Do you like your dance laced with a bit of homicide? Is Black Swan your jam? Do you wish that the sinister ballet in The Red Shoes (1948) had been the entire film, or that the witchy gyrations in last year's Suspiria remake had lasted longer?
If you're a fan of the micro-genre that I'll call the dancing-to-death movie, then Gaspar Noé's Climax is for you. There's not much plot here — far less than in the French provocateur's 2002 breakthrough Irreversible — and arguably not much point, either. Instead, there's a phantasmagoria of virtuosic visuals and a whole lot of dancing under the influence.
The movie opens with its closing credits, which is just the kind of waggish thing Noé likes to do; as for the opening credits, they're embedded late in the first act. But the real opening is a series of video clips that introduce the dramatis personae: a diverse assortment of young people auditioning for a dance troupe.
Next thing we know, we're watching the 24-member troupe rehearse the piece they plan to tour in the U.S. The setting is a school that may or may not be haunted. Their electrifying run-through leaves them triumphant, sweaty, horny and eager to dance deep into the night to the tunes of genial DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile). Happily, sangria is on hand. Unhappily, someone has spiked it with LSD, and what started as a harmless bacchanal turns into (for some) a rave to the grave.
The opening/closing credits describe the film as based on events that happened in 1996. Viewed solely from that angle, Climax isn't so different from Go Ask Alice, the hysterically over-the-top depiction of drug use that freaked out '70s teens by masquerading as an actual diary. Noé has acknowledged in interviews that his factual inspiration didn't involve quite the degree of mayhem seen in the film.
But if you watch Climax for verisimilitude or messaging, you're missing the point — namely, the director's ability to make it seem like his camera is tripping right along with the dancers, even as he pulls off long, complex takes that must have required intense planning. Sometimes the camera sits still and lets us watch the dancing, face on or from above. Sometimes it floats around the room, swirling from conversation to conversation like a restless spirit.
Thanks to the incessant beat and mood lighting, even scenes without dancing feel choreographed. When the troupe leader, Selva (Sofia Boutella, the only pro actor in the cast), goes off alone to weather the effects of the drug, she seems to be doing a solo; the line between performing and writhing in agony becomes perilously thin.
While all the performers are compelling, the film's plot has little shape, and the early dialogue — mostly improvised — fails to pay off in any significant way. Before the drug kicks in, Selva's latest fling (Romain Guillermic) comes off as a dangerous loose cannon, but he never detonates the way we expect. One plot point involving a child feels like gratuitous shock value, included to amp up the movie's cred with horror fans. And the mystery of who spiked the sangria is more of a side note.
For all these faults, though, the movie mesmerizes. You can read into the chaotic dissolution on screen anything you want — the fall of civility, the rise of anarchy, the violence always latent in art. More than anything, though, Climax is simply a hellishly hypnotic spectacle of youthful energies gone awry. Dancing with the devil never looked quite so good.