'Climax' Review: Gaspar Noé's Latest Dances Deliriously Toward Death [TIFF]

Whenever any cinematic movement occurs with a noticeable sense of purpose on screen, critics commonly employ the trope of reaching into the language of dance. It's not just walking, it's a filmic ballet. It's not just blocking, it's choreography. Maybe it says something more about the scattershot cinematography of a screen-saturated culture where images are captured with little acknowledgement of the relationship between the subject and cameraperson, but when the two are in complete symbiosis, it stands out.

French writer, director and provocateur Gaspar Noé makes a more literal connection between dance and camera blocking in his latest film, Climax. The story, insomuch as there is one, follows a group of dancers as their drug-laced sangria sends their rehearsal careening off the rails and straight into hell. Not unlike in his psychedelic Enter the Void, Noé explores the possibilities of his camera with cinematographer Benoît Debie to mimic a sensation. Here, it's the ecstasy and agony of a body in motion, controlled and compelled by a force deep within beyond their command.

Climax, perhaps even to the point of fault, resembles the event it depicts. Like a long, celebratory night fueled by controlled substances, it starts off exuberantly and remains that way until hitting a point where everything starts to blur, and moments feel unnecessarily elongated. The high is rapturous, but the comedown proves calamitous. If that sounds moralizing, that's because it often feels that way. Noé might have made his Requiem for a Dream, a vivid depiction of the dark side of drugs.

He's hardly the preacher from Footloose, though, drawing a direct line between dancing and destruction. The diverse crowd gathered to practice their craft are artists in every sense of the word, something Noé thrillingly captures in an unbroken shot of their first routine. But the shot is not one kept at a distance, framing them in a stage before a captive audience. Noé undulates, gyrates and contorts his camera with their routine, blurring the boundary between spectator and participant. Their gathering hardly represents unfiltered hedonism, even as the brief vignettes capturing the dancers' conversations that follow reveal the libidinous instincts that guide them otherwise.

The connection Noé does make is one between the way the dancers move in their choreographed routine and the way they warp their bodies while in the thrall of ecstasy. Climax maintains an identical cinematic language when the bad trip begins – extended takes, acrobatic camerawork, spatially curious. The characters' rapid descent into anarchy might as well be a Pina Bausch modern dance routine. Only now, they twist their bodies to save themselves, not express themselves. The dancers are vessels for the will of an all-encompassing impulse, one that Noé shows can horrifyingly get hijacked by a sinister influence.

His takeaway is an interesting one, yet the shortcoming of Climax is that the idea proves to be its only one. Noé's experiential cinema often pulses rather than progresses. Not that it has to – and given how dramatically inert his last film, the sexually explicit Love, was, maybe it's for the best that Noé not even try. But he tends to luxuriate in moments far longer than necessary, prolonging them far past the point at which they maintain their initial sense of wonder. Far too often, Noé starts a scene with captivation and keeps the audience there so long that, by the end, all that's left is to do is marvel at the bravura cinematography. Even at 95 minutes, slender by not only the director's standards but also movies at large, the film lacks economy. He shows us more without necessarily giving us more. An extended upside-down shot towards the end of the film, soaked in an infernal neon red, provides far less than a similarly inverted shot at the end of the also Debie-lensed Spring Breakers, for example.

Noé reaches for profundity in title cards sprinkled through the film with phrases like "death is a unique opportunity" or "life is a fleeting pleasure," but the trite platitudes never successfully connect Climax to anything larger thematic elements. His film is at its best when visually matching the lithe maneuvering of a body pushed to its extremity. It's a shame that Noé ultimately ends up echoing the film's own message: too much of a good thing is not always a good thing.

/Film rating: 7 out of 10