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Climax Movie Review

Climax (2019) movie poster Climax

US Theatrical Release: March 1, 2019 (French Release: September 19, 2018) / Running Time: 96 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Gaspar No

Cast: Sofia Boutella (Selva), Romain Guillermic (David), Souheila Yacoub (Lou), Kiddy Smile (Daddy), Claude Gajan Maull (Emmanuelle), Giselle Palmer (Gazelle), Taylor Kastle (Taylor), Thea Carla Schott (Psyche), Sharleen Temple (IVana), Lea Vlamos (Lea), Alaia Alsafir (Alaya), Kendall Mugler (Rocket), Lakdhar Dridi (Riley), Adrien Sissoko (Omar), Mamadou Bathily (Bats), Alou Sidib (Alou), Ashley Biscette (Ashley), Mounia Nassangar (Mounia), Tiphanie Au (Sila), Sarah Belala (Sara), Alexandre Moreau (Cyborg), Naab (Naab), Strauss Serpent (Strauss), Vince Galliot Cumant (Tito)


Climax, an acid trip of an arthouse film written and directed by Gaspar No (Irreversible, Enter the Void), opens with a figure collapsing in the snow and spilling blood on it. End credits follow,
preceded by a message dedicating the film to the makers no longer with us. Apparently, the events that follow take place in the winter of 1996. The scene is set with audition interviews of a number of young people all hoping to get a chance to work with a prestigious Parisian choreographer. The edited video clips play on a television alongside VHS copies of, among other things, Suspiria and Salo. Is No aspiring to the same cult horror status as those films? If so, he goes about it in a way that is entirely his own.

The same figures from the interviews are next seen gathered at a rehearsal that looks more like a no-audience performance. An elaborate and complex series of dances involving around two dozen performers unfolds in an ambitious, unbroken long take. When it ends, it is time for a party to begin at this abandoned boarding school. A DJ called Daddy (Kiddy Smile) keeps the dance tunes, some of them familiar, coming while sangria flows.

We break off into conversations among different pairs of the students. They talk about what you expect twentysomething dance students in Paris with a little alcohol (and perhaps a few other substances) in their systems to talk about. Mostly sex. One short-haired man named David (Romain Guillermic) boasts of having slept with almost every girl gathered. A virginal young gay man (Lakdhar Dridi) confides in Daddy his plan to bed David. A single mother (Claude Gajan Maull) has her young son there and she tries to shield him from the alcohol.

Not too long into the well-lit festivities, everyone starts feeling strange. The prevalent theory is that someone has spiked the sangria with LSD. Was it that mother who prepared the drink bowl? Unlikely. Was it Omar (Adrien Sissoko), who doesn't drink? Was it another girl (Souheila Yacoub) who reveals she's abstained from drinking because she's pregnant?

Young dancers party on in "Climax."

We do not get swift answers or confirmation that the sangria was actually spiked. What we do get is one wild ride. Like a drug, the party seems to hit everyone in different ways. One woman (Thea Carla Schott) relieves herself in the middle of the dance floor with neither intent nor an ounce of embarrassment.
She seems possessed by the spirit of dance and she's not the only one. No drifts around the dancers/partygoers with improbable precision and planning that only looks like effortless improvisation. He and his go-to cinematographer Benot Debie, who receives credit but apparently only handled lighting while No handled the camera, serve up a number of long, uninterrupted takes with disarming fluidity. An extended sequences captures the group's assorted contortions and gyrations from above.

We float from one narrative arc to another, involving these characters you realize have been developed with extreme efficiency. A brother and sister argue over her relationship with Omar. The blonde urinator squabbles with a shorter blonde whom she declares boring. All the while, music like remixes of Patrick Hernandez's "Born to Be Alive" and Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" blares, though never drowning out the dialogue that is predominantly in French. At one point in the middle, names of the licensed artists, cast, and No appear on screen in bright, bold typeface.

It's hard to wrap your head around what is going on here. There were multiple walkouts in my critics-only screening, which is virtually unheard of but has been a staple of No's provocative career. Although Climax can be uncomfortable and disturbing, it also is much too original and striking to dismiss just because it's loud and strange. While the film largely defies classification, IMDb identifies it as Drama, Horror, and Music. If it is horror, then it is an unusually inventive work for the genre, full of artistry and devoid of conventional scares. The recent film this most reminds one of us is Luca Guadagnino's critically acclaimed and publically avoided Suspiria. If you found that reimagining too offbeat and unsettling, then I doubt that Climax, which won the Art Cinema Award at last year's Cannes Film Festival, is for you.

This expressive storytelling pushes the bounds of cinema in a way that can't be tidily described as good or bad. It's a little surprising that the film has gotten A24 to distribute in North America. A24 is the hippest of studios and they've distributed some strange fare before (like the Debie-lensed Spring Breakers). No's divisive previous films have all gotten theatrical release here, but never expanded beyond double-digit screen counts and I'm not sure this will change that streak, even after putting up a relatively formidable $120 thousand opening in five theaters last weekend. Climax does count one movie star among its cast of talented unknown dancers -- French-Algerian Sofia Boutella of Kingsman: The Secret Service, 2017's The Mummy, Star Trek Beyond, and Atomic Blonde -- but I don't believe that means anything for its commercial prospects.

Whether or not you are able to tolerate or appreciate Climax, its hallucinogenic cinematography is truly something to behold and its inventive, outside-the-box stylings seem particularly refreshing on the same weekend that the latest, routinely-produced, crowd-pleasing Marvel superhero movie seeks to dominate the box office.

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Reviewed March 7, 2019.

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