Early in the film Climax, we witness something that's never been present before in the work of Gaspar Noé: euphoria. It comes from a jaw-dropping dance number, filmed with characteristic bravado in one continuous take by Noé and cinematographer Benoît Debie. In a vacant school, in front of a glittering French flag, a virtuosic dance troupe leaps, contorts, gyrates, and performs other feats of bodily insanity to a thumping techno beat. It's a moment of both cinematic and athletic mastery, radiating with joy and energy, and it feels like a radical breakthrough in the career of a director who's so often seen as nihilistic and puerile.
At the same time, we're unquestionably in Gaspar Noé territory, as is made clear from the opening images: an aerial tracking shot in which a bloodstained woman drags herself through a blizzard and collapses in the snow. The "end" credits then proceed to roll, including a title informing us that the movie we've just seen was inspired by a real-life incident that happened in France in 1996 (of course, we don't yet know what this refers to). Noé makes a habit of slathering in-your-face titles and credits onscreen, like a mix of Godard and Banksy, as with the "opening" credits of Climax that don't appear until 45 minutes in, an assault of different fonts and graphic displays appearing over a 360-degree rotating shot, techno music continuing to blare on the soundtrack (as it does for most of the movie). In Climax, there are also ostensibly profound philosophical titles that appear sporadically: "Death is an Extraordinary Experience," says one, or "Life is a Shared Impossibility" (echoes there of one of Noé's literary idols, Sartre). These titles are maybe the least bombastic element of Noé's maximalist aesthetic, and at least in Climax, they provide a respite from what becomes an enervatingly horrific drug trip.
Those dancers, though, provide a semblance of humanity amid the despair, with Noé demonstrating more sympathy towards his characters than he ever has before. We're introduced to them in candid interviews (apparently audition videos) filmed from a frontal perspective, as they play on a small, boxy television with rows of VHS tapes and books towering to the sides. The titles have long served as influences for Noé and their impact can be especially felt in Climax: books by Nietzsche and Emil Cioran, drug textbooks, movies like Suspiria, Possession, and Salò. More than just glib references for film and philosophy buffs, the presence of these texts serve as Noé's guarded acknowledgement that the creation of art can give human life purpose, that it can instill momentary transcendence. In other words, they suggest what that later dance scene will prove overwhelmingly: life may be ruled by horror and despair, but experiencing great art can provide a glimmer of meaning.
Following that exhilarating dance scene (which is one of the few moments in a Noé movie that I want to rewatch as soon as possible, instead of trying to shut it out of memory), we observe snippets of conversations between the troupe members, who constitute an array of racial, sexual, religious, and ethnic identities. Some of them discuss art, their excitement about touring in America, feelings of unrequited love or (more often) thwarted lust. Others discuss female members of the troupe with predatory intentions; still others talk about drugs, youth, abortion. Separated by brief cuts to black, as though we're groggily drifting among these characters and falling in and out of sleep, these interactions aren't touching exactly (sentimentality is nowhere to be found in Noé's cinema) but they do suggest fully-lived personalities that make us dread the nightmare that we sense is about to happen.
And then it does. Someone has spiked the sangria, it turns out, with a powerful hallucinogen, sending all of the dancers (the ones who ingest alcohol, at least) into the worst drug trip they've ever had. The horror begins when a Muslim character who doesn't drink is tossed violently out of the gym and locked in the blizzard outside; the affected dancers, teetering on the precipice of madness, assume that he was responsible for spiking the drink. Xenophobia, misogyny, and intolerance become prevalent, though Noé doesn't condemn them moralistically as many directors would; they're just inevitable products of human behavior. Jealousy and violence and fury become harder to contain. Someone pisses on the dance floor, swaying dead-eyed to the beat. A young boy, about six years old, whose single mother was forced to bring him along for the night, is locked in an electrical closet to shield him from the chaos (and forebodingly told not to touch the exposed sockets). One woman, who becomes sick but didn't drink the sangria, is forced to reveal that she's pregnant, leading to an inevitably disturbing turn of events. Rape, incest, self-mutilation, and suicide are around the corner, though the sickly fluorescent lighting and roving camera (such as as one shot that lasts about 40 minutes, nearly the entire second half of the movie) make such unpleasantries illegible to the audience, for better or worse. Viewers expecting a fun, psychedelic horror movie should be warned that much of the movie is brutal and exhausting.
But, unlike Irreversible for example, the horror into which the movie plunges is firmly rooted in the characters' fears and anxieties. The early audition tapes and the fragments of conversation that we hear are integral to understanding the nightmares that will soon manifest themselves. One male character's boastful claims that he's fucked half the dance troupe and will soon fuck the rest implode when he's shunned by the people whose company he craves the most, sending him down a spiral of sexual jealousy. A brother who's creepily infatuated with his young sister's sexual maturity will force her to satisfy his demands. An early conversation about abortion, and the desire to start a family or avoid having children at all costs, offers sad and gruesome foreshadowing. Far from taking delight in tormenting his characters, though, Noé exudes a sort of fatalistic nausea at the cruelty of life. He sympathizes with their bastardized dreams, their resilience in trying to find some sort of hope beneath it all. It should also be noted that a few characters seem to make it through the night, including two gay men who spend the night together and are seen sleeping through the mayhem in a stupor, or one woman who dances nonstop and plunks some eyedrops into her irises when morning comes, sending the screen into a blinding white dissolve.
Does all of this have anything to say beyond "life's a bitch and then you die"? The pseudo-philosophical titles that appear onscreen are little more than crude existentialist slogans (though maybe that's the way Noé prefers it; after all, Godard's editorial intertitles frequently came off as aphoristic). The payoff of the over-the-top, in-your-face aesthetic—the achronological structure, the violent aversion to a happy ending or any kind of resolution, the flashy, marathon-take camera movements—is that the film can often seem more profound than it really is (which was absolutely true of Enter the Void, though less drastic in the case of Climax). In the end, it probably doesn't matter much if Noé has offered us a dense philosophical treatise. What he has created—with the indispensable help of an ambitious crew and the most talented cast he's ever had at his disposal (almost entirely longtime dancers and unprofessional actors, with the exception of Sofia Boutella)—is a dazzling, visceral glimpse at the beauty humans are capable of making, and a terrifying descent into the ugliness we more often create for ourselves.
Premiere: May 13, 2018 (Cannes Film Festival)
US Release: March 1, 2019
US Distributor: A24
Director: Gaspar Noé
Producers: Brahim Chioua, Richard Grandpierre, Vincent Maraval, Edouard Weil
Writer: Gaspar Noé
Cinematography: Benoît Debie
Editors: Denis Bedlow, Gaspar Noé
Cast: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull, Giselle Palmer, Taylor Kastle, Thea Carla Schott, Sharleen Temple, Lea Vlamos, Alaia Alsafir, Kendall Mugler, Lakdhar Dridi, Adrien Sissoko, Mamadou Bathily, Alou Sidibé, Ashley Biscette, Mounia Nassangar, Tiphanie Au, Sarah Belala, Alexandre Moreau, Naab, Strauss Serpent, Vince Galliot Cumant