Danse Macabre

Nick Pinkerton on Gaspar Noé’s Climax (2018)

Gaspar Noé, Climax, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 96 minutes.

GASPAR NOÉ’S CLIMAX is an encyclopedia of ways in which the human body can bend and break, a sailor’s knot guide of the contortions possible with four limbs, a trunk, and a head, skulls seemingly empty of thoughts other than sex and death. Set in an isolated school somewhere outside Paris where a troupe of hip-hop dancers has assembled for intensive rehearsals before an impending American tour, the movie unravels in something like real-time. Cutting loose at the end of a day’s work, the dancers dip into a punch bowl of sangria before discovering that one of them has spiked it with LSD, precipitating a collective freak-out.

The film opens with a premonition of catastrophe: an indifferent-God’s-eye-view of a bloodied young woman wading through a field of snow before collapsing and flailing while tracing an angel in the powder. Next there’s a roll call of sorts, a series of videotaped interviews with the dancers, seen on a tube television set flanked by piled up books and VHS tapes. These touches, as well as the selection of tunes on the excellent wall-to-wall soundtrack (M/A/R/R/S’s “Pump Up the Volume” joins other nuggets), are about as far as Noé goes toward situating Climax as a period piece. Ostensibly, it is set in 1996, based on an apocryphal true story, yet, anachronistically, the dancers have absorbed krumping styles from the United States.

They display these moves in an opening number that’s the most thrilling piece of sustained moviemaking in Noé’s career, set to an instrumental edit of Cerrone’s harried 1977 French disco banger “Supernature” and choreographed by Los Angeles–based Nina McNeely, who has credits on music videos from Major Lazer’s “Bubble Butt” to Rihanna’s “Anti Diary.” Around twenty dancers present a phalanx to the camera, which advances and retreats with them, occasionally springing into an overhead view, all without an edit. From their seething ranks, moving as a united organism––part scrum, part group-grope––single dancers spring out to solo. Their movement is aggressive even when sexual, the come-on to the camera coming off as a haughty challenge. Hands rake the air with feline ferocity; arms flicker like butterfly knives; a line of voguers snake by in their hopak crouch, kicking in lockstep. Sofia Boutella, the star inasmuch as this peripatetic ensemble film has one, gets a splashy buildup that recalls The Birth of Venus in motion. David (Romain Guillermic) advances toward the camera with four dancers fused to his joints, like some massive robotic exoskeleton. There are explosions of frantic stasis that resemble nothing so much as stock footage of failed early aviation inventions that they would pop into scenes for comic effect. The overall impression is of a massive, fine-tuned mechanism of enmeshed human parts, glorious in harmony if potentially perilous in the event of malfunction.

This being a Gaspar Noé film, nothing good can last—even if the destruction of innocence doesn’t follow the traditional downfall order of cause and effect, as in Irréversible (2002). The group is a mixed bunch—male and female, gay and straight with ever gradient in-between, largely if not exclusively black, and with a significant trans contingent—but none of these differences seems to be a source of tension, for all are united by a common cause. Aside from the dancers, the troupe includes a DJ, Daddy (Kiddy Smile); the manager, Emmanuelle (Claude-Emmanuelle Gajan-Maull); and her young son, Tito (Vince Galliot Cumant). It’s a happy, horny family, with nearly every adult plotting to fuck everyone they haven’t already, but then the acid kicks in and everything goes straight to hell. Emmanuelle locks Tito in the electrical closet, then loses the key. Those who haven’t drunk the sangria are persecuted by the increasingly unruly and mob-like majority who have. An assault on the white David, the self-styled cocksman of the bunch, takes on an explicitly racial dimension, underlined when shortly afterward, Daddy dons a blond wig and several black members smear themselves with white makeup, as though the racially role-playing Hauka dancers in Jean Rouch’s Les maîtres fous (1955) have returned to take revenge against their oppressors.

Gaspar Noé, Climax, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 96 minutes.

