‘Climax’ Review: Gaspar Noé’s latest is an acid-laced dance into madness

The punchbowl has been spiked with acid, they’ve all been drinking a lot of it, and shit begins to get real and unreal

Courtesy of TIFF

Editor’s Note: This review originally ran as part of our coverage of September’s Toronto International Film Festival; ‘Greta’ hits theaters this weekend.

You know its going to be an interesting year whenever cinematic provocateur Gaspar Noé has a new film ready, and his latest project, the acid-laced Climax might be his most accessible yet. Based on “the true story” of a French dance troupe back in the ’90s, we’re introduced to Noe’s characters — each from different backgrounds and of different races and sexualities — via videotape-recorded interviews taken before they head out on a worldwide tour, attempting to spread the message of dance to civilizations where it isn’t that much of a priority (namely, our own). After one final run-through of their routine, in front of a giant and glittering French flag, the group settles down for a party, full of dance and drink, sangria and step.

But, as the night rolls on, it become clear that something is deeply wrong: The punchbowl has been spiked with acid, and they’ve been drinking a lot of it, and shit begins to get both real and unreal as the darkest corners of their personalities are exposed and their darkest dreams begin to get realized. What results can be seen as an absolutely wild metaphor for French history and its colonial history, or it can just be enjoyed as an absolutely memorable experience, plundering the depths of these dancers’ identities for our lurid entertainment. It is, however, unlike any other film that Noe’s made in his nearly 20-year career.


Climax is, in many ways, a film that could serve as an introduction to the rest of Noé’s deeply intimidating filmography. The first 40-odd minutes, right until the acid starts to kick in, including an impressively photographed and choreographed series of dance sequences, may be the most restrained work of Noé’s career, and I think you’ll see a ton of re-evaluations of his work from people who just couldn’t see beyond the aesthetic. It’s not nearly as brutal as something like Irreversible nor is it as much of a time investment in the way that Enter the Void and Love (it’s only a scant 93 minutes), but it does retain Noe’s abrasive, psychedelic tendencies and a number of his most memorable visual tics.

We get the credits first, after a pre-film post-credits scene that reveals the fate of one of the major characters, we get textual interludes, and we get an excellent helping of his incredible understanding and usage of color theory. Scenes are consumed by dark, vivid hues until they’re rendered unrecognizable by the depth of color and the camera placement. It’s often an overwhelming experience, but it is one that is never exhausting, and it’s all grounded in interesting character work, some of which is predictable (a jealous brother and his promiscuous sister come to conflict) and totally unexpected (the group’s leader’s interactions with her young son Tito might make you puke with stress).

Climax is a step in an interesting direction for Noé, one made without too many stylistic sacrifices, and I can’t wait for you to experience it.