Gaspar Noé’s ferocious fantasia ‘Climax’ sputters out on its 1-way trip to hell

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

The human body is a disgusting thing — a thin sack bursting at the seams, assorted salty fluids spilling out of some orifice or another, held together by a precarious arrangement of breakable bones. We spew, screw, sob and scream. We can bruise purple and snap in twain. Our innards froth and bubble when we’re afflicted by mental vices of paranoia, envy and fear. It’s the vile reality of our earthbound routine, but in “Climax,” it’s all one bad joke.

The latest film by French cinema’s enfant terrible Gaspar Noé tracks the synergic bliss and apocalyptic infighting of a dance group preparing for a stateside tour. Unfolding over the course of one evening, the story begins with an astonishing rehearsal and then follows the ongoings of the subsequent party. A futile whodunit of who spiked the sangria, the bad trip that ensues orchestrates a veritable amusement park ride of the mortal bounds and violent capacities of our fleshy vessels.

Noé introduces his damned troupe early on through a series of interview segments, playing on a television screen sandwiched between a shelf space of various texts. Psychological-horror films by Kenneth Anger, Dario Argento and others sit squarely on the right; literature including the likes of anarchist Claude Guillon’s “Suicide, mode d’emploi” are on the left, serving as either an earnest bibliography or an intellectual red herring. The snippets of each character are dealt at a giddy brisk pace, seeming to immediately move onto the next video whenever some insecurity has been signaled. The dancers come in various shapes and sizes and from across the spectrum of human sexuality; the only common ground they all seem to share seems to be an unshakable, chauvinistic passion for dance.

This dedication comes through vibrantly in the opening set piece of “Climax:” a fervently kinetic dance number of swirling limbs and collective euphoria. Captured in a five-minute long take, the group’s enthusiasm is lucidly rendered and is the closest that Noé has come to embracing joy in his filmmaking. The dynamic exceeds familial, all the orgiastic writhing unfolding in such unison as if each double-jointed wonder were part of a single organism.

But this is a Noé film, where all beautiful things are bound to be broken. Once rehearsal has wrapped, the group begins to party for the evening and breaks out the punch bowl. The lion’s share of “Climax’s” remaining runtime unfolds in a meticulously constructed long take (though a few whip pans and moments of blackout leave opportunities for an editor to step in), tracking the company’s collective bad trip.

Quickly, the evening spirals into a witch trial, a baseless blame game driven by petty rivalries and repressed prejudices. After drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid, the crew becomes doomed to their own capricious belligerence and bring themselves toward collective self-destruction.

Noé withholds his impish impulses until the drugs take hold, but, from then on, it’s no-holds-barred depravity. The throbbing Eurotrash beats continue unabated as anarchy reigns, Noé’s lens slipping from room to room to find what sadism is in store. In his ensemble, the filmmaker has found a performance style to match the tireless acrobatics of his camera, turning all around and upside down to observe their bodies writhing in madness, each room enwrapped in austere blankets of primary colors. Noé digs into the miserablism of the situation and emerges with some sterling black humor. The quintessential running gag could be deemed Chekhov’s LSD-virgin-trapped-in-an-electric-closet.

But something happens about halfway through the carousel that begins to drain it of its queasy power. Exactly where, it’s hard to say — perhaps somewhere in between the pregnant woman being kicked in the stomach or someone being set on fire — but there comes a point when the exercise Noé has undertaken reveals its limits. While the long take initially gives the ballroom blitz a charged volatility, “Climax” becomes too beholden to maintaining its level of provocation. Eventually, atrocity seems to pile up inorganically without any thought beyond its initial shock factor, and even that diminishes after a while.

It could be chalked up to the relatively straightforward concept at play, but Noé’s style is uncharacteristically lacking in crass indulgence, too busy finger-wagging in the dissection of his own debauchery to be inebriated by the buzz. The trip is always absorbing but rarely goes beyond that. Perhaps it’s a matter of being careful what you wish for, but it doesn’t seem unfair to expect more from the guy who dropped a point-blank 3D ejaculation in his last feature.

Jackson Kim Murphy covers film. Contact him at [email protected].