The dissolve of discipline among the ranks is reflected in the film’s style. The material that makes up approximately the first half is divisible into neatly distinguished sections: the opening show-stopper; a series of one-on-one palavers between dancers, all steeped in sex and erotic speculation; a dance circle seen Busby Berkeley–style from overhead, with participants writhing against the saturated red of the worn, gouged floor. The second half, announced by belated title credits—Noé has compared the film’s structure to Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987): “People get ready for war, and then the war starts”—is a very different, and feral, animal. As contagious hysteria ripples across the building, the locked-down framing disappears, and the camera begins to prowl through the school auditorium and a network of heretofore unseen tunnels and bedrooms around it, passing baton-style from one freaked-out, gibbering kid to the next. The cinematographer is regular Benoît Debie, who oversees lighting while Noé acts as his own operator, tilting the frame so that his subjects seem to be hanging on for dear life aboard a tempest-tossed ship, and even repeatedly turning the image upside down. Much of this is presented as a single unbroken shot, though when the overhead lights cut out and those on the backup generators bathe the space in red and green, the frequent flickers provide plenty of blackout for the editor’s art to slip into. The music never stops, however, nor really does the dancing, and as the once convivial event is reduced to sub-animalistic shrieking in the darkness, one of the troupe members, a Cameroonian contortionist, Strauss Serpent, forms himself into shapes that wouldn’t be out of place in the Last Judgement of The Garden of Earthly Delights.

At ninety-six minutes, Climax is Noé’s shortest feature. It is, however, wholly of a piece with his body of work otherwise, in that it combines a virtuoso technical complexity with a view of human behavior that is paleolithic in its simplicity—men and women as meat marionettes, roving cocks and cunts and assholes, yanked hither and tither by their desires until death cuts the strings so that, if one is to take literally the reincarnation scenario in 2009’s Enter the Void, the whole terrible comedy can start all over again. As in that film, Noé shows his propensity for spiraling shots, a stated borrowing from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), though here again they’re less a matter of depicting weightlessness than approximating the experience of being swallowed up and shat out by a movie—to borrow from Coil, a tumble down the anal staircase.

Gaspar Noé, Climax, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 96 minutes.

His brazenly tacky ballyhoo aside, Noé never comes off as a dummy, though distinctly he doesn’t address his films to the intellect. Climax’s opening featuring the recorded interviews crowded by the spines of books and tapes—Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981), a text by Virginie Despentes, R. W. Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982), Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), and so on—seems at first like a possible instruction manual for what will come. Yet it’s a deliberately unhelpful one, a dump of extraneous information on top of a good portion of what character development the film will give us until there’s no way to comfortably take it all in, the result something like a joke at the expense of both viewers who would like to intellectually interpret what lies ahead and viewers who ask for the courtesy of psychological shading and “relatability” when entering a film.

And, indeed, when the waacking and flex dancing is in full kinetic effect, who cares about what influences Noé is under or who is who and why they got into dance in the first place? Isn’t it enough to be there, witnessing something so volatile and alive that you can feel in your guts? This grip holds for as long as Noé maintains a balance of controlled chaos, but well before Climax’s second half has played out, the generated charge of these early scenes peters out in the morass of madness. A few moments of real horror punctuate the desperate, primal din, but the spectacle of disjointed destruction pales beside that of the dance’s concentrated creation. The absence of distinctly articulated personalities now makes the entire exercise seem distinctly low-stakes, a virtuoso tour of an inferno where you can gawk at the torments without risking being actually singed. (As immersive, experiential cinematic bedlam goes, the slow-mounting whirligig frenzy of Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 Mother makes for a rather more troubling experience.) The “mystery” of who spiked the sangria is only a farce, tied up in an afterthought—the culprit is revealed carrying a text that frames the whole affair as an experiment in amateur group psychology, and as such proves a directorial alter ego of sorts. The question of who will last the night is the only real element of suspense at play and is engaging only on the level that one hates to see beautiful bodies go to waste.

There’s no denying that Noé’s simple structural equation fulfills what it sets out to do—arranges pins and then knocks them down, introduces a dance floor and then makes it an abattoir. Is it a thing worth doing, though? For Climax’s front half, at least, the answer is resoundingly affirmative, for brutal beauty is its own excuse for being. As for the downhill tumble into anarchy that follows, well, you could certainly venture an argument by taking some quote from Antonin Artaud or maybe one of the books in the reading list that Noé offers up at the beginning. But while plunging deeper and deeper into pure corporeal horror, this once sleek, vivid movie grows increasingly vague, less concrete, obedient to an externally imposed logic rather than an internal one—things fall apart not because they do but because they must. The difference is that found between a controlled demolition and an accident, between spectacle and true, total terror.

Climax opens in US theaters on March 1.