An introductory scene of Gaspar Noé’s Climax gives viewers some hints of what to expect. Interviews with the film’s character play on a CRT TV, where they speak of the artistic power of dance and what it means to their lives. The TV is flanked by array of books and VHS tapes. The movies are on the right, and include Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Noé’s own Irreversible, and Andrzej Å»uÅ‚awski’s Possession. I couldn’t make out the book titles on the left side of the TV since my French is horrible, I didn’t recognize any of the spine trade dress, and I probably need a new pair of glasses. There was, however, a book on Fritz Lang.
This split between books and movies is visually interesting, but may also speak to the divisions in human nature that Noé lays bare in the film. The interviews we watch now are the dancers as high-minded artistes, but we will watch them debase themselves and then devolve into a collective raging, rutting, transgressive id. This is a good party that goes horribly wrong.
Director: Gaspar Noé
Release Date: March 1, 2019 (limited)
Climax is loosely based on the true story of a French dance troupe whose party punch was spiked with LSD. For Noé, the bad trip becomes a pretext to explore the breakdown of social norms and conventions into some feral state of nature. There are indications of what’s to come before the drugs take hold.
I mentioned that the TV interviews feature the characters in their most elevated states. They’re reserved, they’re thoughtful, they’re reflective; they’re even flanked by cultural referents. We then see them dancing, in the most dazzling and memorable scene of the film. The entire troupe performs an intricate ensemble piece to Cerrone’s “Supernature.” The cast writhes and contorts in fantastic fashion in a single, uninterrupted take to the disco epic; Noé’s camera hovers and turns and tilts with the cast to emphasize their movement, their mastery. It is a stunning work of dancer and camera choreography that feels like the sole justification for the entire film’s existence. It made me wonder why people aren’t making more musicals like this.
We then get something of an exposition and characterization dump. The characters casually outline their relationships, their interests, and their aspirational hook-ups before the night is through. Notice their demeanor in this scene. They’re no longer these reserved artistes but just young sexy people who want to party. Unsurprisingly, a few of them are horny as f**k. Between the Appollonian mind reflecting on art and the Dionysian imperatives of sensual bodies in motion, dance becomes the perfect mediation. We get a second sublime dance sequence, with individual members of the troupe twirling ecstatically while encircled. This is viewed from above, as if Busby Berkeley worked for Vice.
And then the drugs take hold. The nausea comes slowly and then the existential sickness becomes overwhelming. Once it happens, the movie is no longer about the exaltation of dance; Climax is now about an inescapable nightmare in which decency and camaraderie are meaningless. Characters become jealous, paranoid, and aggressive. One character wets herself proudly, another resorts to self-harm; their peers cheer them each on. The horny people also become hornier. Even Tito, the young son of the troupe’s manager and the only child in the film, has gotten into the party punch and is totally freaking out. The camera still floats around the dance floor and hallways, but starts to feel malevolent and voyeuristic.
At this point the spirit of Climax becomes less of an orgiastic bacchanal and more like a dissociative episode caused by a bad time with drugs. If you’ve had a bad trip before, you’ll recognize this feeling. It’s the helpless, nightmarish quality of wanting to leave but being anchored into your own miserable skin. Noé punctuates these feelings with harsh, monochromatic lighting cues, deepening shadows, increasingly vertiginous cinematography, and the amped up hysteria in the performances. It is remarkable how well the imagery manifests the subjective mental states of anyone within the frame. Climax can be an ugly, off-putting movie to watch in this second half, and that is by design.
Selva (Sofia Boutella) emerges as the audience’s guide through the Climax’s bad trip. She is the one person who shares the audience’s moral and aesthetic discomfort, and seems to have the most control over her faculties while the rest of her peers have succumbed to whatever subconscious impulses they’ve repressed. The early nod to Å»uÅ‚awski’s Possession returns in an overt homage to one of that film’s most memorable scenes involving Isabelle Adjani. Selva also figures prominently in one of Climax’s best needle drops. Without giving too much away, it involves Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker.”
This all sounds weird, and yet I was hoping that Climax would be a much weirder film. That’s one of the reasons I felt intrigued yet disappointed by the end. The bad trip winds up a one-note drone after it sets in. There is no sudden turn of imaginative wildness to add to the transgressive nightmare. Maybe I wanted something even more psychedelic or brutal or surreal or just outright unexpected. The characters hinted at something supernatural and occult about the building they’re in, but it’s just there for texture rather than as setup for something bigger and stranger. The implied thesis on human nature is pretty obvious as well, and maybe par for the course for Noé. Yes, there is a difference between civilization and the state of nature, and yeah, people can be really amoral and self-interested, at times downright inhuman. And?
There are touches of formal weirdness, like opening the film with the end credits crawl or Noé’s use of colorful title cards mid-film. Yet these seem like safe touches of weirdness, if that distinction makes sense. They impact the form of the narrative but not the material in the narrative; the material is only weird if you have never hung out with people who went to art school. Given the closing segments of the film, it sort of feels like Climax climaxed around the 20-minute mark. Everything after that is part of a comedown that is at least interesting from a technical standpoint, at least if you have a thing for assaultive cinema. Thinking of it that way, opening with the end credits is fitting.
But at least there’s that first dance number, which I want to watch again and again and again. Maybe my disappointment is not just because the movie climaxed so early, but because no moment after that seemed as fresh or as memorable.