What would you do for the chance to work with the illustrious choreographer Selva (Sofia Boutella) and her DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile)? According to the group of young dancers they interviewed: “Anything.” Some are coy when asking for context to the question with a smile and others are quick to pretty much say they’d kill a person if asked. So off they all go to a remote school during winter to rehearse a routine with which they plan to set New York and London stages ablaze. And with an opening number of gyrations and attitude as each converges and solos to the 90s-specific techno flavors pounding out of the speakers, you know Selva chose correctly. This is sex, violence, and love in rhythmically synergistic motion.
Being that Climax is a Gaspar Noé film, however, this invigorating opening scene (which he shot himself in what looks to be a single serpentine take with the help of cinematographer Benoît Debie‘s lighting) isn’t actually the opening scene. The initial imagery is instead of a woman stumbling through snow while screaming against a stark white expanse. A VHS tracking skip gets us here, the overhead vantage disorienting our ability to really know when (if ever) the camera pans to deliver a more grounded horizon. From there come the end credits in full scroll before we’re sent back to the “real” beginning with video interviews of the dancers courtesy of an old television framed by stacks of film books and slipcases including F. W. Murnau and Suspiria respectively.
The logo-fied opening credits arrive close to midway through after having already gotten a taste of whom these performers are (everyone besides Boutella a professional dancer without acting experience). Maybe you’ll recognize their names and those of the artists whose music supplies the instrumental bass line propelling the action forward or maybe you won’t—so why bother pretending they matter in context with the characters they are playing? Noé only supplied them a one-page treatment describing the inspired by real life situation of a secluded troupe experiencing a nightmarishly hallucinatory trip while locked away from civilization in a blizzard at a time when cellphones weren’t a necessary, affordable, or reliable accessory. From there he let them do their thing in character so the intense chaos could escalate naturally.
Don’t therefore expect a story. Dancers already hot and heavy for each other regardless of gender, sexuality, or relationship status find the euphoric cliff-edge of excitement for the future at the bottom of an LSD-laced cup of sangria and let hormones, paranoia, and rage take control of their rapidly uninhibited selves. Brawls breakout, pregnant women are kicked in the gut, someone is set on fire, and Noé even lets incest into the mix. Jealousies lead some to anger; lust leads others to sadness once advances aren’t reciprocated. For some it’s a good trip evened out by cocaine while others discover their lives spiraling out of control until suicide appears their only true release. What first seemed like the makings of an orgy becomes an animalistic bout of savagery.
If that were all it was, Climax would be divisive because those who came to see the choreography might not be prepared for the unchecked violence that arrives without filter. And those who craved the second act’s horror might not see a couple deaths and little blood as satisfying their appetite. It’s actually the camerawork becoming more and more unhinged as the players do that lends the tension we need to start fearing what comes next because the red tint grows darker and the music louder as the frame pushes in to capture writhing body parts as a mass of flesh rather than human beings. Words devolve into grunts and screams as body language gradually supplies the dialogue needed to pair off and enjoy life or seek death.
That’s not all there is, though. Underneath this formal feat of cinematic art lies a very pro-French attitude I simply am not versed in enough to understand its subtext. Noé very intentionally puts large captions on screen about the “French-ness” of what’s coming and yet, if I’m honest, most talk about the country itself surrounds the dislike of a giant sequined flag hanging behind DJ Daddy’s booth. Beyond that too is this spotlight on artistic sacrifice that surrounds women having children. This theme becomes discomforting because its overt focus never quite matches its seeming inconsequence to the whole. At one point things appear to skew strangely into a pro-life message before suddenly turning around to depict abortion as a means to acceptance. Pregnancy is clearly not allowed here.
But soon that desire to mistrust sobriety and see motherhood as a traitorous act to the group disappears if for no other reason than cognitive functioning gets replaced by primal urge. When the next morning arrives, half these women might be pregnant and then what happens? So with the abortion focus gone I started wondering if the title meant this whole was a metaphor for an orgasm wherein he’d eventually push out to reveal each dancer a vibrating piece of someone’s nervous system reaching its fever pitch before release. Maybe that is what this is, but don’t expect it to be spelled out if so. On the contrary, Noé seems intent to render narrative as meaningless as possible. Who and where succumbs to the experiential act itself.
 Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile Photo by Couramiaud – Laurent Lufroy and Fabien Sarfati
 Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic Photo by Couramiaud – Laurent Lufroy and Fabien Sarfati
 Gaspar Noé Photo by Couramiaud – Laurent Lufroy and Fabien Sarfati