FEATURING: About two dozen dancers, all of approximately equal importance

PLOT: A modern dance troupe goes crazy when someone spikes their rehearsal party sangria with a heavy dose of LSD.

Still from Climax (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Literal LSD trip movies don’t come along that often. Ones made with this much skill and care are even rarer. Climax is messy and flawed, but impossible (for us) to overlook. And Gaspar Noé is probably the only master of world cinema who regularly contributes trip reports to Erowid.

COMMENTS: Near the beginning of Climax, we watch interviews, presumably from the audition process, playing on a TV screen. Attractive young people are asked about their philosophy of life, their drug use, their greatest fear. We get to know them a little, but what might be more important are the names of the books and VHS tape boxes flanking the TV screen: Possession, “Un Chien Andalou,” Salo, Suspiria, “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome”, Zombie. While none of these (except perhaps Suspiria) have much real thematic relationship to Climax, Gaspar Noé’s roll call of influences at least puts the well-traveled weirdophile on notice that they’ve bought the right ticket.

The movie is not one long, unrelieved freakout; it does build to a, well, Climax. After those preliminary interviews and some preliminary structural foolishness (the end titles play first, and the opening credits are delivered in the middle of the film), we start with a long, energetic, contortionist techno dance number, a real wower for fans of intricate choreography. (It must have been quite a challenge for the casting director to find top-notch professional dancers who were also capable of overacting to Noé’s demanding specifications). After they’re done rehearsing, the troupe choose to unwind by… dancing, but now lubricated by a punchbowl of sangria. At this point several of the dancers break off into pairs and we watch a series of conversations that further introduce us to the sprawling cast of characters. While everyone is bisexual and can think of few topics of conversation besides who wants to screw whom, it’s remarkable how efficiently this dialogue establishes a recognizable look and narrative hook for each of the dancers so that we seldom accidentally confuse them when the trip proper begins. It’s character differentiation more than character development, but it works very precisely in this context. Next up is another long dance scene, this one shot from above, as the dancers form a circle and each takes his or her turn freestyling in the center of the mob. After this diversion the party breaks apart and people start to notice that they’re feeling weird, leading them to wonder just what was in the sangria. When one dazed dancer suddenly starts urinating on the floor, they realize they’ve definitely been dosed, and paranoia starts to rise as the mob throw accusations at first one suspect, then another.

After the LSD kicks in the film adopts a Slacker strategy, with the camera following a single dancer around, watching the mini-drama as he or she copes with the situation, then peeling off to follow another. Sexual jealousies and suppressed perversions are, naturally, the main demons that the tripping hoofers battle, but there are also violent beatings, suicidal impulses, and a child wandering around the premises to be dealt with. Some simply succumb to the terror of being on an unknown, but high, dose of an intense psychotropic drug with no preparation. Each dancer gets a chance to freak out, with some spotlight solos. At the movie’s peak—which perhaps goes on uncomfortably long—everything is light in a hellish red with upside down and spinning cameras, as the party dissolves into an indistinct orgy of sex and violence. The denouement is grim, but we do actually find out who was responsible for all the carnage.

What does it all mean? The author offers us a couple of pretentious epigrams. “Love is a collective impossibility.” “Death is an extraordinary experience.” Not really helpful. More than anything, the drug trip is a convenient excuse for Noé to indulge in melodramatics that would otherwise be implausible. His characters howl, writhe, and piss themselves in animalistic degradation. It’s equally an excuse for him to indulge his melodramatic style. Is Climax a satire? Perhaps, since everyone is ultimately so unlikable, but if so it is a very dry and unfunny one. Is it a metaphor for our chaotic, backbiting modern times? Maybe. France is described as hell (specifically by the minority members of the troupe), and yet the titles announce (ironically?) that Climax is “a French film and proud of it.” I don’t think Noé commits himself to any particular interpretation; he’s simply interested in choreographing as much misanthropic excess as possible. With Climax, I’m more convinced than ever that Gaspar Noé has no idea what he wants to say with his art—but is nevertheless supremely confident about how he wants to say it.


“… the nuttiest, trippiest dance party you’ll ever attend.”–Brian Truitt, USA Today (contemporaneous)

8 thoughts on “APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CLIMAX (2018)”

  1. My word, it looks like the “Apocrypha Candidates” are coming in fast and thick. I’m curious as to when we might see the first official one unveiled, and whether it will have any parallels with the very first Canon Certified title.

    Also: what’s the French film tally so far for 2019? Perhaps 366 can award an annual “Weirdest Nation” statue.

    1. I’ve finally seen this movie–and have one small correction for your review, as I believe the title card says that “Life is a collective impossibility”, not “love”.

      Still, that quibble aside, you’re spot on: the movie, brief though it is, does go on a little too long–perhaps too much dénouement and epilogue balances badly on the other side of the titular “Climax”.

      But it’s still a rare achievment, and it’s been a bit since I’ve been this disoriented by a film. (This was aided, I suspect, by basement viewing beginning at day’s end, emerging upstairs into a darkened house.)

  2. Definitely a remarkable movie. The dance scene in the middle is the coolest ever. I selfishly wish the entire movie could have been like this, as most of the non-dance scenes were full of vile, graphic dialogue and violence. It’s not surprising, as Noe seems to love his movies full of nasty realities, but unpleasant nonetheless. And this is supposed to be one of his “softer” movies? It’s an interesting experience, and it moves much quicker than “Enter the Void”.

  3. Just to follow up on tonight’s viewing party, here are some of Gaspar Noé’s explanations regarding the intentions behind the film. I took them directly from Wikipedia – apparently they were translated from French interviews. Either way, apparently he did have a point in making the movie, aside from the purely experiential aspect.
    While he had also featured drugs in previous films, Noé decided to have a different approach in Climax: “I didn’t want to do any visual or sound effects to reproduce the feeling you are having when you’re on drugs. I thought it would be funny to do it the other way, like shoot almost documentary style with long cuts, seeing how the effects of drugs and alcohol are experienced, how its seen from the outside. Like how it all shows and not how it feels.” He also left the cast free to have their characters react to LSD in whichever way they preferred, as people can react very differently to it in real life: “They were all quite keen to get to the second part of the shoot, with the drugs and everything going crazy. I showed them all these videos; people high on LSD, mushrooms, crack, whatever. Then after, I asked each one how they would want to portray their own craziness.”

    1. Thanks for the research, Jake. And I’d say he succeeded in achieving his goals (in both the experiential aspect and otherwise).

      Slight apologies for nominating this, as I had hoped for a more positive reaction. I personally found “Skins” much harder to watch than “Climax”, but I’ve no doubt I’m in the minority on that one.

  4. I wasn’t at the group screening but recently watched this on DVD. If Noé thought this was shot “almost documentary style” then I’d like to see the documentaries he’s watching where the camera is upside down a significant amount of time.
    Definitely an unusual movie but I’m not sure I think it was that weird as everything made sense and was rooted in reality and nothing surprising or weird (in the context of a bunch of dancers on LSD) happened.

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