Climax: apocalyptic house party at the end of the world

The films of Gaspar Noe have always possessed an aura of the psychedelic. The shimmering, flickering fluorescence of his environments; the freewheeling, drifting motions of his cinematography (by regular collaborator Benoit Debie); and the dream-like, pseudo-philosophical mutterings of his characters all evoke the LSD experience. Frequent allusions to drug culture and trip-films like 2001 cement a particular psychotropic ambiance that forms the essence of his work. Irreversible and Enter the Void, in particular, demonstrate Noe’s grasp of trip mechanics – the ways in which elated highs can become horrific lows in an instant.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Climax’s bad-trip dance party straight into the bowels of hell feels like the movie the Argentinian provocateur has been working towards for years. A diverse troupe of dancers (mostly acting newcomers, aside from Sofia Boutella) rehearse and party the harsh winter away in a secluded, seedy school. One night, they’re delighted to find that a choreographer has made them a copious quantity of sangria only to realise, an hour later, that an unknown assailant has spiked the punch with acid.

Climax is best thought of as a work in two acts, or a continuous 96-minute experimental dance piece. For its first 45 minutes, Noe introduces us to our characters by way of VHS interview tapes and tipsy conversation – fluid camerawork, sexy dance moves, and a bouncy mood indicate that the group is in relative harmony. The television, however, tells us a different story – stacked alongside the interview tapes are copies of Suspiria, Salo, Posession, and Un Chien Andalou amongst other provocations – films which will be incredibly relevant to the madness which is to transpire. And as the group becomes drunker and drunker, the dancers begin to reveal more violent, nasty tendencies that threaten to spill over into real life conflict.

We’re only faced with the opening credits once the acid has hit and, from then onwards, it’s a downward spiral into darker and darker territory: violence, sexual assault, incest, death and more. Despite the lack of a narrative, Noe’s propulsive direction catapults Climax into spheres of greatness. His camera swirls and swoons around the dancers, at times in what feels like a seamless long take, at others fading in and out in a way that feels like blinking.

Lighting is always half-way between fetishistic Refn and even more fetishistic strip club – fading from voyeuristic red to sickening neon green and dirty blue with elegant nonchalance. Sometimes the camera faces the action head on; at other times it captures events from above; at others it revolves, sickeningly, in loop-the-loops and inversions as if on a rocket-propelled rollercoaster. In a particularly bravura closing sequence, the world is completely inverted for a good five minutes, bathed in electric, dangerous crimson as scenes reminiscent of Sodom and Gomorrah rage violently around the frame.

Pounding, sweaty dance routines generate so much cinematic energy that I was practically jumping out of my seat to join the party. Similarly, the soundtrack is absolutely banging. From Daft Punk to Aphex Twin, and even an incredible new cut from Thomas Bangalter, this is a horror movie that I found myself head-bobbing to for almost the entire runtime. But as the film progresses, the actor’s moves become more and more distressing until they ultimately begin to channel queasy body horror. Noe’s camera lingers and letches over naked, flailing, bloody shapes doing awful things to themselves and each other.

For those more able to, erm, empathise with Noe’s characters, Climax begins to grow extra-sensory limbs that threaten to strangle viewers at every turn. Because the physical and mental behaviour of the characters on LSD is so eerily realistic, flashbacks are incredibly likely despite the fact that Noe never tips his visual field into hallucination. The sense that things are totally out of control and brutal paranoia that can come with a bad trip possesses the spirit of Climax – creating an oppressive, sinister atmosphere. Yet there’s a potent strain of blacker-than-black humour here too: the way Boutella’s character reacts to a painting of a forest, or getting her hands trapped in her own tights caused more than a few laughs in the audience.

Despite all the vicious nastiness, Climax never becomes the opportunistic exploitation shocker that we’ve come to expect from Noe – which is a good thing. When ‘only’ 25 people walked out of its Cannes premiere, the enfant terrible seemed on the verge of tantrum, but the departure from provocation for provocation’s sake allows for his work to be genuinely distressing without ever tipping over into camp schlock. If anything, the lack of shock tactics makes the work all the more shocking – realistic and horrifying.

This movie should come with a health warning. It will intoxicate you and thrill you, but it will also terrify you. You’ll feel completely out of control, unable to do anything but grip your armrests and pray for a merciful comedown. In this world, Lucy ain’t in the Sky with Diamonds, she’s thrashing around on the floor, screaming, covered in her own blood. Climax is Noe’s masterful, sickening house party at the end of the world.


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