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Climax review – delightfully deranged hellscape gives way to tedium

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Verdict: Gaspar Noé’s danse macabre is exhilarating, horrifying, and finally a bit of an anti-climax.

Climax begins with an overhead shot of a bloodied woman stumbling across a frozen expanse, eventually collapsing and writhing around so as to make a grotesque red snow angel. It ends with a title card reading DEATH IS AN EXTRAORDINARY EXPERIENCE, the huge letters projected upside down. Subtle it ain’t – though if you wanted subtle you probably shouldn’t be watching a Gaspar Noé film.

This is, after all, the writer-director who came to international notoriety with Irreversible (2002), the rape-revenge ordeal that had 250 people fleeing from its Cannes premiere, and whose last film Love (2015) featured a man ejaculating directly into the camera. In 3-D. Back and looking to upset everyone once again, Noé has crafted a delightfully delirious portrait of a ’90s dance troupe and their drug-fuelled descent into collective madness. But Climax climaxes too soon, it’s piled-on provocations eventually giving way to tedium.

A lengthy prologue introduces the dancers though interviews played on a TV; the screen is flanked by books and VHS tapes that hint at the film’s inspirations, and indelicately show off Noé’s taste. Then we cut to a deserted school hall, where a remix of Cerrone's disco classic ‘Supernature’ soundtracks an intoxicating five-minute dance routine captured in a whirling single take.

The records keep spinning and the camera keeps rolling as its snakes its way around the players, whose gossipy conversations mostly consist of who among the group they like, dislike and want to fuck. Among them are DJ Daddy (French musician Kiddy Smile), sex-pest David (Romain Guillermic), siblings Gazelle (Giselle Palmer) and Taylor (Taylor Kastle), and Selva (Sofia Boutella), the group’s leader and closest thing the film has to a protagonist. There’s also choreographer Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull), who has made the spectacularly awful decision of bringing her adorable son Tito with her.

These snippets of chat do just enough to sketch distinct characters, but before long we’re back watching birds-eye view shots indulging in the bodily pleasures of dance. ‘Celebratory’ is perhaps the last word Noé’s filmography brings to mind, but Climax’s early scenes really do feel exactly that: a celebration of the liberating power of dance.

The end of the first act is brought to an end by a deranged opening credits sequence (45 minutes into the film!) which signals that it’s time for the fun to end and chaos to begin. It becomes apparent that someone has spiked the sangria the dancers are drinking with LSD. There’s some quarrelling about who’s responsible, but Noé violently skims over this drugged-up game of whodunit. He’s more interested letting his lab-rat characters run amok (the dancers are trapped in the building by an otherworldly blizzard raging outside), and as the beat pounds on, the acid brings out primitivism – sex, violence, and more dance, then total anarchy. Noé intermittently reminds us that there’s a kid in the building.

There’s perverse pleasure in watching this nightmare begin to unravel. The drugs give a sinister edge to the dancing; voguing limbs start to look monstrous, krumping resembles demonic possession. Stylised lighting and deep shadows transform the building into a psychedelic haunted house. Noé is incredibly effective at conjuring a cinematic hellscape where his audience is subject to the same paranoid sensory overload as the characters. We stumble through corridors with them, disoriented by the sinister sound design and dizzying camerawork.

As the director keeps cranking up the horror to sustain the effect, it’s meant to conjure the feeling of an overdose. But as the film ticks off its checklist of extremities – self-harm, incest, a woman with her head on fire – it begins to more closely resemble a comedown. At one point Selva lets out an inhuman scream inches from David’s face; it should feel excruciating, but by this point the film’s nastiness has got exhaustingly repetitive, so instead it feels dull and mildly irritating.

Even Noé’s celebrated visual flair starts to get monotonous here. The pre-LSD scenes alternate between blinking editing and long, unbroken takes, during which Benôit Debie’s levitating camera spins, occasionally fixing itself upside down. But in latter scenes the only directorial innovation is moving the camera more violently. Add to this the stylised, saturated lighting and those bombastic title cards, which are meant to be Godardian but read more like Donald Trump tweets (‘BIRTH IS A UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY’) – all of which we’ve seen before in Noé’s earlier films – and it starts to feel like the provocateur’s ideas might have stagnated some time ago.

Climax hits cinemas on September 21st, distributed by A24.

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