The term cinematic super villain is one I’ve been throwing around for a while. Every so often, there comes a filmmaker that makes uncompromisingly dark, shocking, and provocative material that leaves an impact on the viewer. Then, they never stop; they make a career out of showing up out of the blue with a new, devilish feature. This isn’t the exploitation scene. No, these are the film festival darlings that thoughtfully mirror the moral bankruptcy in our world, directors along the lines of Abel Ferrara, Larry Clark, Lars Von Trier, Michael Haneke, among others. They don’t hide that they’re the “bad guys” and we the viewer begin to root for them, or we at least better brace ourselves for what we’re getting into. Sometimes these directors make horror films, and yet, some of the scariest films aren’t even classified as horror. Enter director, Gaspar Noe.
The French Argentinian is definitely the wild card of this Legion of Doom, having a short, but impactful filmography of only five features. Over his career, he basically made his goal to all but physically injure his audience, making frequent use of heavy strobing, low frequency soundtracks to deliberately induce nausea and dark, grimy color grading. Noe is a gleefully sadistic William Castle of a showman who dares you to keep watching (he’s even experimented with 3D for his film Love in 2015). Noe has found a way to reverse engineer these classic visual funhouse tropes into a psychological horror show. His most recent film, Climax, is no exception. Here’s a film that came out of nowhere production-wise. It was basically announced in late November 2017, cast by the end of January 2018, filmed over 15 days, and released at Cannes that May. That rivals the Asylum right there; maybe they should be taking notes.
The film opens with interview tapes of the cast members, all, but one, played by non-actors, dancers who were scouted out by the director from their social media presence alone. It’s a pretty interesting way to get us hooked in, as well as accept the performers (whether we realize it or not) as they are left to improvise the script, thus revealing their personalities early on. We watch these tapes on a 90's TV surrounded by VHS covers of films that Noe used as influence, a way to let us know what we’re delving into.
Climax opens proper in 1996 (yes, this is a period piece) with all the dancers locked down in a school somewhere, mid rehearsal, in a five minute long take. The camera pretty much just sits back and observes as each performer marches in, in a beautifully choreographed sequence. It’s fluid and hypnotic, drawing you in; you can’t take your eyes off the movements on the screen. There’s a feeling that these characters, though they have just started working together, already have chemistry and camaraderie. The day wraps, and an after party commences giving everyone a chance to unwind and mingle; the troupe leader even made sangria to celebrate. Letting loose, the dancers spread out into groups and gossip with each other, showing that they’re not as close as the dance leads us to believe.
As the party goes on, something goes wrong; everyone is noticing confusion and agitation. The sangria was spiked with LSD and it kicks in like a freight train. The group quickly transforms into a lynch mob at the snap of a finger, turning on anyone who wasn’t previously drinking. Thus begins the trip sequence, a 42-minute-long take in which the audience watches everyone spiral out of control, with all previous grievances fueling the chaos.
[TRIGGER WARNING and SPOILER WARNING]
The audience is just left to observe. We don’t get to see any of the dancers’ points of view. We’re just left to watch them contort, convulse, and lash out at one another. Early on, we’re shown the troupe leader’s young son sneaking sips of the sangria, a knot forming in our gut as we wait to see what kind of fate awaits this kid. He meets a bad end to say the least, but surprisingly not in a way we’d expect. With all the onscreen horror we see of self-harm, hair being set on fire, attempted incest, and attacking a pregnant member, it’s surprising and all the more devastating when the child dies off screen.
The whole sequence is one massive gut punch after the other, with the characters devolving further into Lord of the Flies on bath salts. The whole trip breaks as the remaining dancers, in the now darkened main hall, thrash and contort around nightmarishly. The dancing we were lured in with at the beginning becomes nerve-wracking as we watch them painfully pull their bodies to their limits, all set to the manic strobe lighting and Daft Punk soundtrack. It might actually leave you scared to go to a rave, to say the least. The film ends with a “come down” as we get a glimpse of the next morning. The school looks like a warzone. No one is left unscathed, and everyone is still. Well, except for the one who spiked the drinks.
Climax is unconventional in its approach to a horror film. It goes beyond the anguish of witnessing that one friend at the party who had too much to drink and started a fight. We’re basically watching a focus group experiment go horribly wrong, but the result is still achieved. The film does look amazing though. Long takes are never easy, but cinematographer Benoît Debie always makes them look effortless. The camera goes from dancing with and around the performers to standing back in the corner, powerless to stop what’s happening. Performances are hard to nail down, and a good portion is just the physical marvel of the choreography. The closest person we have to a lead is Selva, played by Sophia Boutella, the only performer with a solid acting background. Otherwise, it’s a marvel that all the non-actors involved came through. Although you won’t remember most of their names, they all deliver solid improv.
I was pretty out of it after watching Climax on first viewing. I went in knowing I was going to have a “unique” time with this one, and I can’t say I was disappointed or underwhelmed at any point. Over the last year since its wide release, I’ve found myself watching it a few more times, which is more than expected. This isn’t an easy film to recommend; you can’t watch this with your parents or on a date that’s for sure. Somehow, I still find myself drawn back to Climax for another go. Is this how addiction starts? Maybe I have a problem. Have I become the dealer pushing you to take a hit? Well, all I can say is have a nice trip.
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