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Film review: 'Climax,' dir. Gaspar Noé

It’s Gaspar Noé’s party and he’ll put us through hell if he wants to

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“Climax” is a typical Gaspar Noé movie — which is to say that it’s the sort of film so in your face that you’re tempted to walk out at least once — yet it’s also fairly accessible in comparison to its confrontationally provocative predecessors.

The movie, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, is set at an abandoned school in middle-of-nowhere France in 1996. Slowly paced but frequently dynamic, it chronicles the entirety of a soon-to-be disastrous basement party being thrown by a French dance troupe.

Partway through “Climax,” the beginning of this disaster arrives. Throughout the night, the dancers have been sipping on sangria when not cavorting on the dance floor. They soon discover, however, that the shared bowl has not just been topped off with orange slices but also a copious amount of LSD. A mass freakout, complete with explosions of violence and sexual aggression, ensues. It is intimated a few times that there might be other forces contributing to the nightmare, though. Several characters comment on a sinister flag decoration in one of the common spaces — which we never see for ourselves — suggesting that there might be some kind of ominous presence. (This, however, is never confirmed.)

Though largely miserable, “Climax” isn’t totally without pleasure. An early montage of talking-head interviews with the dancers, who reveal things as general as to what they expect from the project, to as personal as what extremes they’d take to “make it,” is inventively shot and dramatically revelatory. The handful of dance scenes — the first a rousing group semi-freestyle, the others zesty dance-offs intriguingly shot from above — are enhanced by the French filmmaker’s backing off and letting his ensemble let loose.

The film is also just a thrill to look at in general. It’s a swirl of lush to antic neons and nauseous camera movement, complementing the increasing horror of the scenario. The finale, shot upside down, recalls a particularly gruesome sequence from Noé’s “Irréversible” (2002), a movie so offensive that “Climax,” by contrast, feels like the cinematic equivalent of a Saturday morning cartoon.

Nearly everything else about the movie, which revolves mostly around people having a trip straight from hell, is deeply unpleasant. Yet I hesitate to outrightly call this a bad thing. If Noé’s boundary-damning filmography has proven anything, it’s that he’s an adept director when it comes to making his audience equal parts uncomfortable and ruminative, for better or for worse. His exercises in button-pushing are ones you want to dissect just as much as you’d like to forget.

“Climax” feels particularly cerebral, especially compared to his other, more visceral works. This is a film about a descent into collective madness, but it is also one, I think, that functions as an effective-enough allegory for the perpetually looming fear of societal collapse. (It could be argued that the diverse ensemble, mostly made up of professional dancers, is meant to act as a stand-in for a general populace.) It gets under our skin, which is helped, in part, by a surprising air of plausibility.

As we walked out of the theater, my friend noted that the main reason the movie disturbed them had to do with the events not being that improbable — a takeaway that can be hard to find, and is thus made more appealing, in a genre that tends to be built on the unthinkable and otherworldly.

The verdict: Noé’s latest assault on the senses is predictably not for the faint of heart.

Reach writer Blake Peterson at Twitter: @blakewpeterson

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