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Climax

Year: 2018
Production Co: Rectangle Productions
Director: Gaspar Noé
Writer: Gaspar Noé
Cast: Sofia Boutella, Souheila Yacoub

It's been a long time since I've been so fascinated with a film despite ultimately not liking it. Being a fan of Gaspar Noe there was no way I wasn't going to see it, and all the reviews I'd heard confirmed what I suspected about it, how (like his contemporary Lars von Trier) he's always out to cause shock and discomfort as much as anything and how it breaks so many conventions you can't help but admire it – which I do all his films for that reason.

I knew the story both because it was so slight and had formed only one or two sentences in reviews. A troupe of dancers in a studio somewhere in France are having a party after a rehearsal, someone spikes the punch with LSD and it descends into paranoia, hatred, violence, sex and even death.

It starts with an explosive opening that would have grabbed you by the throat and not let go in a big theatre. Against the production company and financier logos, a pulsating modern melody-only rendition of Cerrone's Supernature stops you short, and bombastic titles that fill the screen like punches inform you that it's a film proudly made in France.

The camera pans down a sequinned French flag to the rehearsal space where the 24 dancers, a DJ and the company manager and her cute little boy are performing or watching. The camera settles down to a direct frontal medium shot, then at several points whooshes in towards the featured performer, swooping into the air and back down again, a kinetic character in the dance itself.

It's all a single take – or appears to be – as the troupe performs a freewheeling yet highly choreographed number, each dancer breaking out a signature riff that suits his or her physicality, and it's so commanding it feels like it goes for a quarter hour or more (it's actually about four minutes).

But I'm wrong – that's not the opening at all, because Noe plays with the conventions of credits sequences and opening scenes like he does with everything else. At one point halfway through the movie, before the hallucinatory nightmare has kicked in, the gang are all dancing for fun while the camera peers down from overhead and Noe cuts away to a blank stretch of the studio floor to slam title cards of all the musical acts featured in the movie in front of you in rapid succession.

It actually starts with a long overhead shot of a woman, apparently badly injured, limping through snow and whimpering, before she collapses. Then Noe runs what appears to be the end credits. Then every dancer is interviewed on video about their life and art by the manager, all of them displayed on a staticky TV surrounded by piles of movies on VHS. Then we launch into the opening with the company logos and jaw dropping dance sequence.

It's all shot like the camera is dancing with all these kids, as far away from the static two camera sitcome style as it's possible for a movie to get and every frame is fascinating to watch.

Unfortunately the actual plot is far less successful because there really isn't one, short of Noe conjuring up ever-worse fates for everyone to go through. One character is secretly pregnant and will end up punching herself in the stomach, convinced she has to get rid of the baby. Someone's hair catches on fire. More than one of them dies horribly before the end. They fight, fuck and rage, unable or unwilling to leave because of the snowstorm outside.

It ends up with the studio lighting having turned a grotesque shade of horror movie red, bodies sweating, copulating or dying all over the sweat-slicked floor, no music apart from a throbbing undertone of menace and Noe carrying his camera among the throng like a drunk, wheeling slowly this way and that and turning it upside down to peer voyeuristically at all the suffering.

I wouldn't ever watch the whole thing again, but I've watched the opening dance sequence on YouTube a hundred times and there are plenty of other scenes I can't get out of my head even weeks later.

Say what you want about Noe's agent provocateur reputation – in a universe of cinema where the unshakeable Marvel three act structure thrill rides have taken over most of the industry, movies like Climax are critical for what they represent, even if this one isn't so successful as a standalone story.

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