gasm of a movie, takes place at an all-night dance party gone nightmarishly wrong. Somebody’s put LSD in the sangria, and what began as a celebratory gathering of talented young revelers has devolved into a demonic horror show, a crackup of bad sex, worse drugs, reckless child endangerment and accidental self-immolation. It’s the kind of mass meltdown that demands to be read allegorically or even apocalyptically, as summed up by a helpful title card: “LIFE IS A COLLECTIVE IMPOSSIBILITY.”

Rest assured, I’ve spoiled nothing. If you’ve seen a movie directed by Noé, the Nietzche-loving, Kubrick-referencing punk-poet of extreme French cinema, you already know about his flair for Sartrean pessimism and lower-depths insanity, to say nothing of his fondness for the caps-lock button. Artistically and philosophically, he can be nearly as subtle as a 3-D closeup of an ejaculating penis, to borrow an image from his previous movie, the nearly 2½-hour carnal epic “Love” (2015).

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After a movie like that, titling your follow-up “Climax” might seem downright — well, anticlimactic. And to be sure, there is nothing in this 96-minute dispatch from Dante’s “Disco Inferno” that seems designed to top any of Noé’s earlier calculated outrages, like the closeups of an aborted fetus in “Enter the Void” (2009) or, most notoriously, the uninterrupted nine-minute rape scene in “Irreversible” (2003).

Next to those scuzzily virtuosic cinematic death trips, “Climax” is almost a gentle, even tame affair, a movie of simpler pleasures and less tortured metaphysics. A self-aggrandizing sense of mischief may still be baked (in every sense) into Noé’s aesthetic DNA, but he also wants you to have a good time.

And for a while, he succeeds. “Climax” opens with a burst of exhilaration and a welcome sense of its own silliness. It’s 1996, and one of the first things we see is a TV screen showing audition interviews with the members of a Paris dance group, who represent a wide range of ethnic and sexual identities. Intriguing as these young people are, your attention may gravitate toward the books and VHS tapes conspicuously lining the shelves around the TV set, which include movies like “Possession,” “Suspiria,” “Querelle” and “Un Chien Andalou,” plus a copy of Claude Guillon and Yves Bonniec’s notorious 1982 manual, “Suicide, Mode d’Emploi.”

It’s amusing to see a movie supply its own references — is Noé helping his critics or trolling them? — though all those ominous footnotes are washed away by the electrifying first dance number. Set in a tacky, brightly lit rehearsal space that looks like a school auditorium, the sequence is a triumph of technical brio, a dynamic collision of individual styles, shot in a single take by a camera that starts on the ground before gradually arching its way up and over the crowd. (The bliss-out choreography is by Nina McNeely, the fluid cinematography by Benoît Debie.)

The most recognizable face belongs to the actress Sofia Boutella (“The Mummy,” “Hotel Artemis”), who plays the lead dancer, Selva. But mostly you are not watching faces. You’re watching bodies coming together in dizzyingly athletic formations — sometimes gyrating like pistons, sometimes voguing and krumping up a storm, and always expressing a heady, youthful, thrillingly libidinous energy. The giant, spangly tricolor hanging behind them completes the picture: Vive la France, indeed.

Romain Guillermic and Sofia Boutella in a scene from the movie "Climax."
Romain Guillermic and Sofia Boutella in a scene from the movie "Climax." (Couramiaud/Laurent Lufroy/Fabien)

Set to the pulsing, churning, still-in-my-head rhythms of Cerrone’s “Supernature,” a standout from a fabulously curated electronic set list that includes Giorgio Moroder and Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, the scene runs five minutes and feels far too short. It might make you wonder why it took Noé so long to step up and shoot a dance musical, given how naturally suited he is to the form.

He has always been a filmmaker riveted less by stories and characters than by the movement of bodies through space, by those moments when pure sensation bleeds (sometimes literally) into abstraction. Amid the endless Tokyo drift of “Enter the Void,” his greatest and most maddening movie, he seemed especially taken by the image of multiple human bodies fusing together, as though forming a single writhing, teeming organism.

In “Climax,” the dancers’ beautifully synchronized movements at first seem to express a similarly harmonious, even utopian vision of human coexistence. Life is a collective possibility! But not for long. The rehearsal ends, the dancers break apart and a long night of partying begins. The camera abandons its unblinking focus and begins cutting rapidly, splitting the ensemble into cliques and factions (Noé edited the movie with Denis Bedlow).

Their laughter and chatter consist of some idle gossip, a few personal confessions and a lot of crudely uninhibited sex talk, much of it from Selva’s current fling, David (Romain Guillermic, who, like many of his co-stars, is a dancer making his acting debut). An adorable young boy named Tito (Vince Galliot Cumant), the son of one of the dancers, Emmanuelle (Claude-Emmanuelle Gajan-Maull), pops into view, raising a prickle of alarm.

Noé is laying the narrative groundwork for the moment when all hell breaks loose — some of the petty jealousies and closely held secrets we overhear will explode on ignition — but after a while the details start to feel pretty irrelevant, as does the movie’s early claim that it was inspired by a true story. The joyous mood becomes one of vicious, unbridled hysteria; literal and figurative knives come out, bodies are ejected and accusations are hurled left and right. Various characters retreat into the building’s labyrinthine corridors and side rooms where further harrowing mischief awaits, the camera lurching after them like an inebriated ghost.

The acid in the punch bowl may be the catalyst, but the party goes bonkers, really, because you would expect nothing less from a Gaspar Noé movie. And so of course the lighting will start to toggle between dingy greens and neon reds (the default color for Noé’s sex-club-from-hell aesthetics), and of course someone will get kicked repeatedly in the stomach while another faces possible electrocution. Do I even need to point out that Boutella will descend into “Possession”-inspired convulsions, at one point making particularly bravura use of her hosiery? Probably not, as it’s a spectacle that begs to be seen rather than described.

Unity and disunity, a coherent whole shattering into isolated fragments, a world turned upside down: Such is the human social condition, Noé seems to be saying, not for the first time. But as lysergic, entropic visions go, “Climax” goes down almost too smoothly; if “Enter the Void” was the graduate course, this one feels like freshman orientation.

What makes the extended trip-tastic finale ultimately disappointing is that it remains a resolutely exterior experience, a set of wild but recycled gestures that reminds you just how tedious watching someone else’s LSD high can be. These characters will keep dancing until and perhaps even beyond the bitter end, but their altered state never threatens to become your own.

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‘Climax’

French dialogue with English subtitles

Rating: R, for disturbing content involving a combination of drug use, violent behavior and strong sexuality, and for language and some graphic nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes

Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood

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