In a self-referential nod to his controversial 2002 thriller Irreversible, Gaspar Noé opens his latest mindfuck, Climax, with the film’s final scene and closing credits. We then cut to an extended Haneke-esque sequence in which the individual members of a multi-cultural French dance troupe are seen discussing their enthusiasm for an upcoming Stateside dance competition on an old boxy TV screen (the movie is set in 1996, likely to avoid the plot hassles that cellphones notoriously cause horror filmmakers). Arranged beside the TV set is a pile of VHS tapes, the spines hinting at Noé’s influences (Argento, Buñuel, Fulci, Pasolini, Zulawski). They also act as a sly warning of the horrors to come - the primary coloured slaughter of dancers (Suspiria); floors splashed with bodily secretions (Salò); a miscarriage/interpretive dance performance (Possession); a blade dragged across human flesh (Un Chien Andalou).
Purporting to be based on a real life incident that occurred in a Parisian suburb in ‘96, Climax opens with what might be the most impressive dance number of the 21st century. Set to Cerrone’s 1977 disco stomper ‘Supernature’, it sees each member of the troupe (all unknowns save for dancer turned breakout international star Sofia Boutella) introduce themselves with bodily contortions that appear to defy the limits of limbs and joints. Noé stages it all in one long take, the subtle brilliance of his camera hinting at what Minnelli might have pulled off in the age of Moroder, and a reminder that it’s better to cast a musical with dancers who can’t act than actors who can’t dance.
Following the elaborate rehearsal, the dancers decide to chill out and reward themselves with a bowl of Sangria. They break into small groups (noticeably divided by race, gender and sexuality) and begin to bitch about their fellow dancers. The Sangria seems a lot stronger than it should be however and as the assembled dancers start to lose their faculties, it becomes apparent that the drink has been spiked by LSD. Paranoia sets in, with individuals singled out as the culprit and becoming targeted by the increasingly deranged and violent mob. An evening of atrocities ensues.
Though neither appears in the opening stack of VHS tapes, two movies in particular stand out as the primary influence on Climax - David Cronenberg’s Shivers, in which the residents of a Toronto apartment complex lose their inhibitions and indulge in animalistic sex and violence after coming into contact with a parasite; and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, in which, isolated in a snowy location like the dancers here, a group of scientists turn on one another as an alien moves from one human host to the next. Surprisingly, Noé’s film is more restrained than both Cronenberg’s and Carpenter’s, with most of the violence occurring offscreen (in one delicious moment of black as night comedy, the power goes off, hinting that a character has electrocuted themselves in a power closet), and it’s far tamer than more mainstream horror efforts like this year’s over-rated schlockfest Hereditary.
That’s not to say Climax won’t inspire walkouts at most of its screenings (there were even a couple of casualties at the critics’ show I attended), but those who decide they’ve had enough of Noé’s latest will likely do so out of tedium rather than terror. There are lengthy patches of Climax that leave us simply following characters as they wander through long corridors (Noé sure loves a dimly lit corridor) and contort themselves in screaming spasms like Isabelle Adjani in Zulawski’s offbeat masterpiece Possession. But there’s a purpose to the tedium. Much like how high class restaurants leave diners waiting for patience testing lengths between courses, Noé gives us time to think about and assess what we’re consuming, what the point of it all is, and if there is really any point to it at all.
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Noé is easily dismissed as a shock/schlock merchant, but he always has something to say, even if he expresses his ideas and issues in the crudest of fashion. With Climax, Noé seems to have somehow predicted France’s World Cup win and the ensuing debate around the multi-cultural makeup of the team and what it means to be French. An immigrant to France himself, Noé has expressed a love/hate relationship with his adopted country. Climax opens with a credit that reads “A French movie, and damn proud of it,” a far cry from his description of France as a “shithole of cheese and Nazi lovers” in his 1998 debut I Stand Alone. The first image we see in the rehearsal space is that of a huge tricolour draped on its wall, and drunk on spiked Sangria, one black dancer talks about how he fears the flag, believing it haunted. On the video tape montage that opens the film, various multi-ethnic dancers discuss how they are looking forward to representing France, while simultaneously describing the nation as “hell on earth.” Noé would seem to be commenting on how France, like many western countries, mistreats its minorities while increasingly relying on them to represent the nation’s culture.
Or he could simply be having fun mixing up his cinematic influences in a punch bowl and pushing his audience’s limits of endurance. Noé has certainly tapped into the underlying creepiness and sleaziness of disco music (for his generation, raised on the slasher movies of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, disco is the soundtrack of murder), particularly that of the white European bent. Who hasn’t listened to that bridge in the 12” of Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’ where it segues into a demented synth cover of ‘Where Did Our Love Go?” and thought it belonged in a horror movie? If nothing else, Noé has nailed that feeling of shutting yourself in a bathroom as you suffer a bad trip, the throbbing bass pouring in from a distant dancefloor threatening to drive you insane. Like most drugs, Climax will delight some, disturb others, and leave the rest waiting in vain for the effect to kick in.