It is odd to say that a film called Climax, written and directed by French Director Gaspar Noé (Irreversible), an erstwhile enfant terrible positively obsessed with the depiction of sex and violence and every shade of aberrance, does not include one identifiable orgasm. The sex takes a backseat to drug-induced mayhem in this hellish "dance-horror" flick, a Chernobyl lovechild of Suspiria, Hellraiser II and Rent.
The film, opening Friday at the Cedar Lee and Capitol theaters, gets off to an adventurous and frankly exultant start. Despite a tiresome cinematic gimmick — it begins at the end, complete with full credit sequence — a dance ensemble is promptly introduced via grainy audition tapes. It's the mid-1990s, and this rainbow coalition reveal their individual stances on drugs, sex and art, among other things. We then cut to a choreographed dance number, captured in a single shot, that positively explodes off the screen. It's a collision of body types and dance styles, including some of the most limber arm movement I've ever seen, that presents as a joyous celebration of the human body and its capacity to move. "La vie boheme!"
Alas. After this breathtaking sequence, the dance troupe begins to party in the abandoned schoolhouse where they've been rehearsing for three days, and their sangria has been spiked with LSD. After extended conversations that delineate the petty jealousies and explicit sexual desires of most of the troupe, conversations laced with a lot more foreboding than hallucinogenics, we descend into an orgiastic madhouse.
The film remains visually sumptuous but is ultimately pointless. Everyone ends up humping and howling and clawing their hair out, and you begin to sense that this was all an excuse to film a really really really bad trip.
Noé's cinematic choices are at times exhilarating, as when he films a dance circle from overhead. Every time the dancers jump or drop, the camera appears to zoom in and out, and it's a visual roller coaster ride. But other times, Noé's penchant for this BS is just annoying, as when he films an extended scene entirely upside down. Just stop it, dude.
The narrative is almost a joke on the word climax, because it spends so much time building — plot points are dropped that would seem to steer inevitably toward rape or murder, if not cannibalism or ritual sacrifice, especially as the drug-induced hysteria gets worse and worse — but it never feels like there is one.
Despite the bold production design, including the lighting and ecstatic costume design, and Noé's truly ambitious cinematography as he hopscotches among the pulsating dancers making their deranged way through the corridors, the futility of all this excess disappoints. You're expecting sex, but all you get is masturbation.