Whether you love or hate the filmmaking auteur Gaspar Noé, his films are never boring and never fail to generate conversation upon their theatrical release. His latest film, Climax, is no different, as it follows a company of dancers throwing a party turned nightmarish once they learn their sangria is spiked with a psychotropic drug, causing their sense of human decency to erode along with their inhibitions in horrific, existential fashion.
When alcohol laced with LSD plunges a party into chaos, a dance troupe devolves into the dark depths of their inner depravity.
When it comes to the contemporary auteurs of French filmmaking, there’s no one more enigmatic or controversial than Gaspar Noé, whose passion for cinema reveals itself in the many roles he has behind the camera. He often serves as not only the writer-producer-director in his body of work, but also as the editor and camera operator in order to employ his favorite toy as a character in every film, and take it as far into the sky as he can. With that, it’s easy to compare his presence on a film set to the likes a kid running down the aisles of a candy store. However, the candy stores Noé frequents are those where the candy is laced with some kind of psychoactive drug, because his filmography centers around mind-bending yet disturbing subject matter, such as the raging, internal anger of the butcher-turned-ex-convict at the center of I Stand Alone, or how the construct of time destroys human lives in the non-linear rape-revenge drama Irreversible, or what happens to our spirits when we die in the trippy arthouse film Enter The Void.
Now, Noé returns to American theaters this year with Climax thanks to the help of distributor A24. It’s a risk worth taking for the independent film studio, which has recently released films based around ideas about the nature of existence that range from terrifying in Hereditary to thought-provoking in A Ghost Story. Climax falls on the former end of the spectrum, and succeeds as an existentialist horror film thanks to inventive cinematography, haunting sound design, and a creative structure that frames the movie as a showcase of human depravity through a veil of psychedelic terror.
Loosely based on real events, Climax takes place on a snowy winter night in Paris circa-1996 and follows a troupe of professional French dancers led by Selva (Sofia Boutella) who meet in an empty school building for a rehearsal, which is then followed by a party full of alcohol, camaraderie and more dancing, only for them to discover their sangria has been spiked with a large amount of the drug LSD. The diverse ensemble tries to find the person responsible, only to descend into a demented psychosis.
The concept is straightforward, but it’s Noé’s stylized and unique direction that makes Climax a triumph in arthouse horror. He establishes a reflexive reality within the film’s world by introducing each dancer in the form of testimonials playing on a TV set surrounded by VHS tapes of classic horror movies. Portrayed by non-actors, each member of the troupe responds to questions about their love for dancing, their experiences with drugs, and in some cases, how they feel about their fellow performers. This stylized realism carries over into the next scene, where the camera lingers like an unseen god above the dancers to give the audience a view from the sky of an elaborate and beautifully choreographed rehearsal; only to track the dancers’ every move as they put on a show for us. This is made evident with the multiple glances they make and the steps they take directly toward the camera, all while house music pulses throughout the scene.
Once the ensemble breaks, the camera tracks each dancer as they congratulate each other on a job well done and start their party with more elaborate dancing, sangria and gossip. The film cuts from the perspective of the god watching above them in prolonged birds-eye-views of the active dance floor, to the perspective of the camera serving as a partygoer to give those watching an opportunity to insert themselves into the film while it cuts between conversations involving various characters.
From two men talking about the dancers to whom they most want to make love, and brother Taylor (Taylor Kastle) keeping his sister Gazelle (Giselle Palmer) out of trouble, to the company’s instructor Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull) putting her son Tito (Vince Galliot Cumant) to bed, and a homosexual member of the team telling a personal secret to the troupe’s DJ, these series of moments suggest these dancers are more than just characters, but real human beings. But it’s only after quite some time that the bulk of the opening credits finally start, as if to dictate that this is the moment where the drugs start to kick in, and the real movie begins.
It’s also the moment where the derangement and horror comes into play. As women like Selva and the pregnant Lou (Souhelia Yacoub) look for comfort amongst the chaos, the rest of the troupe is quick to accuse each other of spiking the community sangria, and quicker to descend into a violent mob, while the remainder stay in the same circle on the dance floor, looking up at the ceiling as if in a nightmarish trance. The audience feels hypnotized as well, thanks to the vibrant colors of Benoit Debie’s cinematography that evoke the psychedelia of LSD, in addition to long tracking shots that follow each character from behind, from above, and even from upside-down angles as they wander the hallways of the school looking for an escape from their horrific visions, and in some cases, relief from their physical and psychological pain.
The sound design aids in ramping up the atmospheric tension through an eclectic soundtrack of electronic music that echoes in every room no matter what room in which Selva finds herself, while songs from techno mainstays like Daft Punk and Giorgio Moroder grow faster and faster in tempo as scenes grow more disturbing. It’s worth noting that all the non-actors excel in conveying their drug-induced psychoses through improvised performances, but it’s Boutella that puts in her career-best work as she leaves audiences wondering what horrors Selva sees in her drug-induced visions, and how far her mind is being ripped apart as her body contorts in nightmarish movements.
As remarkable of an achievement Climax is as a horror film, it’s important to disclaim that the film is not for everyone. Noé has made a name for himself as an arthouse filmmaker that airs on the side of shocking, and if general audiences don’t have the patience for the long but exhilarating dance sequences, or the juvenile dialogue of the dancers in the party’s early-goings, they’ll be upset once the brutal violence and self-mutilation puts the likes of Selva, the youngster Tito, Lou and her unborn child in harm’s way, up to a frightening conclusion that frames the traumatized troupe like stalagmites on a ceiling, where they reach toward the camera for help like it’s another dancer, or the absent God above them.
But while the mileage may vary for general moviegoers, cinema enthusiasts, horror buffs, and those looking to expand their film horizons will marvel over the film’s artistry, and be terrified of humanity’s inner darkness throughout the experience of watching Climax. It doesn’t have the substance of Noé’s previous work, but that’s made up for by its place as an existentialist nightmare rooted by an energetic, chilling atmosphere, kinetic performances, and an assortment of visual and aural elements that fuse together to create the stuff of hallucinogenic, deranged nightmares. In crafting a stylish film where audiences watch characters suffer before their very eyes, Noé has succeeded in adapting transgressive filmmaking for the cinema of today in his on-screen depiction of a terrifying drug trip, and the result is as haunting and unique as it is unforgettable. Whether you love it or hate it, Climax is the kind of film that leaves audiences feeling they shouldn’t be watching it, and that’s the best kind of horror.