Selva walks down a hallway in a permanent shift of horror and disbelief that makes her both scream and laugh. She finally ends up at a peaceful wall painting of a forest lit in warm daylight. She is struck by it for a second, then bends back her body to scream into the void. Played by a truly unchained Sofia Boutella who finally gets to showcase her entire range of artistic expression, Selva is a dance choreographer, who agreed to train a small circle of students assembled in a remote school building for some sort of winter dance camp. It seems barely hours prior that she was less existentially disturbed and in possession of severely more chill. The same counts for the rest of the now completely deranged group of dancers.
In interview scenes at the very beginning of the film, it becomes clear that for many of them, this camp poses as a once-in-a-lifetime chance, especially in the perspective of being able to work with Selva. They are a colorful bunch and seem to have hit it off quite well on a professional level, as well as beyond it. But after only three days, there is already some sort of interhuman group dynamic between these expressive and individualistic people. Hidden beneath the surface, they have their thoughts, desires, and reservations regarding each other.
After showing us their talent in a performance that is nothing less than electrifying – seamlessly utilizing cinematographer Benoît Debe’s floating, stumbling and swirling trademark style seen in each of his collaborations with director Gaspar Noé – they get the party started. There is a French flag, music to dance to and a big pot of sangria – everything the heart desires. Quickly the conversations split up and with every passing second, something seems less right. In a truly fascinating and exceptionally well-written manner, the deepest, darkest and most intimate thoughts come to the surface – first in conversation then as confrontations – as the realization comes that there is something in the sangria. It slowly derails into an inescapable nightmare – all of that in a journey that feels incredibly close to real-time.
Noé’s direction has always been headstrong, his films separate themselves aggressively from usual formalities of plotting and structure. They are often meandering, obsessed with their own stylistic plane and (needless to say) transgressive in their portrait of violence, sexuality, and drug use. In short, there is no doubt that he has been the most prominent enfant terrible of European cinema for some time now. His roots are Argentinian, but his filmography is irreversibly bound to the French New Extremity, a wave that he never stopped riding. In Climax, he takes the least risks of his career. There is nothing that he does that is extraordinarily new in the context of his own work, which has always been controversial, but undeniably inventive in form. This is not necessarily a negative trait, because for the first time Noé seems fully focused on his storytelling. In exchange for innovation in transgression and cinematic form, he uses what he already has and forms it into a pitch-perfectly paced whole that is his most thematically clear, precise and restrained work to date.
In terms of his narrative, he once again touches upon existentialist themes, but while they have been heavy-handed in the past (which worked sometimes), he seems to be much more clear-headed and visually assured in what he wants to say here. The title of the film encapsulates the most present theme in its entirety – humans would love to live every moment of the climactic fulfillment of inner desire to its fullest, without the possibility of another, perhaps less exciting moment succeeding it. It’s the life in the now that turns out to be impossible, because the sensation of satisfaction discards reflection and digs up the most bestial aspects of human nature. The recognition that the anti-climax is what keeps us sane and what makes us human – a state that is obviously bound to dissatisfaction. Noé processes these themes in a manner that is unsubtle, as expected, but that works in favor of the narrative flow here and lowers the hurdle to be willing to go along with this wild, pulsating LSD tapestry.
When the film comes to a close, the only character seemingly unaffected by all the chaos seems to be a twenty-something woman from Berlin, a city that is notorious for its underground party scene, which promises to cater the most stimulating of experiences. To her, it’s just another night. Noé succeeds immensely in this instance of his rare (and sometimes tone-deaf) appearance of a comedic side here, but on reconsideration, this train of thought is not reserved for a mere laugh.