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'Climax' review: Gaspar Noe's dance film devolves into meaningless horror

'Climax' review: Gaspar Noe's dance film devolves into meaningless horror
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Gaspar Noé is a filmmaker who literally wants to show you hell on earth. He wants to lead you into the pit, to make the ultimate shocking spectacle of our violence and addiction and depravity. He did it in two sequences of "Irreversible," his 2002 drama of degenerate psycho horror: At a nightclub, a man smashed someone's face — over and over — with a fire extinguisher, until his entire head was turned into hamburger. Then, in an empty tunnel, Noé staged a rape sequence in a hideously long and unflinching shot — one of the most excruciating scenes ever filmed. You were practically invited to debate the morality of what you were seeing, yet there was no denying the debauched mastery of the button-pushing.

Ever since then, however, Gaspar Noé's career has been haunted by a single question: Once you've taken your audience to hell, what do you do for an encore?

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"Climax," Noé's latest plunge into the forbidden zone, lets you touch, once again, the hot blue flame of his talent. For about 45 minutes, it's a compelling movie, and with its ensemble cast of 20 young dancers, it feels like a new flavor for this artist of scandal. "Climax" is much better than either "Enter the Void" or "Love," in which Noé worked so hard to shove everything to the extreme — that's basically his brand — that more quite quickly become less. And less. As a filmmaker, Noé is now a junkie of evil: He keeps reaching, through increasingly numb tolerance levels, for a higher high, and he has no idea when he's crashing. Yet "Climax" works, at least when it's willing to be a human drama. But then it sinks in that you're watching "Fame" directed by the Marquis de Sade with a Steadicam.

The movie opens with videotaped audition interviews of the dancers (seen on an old TV), who've been assembled in a troupe that's scheduled to tour France and the U.S. They're all in their early twenties, with very rad hair, and they're a racially and sexually diverse crew, bursting, in different ways (some sullen, some punchy), with hipster street confidence. The film then cuts to a dizzily choreographed dance sequence set in a dank rehearsal space (it looks like an empty wedding reception hall), set to throbbing '90s EDM and photographed in a single hypnotically unblinking head-on shot.

It may be one of the most enthralling dance sequences you've ever seen. I don't quite know how to describe what it is these dancers do, but they're like krumpers or wackers or voguers doing flex dancing at astonishingly fluid speeds, so that their arms seem to be stretching out of their joints and rolling over their torsos.

Then the rehearsal ends, and everyone takes a break for a party, standing around flirting and giving each other a hard time as they guzzle the sangria that the troupe's leader, Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull), has made for them. The music keeps on throbbing, and Noé glides his camera around, gathering the vignettes into one long predatory swirl.

The actors pulsate with erotic energy, to the point that we could literally imagine any one of them hooking up with any other. Yet their personalities come through, and we start to register who they are: David (Romain Guilermic) the conquering jerk, Selva (Sofia Boutella) the bi-curious choreographer, Daddy (Kiddy Smile) the sweet-souled DJ.

I kept hoping that "Climax" would stay on this relatively sane level, with its balance of sensation and interaction. There's a second extended dance sequence: Its tone is ominous, driven by the electricity of fear, because what we're really asking ourselves is: What new atrocity is he going to show us now?

It turns out to be drug horror. Somebody has spiked the sangria with LSD, and just about everyone is drinking it. So they all start to go slowly out of their minds on acid. As Noé whips his camera around the place in a sustained voyeuristic frenzy, the veneer of civilization falls away. And that's the moment where Noé's addiction to shock value, which he had kept under control until then, starts to get the better of him. Simply put: If we don't totally buy what we're seeing, how horrifying can it be?

There's no question that for Gaspar Noé, hell on earth looks like a Eurotrash dance club. But maybe it's time that he turned the volume down and stopped trying to make the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah into the world's most forbidden music video.

"Climax" — 2 stars

MPAA rating: R (for disturbing content involving a combination of drug use, violent behavior and strong sexuality, and for language and some graphic nudity)

Running time: 1:36

Opens: Friday. In French dialogue with English subtitles.

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