RICHARD SANSOM reviews Gaspar Noé’s latest about a dance troupe’s macabre descent into a psychotic hell.
Climax is the most recent work in a series of disorientating horrors from the Premier of New French Extremity, Gaspar Noé. Following on from 2015’s penetrating 3D porno Love, his fifth creation is yet another fantastic, woozy nightmare seemingly dreamt up in the menacing glow of Quartier Pigalle.
In a grotty Parisian suburb, a troupe of young dancehall glitterati drink sangria in celebration of a successful final rehearsal for an upcoming US tour. Unbeknown to them, the punchbowl has been spiked with acid. As the drug kicks in, the jubilant youths, who had hitherto been krumping and waacking so gracefully, descend into chaos. Over the course of the night, they are contaminated by the substance in a sequence of events that echoes the indelible cruelties of Greek tragedy. We bear witness to homicide, suicide, infanticide, incest, deadly miscommunication, blind ignorance, and revelation at the cost of everything.
One could even go as far as to suggest that Dionysus — the Greek metamorphic god of pleasure and madness; of festivity and wild frenzy; the lifeblood of the ancient dramatic arts — is at play here, orchestrating the scene in his director’s beret (leopard-print, of course) while red wine flows darkly all around. Unwittingly or otherwise, Noé channels the Dionysiac spirit in this film and it permeates all. As events unfold, the demonic nature of the godhead behind the Steadicam is revealed and it becomes clear that Climax is the work of a malign genius.
From the onset of the film, it is apparent that the fluorescent world of Climax is à l’envers. In the opening minutes, we are slapped in the face by an extended credit sequence, the names of which flash brilliantly before our eyes while Marc Cerrone’s 1977 track ‘Supernature’ throbs and sparkles in the background. In the audience, our pupils swell as if the only snacks available in the foyer were speedballs and skittles. The mood is frenetic. Once the final name has faded, we are shown a series of interviews with the individual members of the cast, which is comprised entirely of dancers. From a ’90s TV set framed by two stacks of films from Noé’s personal collection, the girls and boys give their views on life and art, with erotic overtones. In stark contrast to their upbeat remarks about the positive force of dance, the VHS titles on either side of the TV screen reek of death, prophetically spelling out murder, self-destruction, and psychological horror (Suspiria; Querelle; Carrie; Possession).
From there we are treated to arguably the most spectacular sequence of the film. An ecstatic dance commences, involving the entire exceptionally-talented cast. The voguing in particular is impressive, but there are various styles on display, all of which lend themselves beautifully to the LSD-infused descent into hell that initiates almost immediately after the dance is over. The accompanying beats are initially supplied by the impressive figure of Kiddy Smile, the French DJ who is currently at the helm of LGBTQ+ underground nightlife in Paris – a perfect casting for the role of Noé’s ringmaster. He is nicknamed ‘Daddy’ by the other characters and provides a stable and supportive role for those who quickly fall foul of the narcotics, to which he also eventually falls victim. As the drugs take effect, Kiddy Smile loses control of the decks and a dark force takes over. Marked by a highly effective musical transition from effervescent disco to the infernal rhythms of Dopplereffekt, Aphex Twin, and Daft Punk’s sinister ‘Rollin’ & Scratchin’’, the krumpers and waackers scattered around the dance floor become like harrowed spirits from the dark side of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Their faces grimace as the hypermobile joints of their bodies twist and bend at breakneck speed.
The katabasis in Climax is a shared journey and every character experiences a disturbing downfall. Each horrific sub-narrative twists and interlocks like chains which pull them all towards the ‘positive deaths’ that Noé admits he desires for them. Together they plumb the depths of psychosis, and the incremental pace of the bad trip is expertly judged, as if the whole work was scored by a single, crescendoing club track buried too deep within the film’s structure for us to hear it. The fact that Climax doesn’t dally on its downward journey may have something to do with the production schedule, which was in itself an incredible feat. Noé cast the dancers in a month, found the location and shot the film in its entirety in December 2017, sat with it in post-production for two months, and then took it straight to Cannes. The time constraints which the production team faced seem to have charged the film with a nervous energy that makes the overall experience thrilling.
LIFE IS AN IMPOSSIBILITY
DEATH IS AN EXTRAORDINARY EXPERIENCE
These are the film’s parting sentiments. In the final scene, the cast lay strewn about the dancehall in blood and filth, some twitching, others motionless. These words flash abruptly on the screen in dazzling white like the headlights of a car nanoseconds away from hurtling into you. Platitudinous though these philosophical observations may seem, Noé once more illuminates the Dionysiac spirit in his film by powerfully stressing the indestructibility of life/the inevitability of death polarity in fuck-off capital letters. Perhaps the director does see himself as a kind of Dionysus, making fast the chords of destruction as he encourages his revellers towards death and ultimate renewal. At one particular moment in the film this was hinted towards: we get a God’s eye view of the spiked punch as the dancers begin to drink it and gradually transform into his gore-streaked followers. The camera focuses on the liquor and then on the cast with gleeful anticipation, as if it were life’s face eager for death (or the reverse). Noé watches as cosmic spectator and he lets us watch with him, our white knuckles gently perforating sinew and skin as we grip the arms of our chairs.
Featured image source: cine-vue.com.
Watch the trailer.