Cannes 2018: CLIMAX Makes For a Pretty Good Bad Trip

Krumping, LSD, soft incest — Gaspar Noé is in the house, baby!

While the opening minutes of Climax run credits for below-the-line crew and musical attributions (in addition to a director’s statement that “the film you have just seen” is a true story — don’t worry, your local arthouse’s reels haven’t gotten mixed up), the complete personnel doesn’t get their due until one hour in. By that point, however, it is abundantly clear that the motion picture you’re watching was made by Gaspar Noé.

Maybe it’s his endless, lurching dolly shots that creep in and out of rooms, around bodies, and into vortexes of nothingness like an invisible floating eyeball. Maybe it’s his telegenic cast of hot-to-trot French dancers, Sofia Boutella most notable among them, candidly discussing their views on everything from artistic expression to drug use to America. Maybe it’s his locker-room dialogue that spares no expense when detailing where, how, and in what orifice the characters intend on fucking and/or getting fucked. Maybe he’s born with it. Maybe it’s LSD-laced sangria.

It’s mostly that last one, as it turns out. It’s a shame that the “[X movie] on acid!” critical construction has been driven into the ground, because Noé has brought Cannes audiences — and soon, the world! — the rare film that truly earns the descriptor. That’s true in the most literal sense, as this psycho-thriller tracks one long night during which the lithe ensemble of movers and shakers violently freak out after unwittingly ingesting some soured psychedelics. But Noé also cuts to the sensory core of the experience, replicating a bad trip with ruthless, unsparing accuracy for better and for worse. His film is in turns wondrous and sickening, tedious whenever it’s not completely electrifying, and disorienting to the point that you want to stop the ride and get off. The man knows his way around a tab.

Unlike many of Noé’s past efforts, which tend to fall apart the moment a viewer deigns to analyze them beyond an immediate visceral reaction, Climax has more to offer than its all-bangers hard-house soundtrack and a magnificent rendition of Isabelle Adjani’s Possession spasms from Boutella. The red-white-and-blue streamers adorning the set and all-caps intertitle cards hint at a political subtext, and once the party turns fractious and bloody, it starts to look like Noé has condensed a country at odds with itself into a rave from hell. Tensions racial and sexual combust in a hectic grand finale that makes mother! feel like a visit to your mother’s.

But Noé keeps his primary pleasures right on the surface where everyone can get at them. The expert-level dance sequences run the gamut from krumping to voguing, and the beauty of a body in motion gets Noé pretty far, even when he kneecaps himself by obscuring all the bouncing and undulating with flattened aerial shots. He shoehorns in all of his favorite provocations as if running through a checklist from a conservative’s worst nightmares: two different same-sex hookups, self-mutilation, soft incest, frankly depicted urination, talk of ass-eating, you name it. Hell, the funniest joke involves a child locked in an electrical closet screaming that he’s being swarmed by cockroaches.

It comes as no surprise, but Noé gonna Noé, and whether that’s a positive or negative is an entirely personal distinction. This much, however, is beyond debate; it’s the first feature from this visionary, incorrigible shitkicker that keeps your head bobbing from start to finish, through amazement and horror alike.