I saw the trailer for Gaspar Noé's Climax right before watching Luca Guadagnino's remake of Dario Argento's Suspiria. The trailer draws an immediate parallel between the two films: an interview with a young woman plays on an old TV, flanked by a stack of VHS tapes including Argento's original. "If you couldn't dance, what would you do?" asks an off-screen voice. "Mmmm . . ." she replies, "suicide." With this declaration, Noé places Climax within a lineage of films in which dance is a matter of life or death.
Allegedly based on a true story about a dance troupe in the 1990s, Climax centers on a group of twenty-one dancers, diverse in race, gender, sexuality, and movement backgrounds, gathered outside Paris to rehearse a new production intended to tour France and the United States. We meet the ensemble through more of these interviews: there's the young voguer boy, the girl from Berlin who's sick of its druggie club scene, and even a brother and sister hip-hop duo. Besides Sofia Boutella (riveting as Selva, the choreographer of the group) the cast consists of actual dancers gathered by Noé and his team from vogue balls, krump battles, and the internet. It's a remarkable group, and it's stunning to see them form a collective. With Climax, Noé shines a spotlight on practitioners of dance forms that originated in marginalized groups. The film doesn't shy away from the inherent politics proposed by this diverse gathering of French youth culture, at one moment inserting a title card reading: "A French film and proud of it."
The opening dance sequence, choreographed by Nina McNeely, is a disco-fueled display of the dancers' talents, an eight-minute single take of gyrations and undulations performed for the gaze of the camera. We realize we're watching a dance movie, the piece unfolding before us in real time. The rehearsal ends (choreographer, company manager, and dancers all agree it was their best yet) and then the real party starts, a reward for all their hard work. Their manager has made sangria and almost everyone partakes. The fun is cut short when the dancers realize the drink was laced with LSD. The party goes haywire, and what follows is an orgiastic explosion of drug-induced mania. The dancers completely turn on one another: there's a violent assault on a pregnant woman, shocking acts of self-harm, and incest, among other atrocities. It's hard to watch—especially the film's treatment of women and queer characters—but this is after all a Gaspar Noé movie, the latest take from a provocateur known for his displays of extreme human depravity.
Climax is a choreographer's nightmare of a residency gone wrong—a pressure-cooker of creative immersion that causes the company to implode before the work can even premiere. Damn that sangria. Or perhaps the choreographer herself is responsible: did she drug the dancers to see how they'd react? Though we do ultimately learn who laced the drink, there's no real villain in this film, or rather everyone's a villain. Almost everyone does something morally reprehensible by the end of the movie.
What is Noé saying here about the choreographic process and its potential dangers? Climax speaks to the fears and desires that are always there within an ensemble by letting them take center stage. I'm reminded of rehearsals I've participated in as a dancer, rooms that didn't allow space for personal issues or discussions of identity. Did the dancers in this group ever get to discuss their varying experiences and disparate backgrounds? What about social class? How do the street dancers of color feel about that white boy dancing like them? It's worth noting that, like many works of contemporary dance, the movement in Climax was created improvisationally. Along with crafting moments of tight, in-sync dancing, McNeely designed movement structures for the dancers to work within, leaving space for them to dance in a way that felt natural to them. Shared among them all are sensuality and showmanship: they twitch, thrust, and fall to the ground with ease.
The dialogue was improvised as well: Noé worked from a one-page outline and let the cast ad-lib their lines. Most of the dialogue in the film happens during the party, and we spend time with various cliques in the group overhearing who likes, wants to have sex with, or has a beef with whom. In this way Noé sets up the potential for infighting within the company, letting us in on underlying conflicts that will later be made shockingly visible. I'm curious about Noé's process and its ethics: how much of the extreme content of the film came from Noé and how much from the dancer-actors themselves?
The rest of the film is spent inside the consciousness of the ensemble as it becomes a sensorial hellscape. The camera stays close to the movement of bodies writhing in pain and pleasure, at times turning the camera upside down as the characters' own disorientation grows. Noé, as he is wont to do, takes the violence to its absolute—often gratuitous—extreme, but there's something undeniably masterful about the film's energetic arc. With that stunner of a dance number early on, Climax both impresses us and forces us to adjust to a kinetic sensibility. We track the physical action of the film so closely that when the ensemble starts to self-combust (one memorable shot involves a girl literally lighting herself on fire), we can't look away. Noé is adept at creating a cinema rich in somatic experience; shooting dance comes naturally to a director known for portraying bodies pushed to their limits.
Noé isn't shy about his inspirations for the film. In addition to Suspiria, the stack of VHS tapes seen in the interview sequence include Querelle, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, and Andrzej Żuławski's Possession. There are the obvious comparisons to Black Swan, The Red Shoes, Rite of Spring: a few titles in the long list of cultural ephemera in which dance flirts with death. Though there aren't any witches in Climax—the horror, actually, lies in the lack of any supernatural force to blame for the human cruelty we see—Noé sets his film in an abandoned school that recalls the ballet academy in Argento's Suspiria, full of creepy dormitory hallways lit by red and green colored lights. I felt a kinship with Guadagnino's remake as well: both films, with the legitimately impressive dancing they show onscreen, posit dance as a deeply powerful force with the potential to destroy. Climax pays homage to Possession with an extended sequence in which Selva writhes and hurls herself through the building, the scene clearly modeled after Isabelle Adjani's infamous subway outburst in Żuławski's film (if you haven't seen it—look it up).
In the morning, the police find a gruesome scene in the school building: many of the dancers are dead, some are still tripping, a few lucky ones are asleep, and one is still dancing like no one is watching. So we're left with death, and we're left with dancing. Some dancing reminds us of our mortality just as much as it helps us reach our most ecstatic selves. In its own twisted way, Climax is a dance movie, and Noé shows a real reverence for these dancers. The violence we see in the second half of the film was already there, dormant and subsumed by social codes and an illusion of community within the company. Or maybe Climax is a dance disguised as a film. Like any compelling work of choreography, Climax asks the viewer to accept kinetics as content, drawing its dramatic power from the beauty and horror of the body in motion.