Climax is an antithetical name for a film that begins with its most arresting sequence. Although, strangely, the camera doesn’t dive or swerve through the troop of dancers that serve as the subjects of this film, the opening dance number still manages to take on a hallucinatory quality. The camera is ghoulish, as if the dancers are performing for a daemonic voyeur. It’s one of the most striking dance sequences I’ve seen put on film, without resorting to flashy camera trickery or gimmicky edits in post-production. Yet these initial smooth takes – taken in one long, meandering shot – signal the last moment of coherence and control before Climax descends into the acid trip from hell.
The film opens with interviews from each member of the dance group on retro television screens buzzing with white noise. What does dance mean to you? “Everything”, replies one participant. For another, the only other option is “suicide.” What is paradise? asks the anonymous voice behind the camera. “Everything good… A world without chaos.” For any regular viewer of Gaspar Noé’s filmography, now sanitised to his brand of provocative arthouse horror, these opening remarks will sound uncomfortably naïve. But for any newcomers to his work, they offer a fleeting moment of respite before the characters’ hopes and dreams are – quite literally – flipped on their head.
Climax is a loose dramatization of real events that took place in 1996. A dance troop in France were rehearsing for a US tour when, after their punch was spiked with LSD, they endured an almighty bad trip. Slowly, the group start to realise what has happened and violently attack any sober suspects. What follows is not a grotesque game of Cluedo, following the troop as they attempt to uncover the person behind the deadly bowl of Sangria (although the final shots of the film do solve the mystery in a surprisingly neat fashion). Instead, Noé simply observes the group descending into madness – and brings the audience along for the ride. Time is elastic in Climax, mimicking the disorientation of an acid trip, whilst allowing the audience to follow the events as if they’re happening in real time.
Initially, the rehearsal after party is relatively calm. In these scenes, we see the characters’ individual personalities shine through. Noé provides two of the men with extensive dialogue, as they banter about their sexual intentions with the rest of the group. It neither advocates nor endorses their toxic masculinity, creating an uneasy and deliberately provocative tone. Elsewhere, we learn about the anxieties of the choreographer, who fears that she is a bad mother. There is also tension between an incestuous brother and sister, who are jealous of one another’s partners, and a queer couple who clearly aren’t in love. This is all standard fare for Gaspar Noé, whose brand of cinema delights in pushing our buttons.
Inevitably, the party descends into chaos, subverting the initial hope provided by the early TV interviews: a woman performs her own abortion, someone is set on fire, and a young child is locked in a room, screaming for help as the hallucinations take hold of his imagination. For an extended amount of time, the camera is upside down, as the characters stumble their way through dark corridors illuminated by blood-red lighting. It’s a stylish vision of hell, but there is still something lacking, as if these mesmerising scenes are, ironically, dead behind the eyes.
The initial promise of emotional depth is lost in the final act. Clearly, Noé wants to place the audience in the position of the dance troop, so that we can subjectively experience the acid trip for ourselves. Yet for all his acrobatic camera movements and POV shots, we never fully understand the characters’ emotions and feelings, placing the audience at an uncomfortable distance from the drama. The hellish screams of the dance troop cannot make up for the film’s lack of emotional range.
But perhaps that is to miss the point: Gaspar Noé is not the director one turns to for a sweeping emotional drama. Climax succeeds as an exercise in provocation, projecting nightmarish images onscreen to the soundtrack of 90s EDM, which makes for a dizzying experience of a movie. The two major dance sequences, in particular, are dazzlingly brilliant. Perhaps the only respite of this film is the knowledge that, if he so chooses, Gaspar Noé would make one hell of a musical.
Words by Liam Taft