Gaspar Noé’s 2018 film Climax is not a standard Jonestown-cult-kool-aid movie. It is an extension of an inherently violent art form, regressing the beliefs of both its characters and audience as the movie begins with a simple enough scenario of a troupe of dancers who, after rehearsals, decide to party and drink homemade Sangria made by one of them, Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull), that is spiked with LSD. Climax’s artistic drive through the movement of its characters’ bodies suddenly births a serious misfortune—an unconscious revelation that begins to unravel the characters’ desires and the buried oppressive parts of their souls. The film is divided into a three-act structure, including the introduction with the first dance sequence, the second dance sequence while the LSD is slowly taking effect, and the final act, which is a ballad involving the ultimate bad-trip blended with Gaspar Noé’s structuralism of violence that results in pure insanity.
The film is written and directed by Noé himself and with cinematography by Benoit Debie who previously collaborated with Noé on Irreversible (2002), Enter the Void (2009), and Lux Æterna (2019). Climax is notably a collaborative effort between Belgium and France, which was shot in fifteen days, with pre-production only taking four weeks. Furthermore, it makes full use of the New French Extremity genre, particularly with its underlying bassline. However, as any Gaspar Noé production has taught us, this film aims to psychologically damage its viewer, depending on how well they understand the inner-cinematic metaphors of the exploration of human nature and the idea of Heaven and Hell.
In this case, the moral issues raised through the projected fear of ‘What the fuck is going on?’ begins with Noé’s title warning at the film’s start, ‘The film you are about to see was born under the sound of the stars’ and which then leads into quite possibly his best film to date—a masterpiece LSD horror film that connects directly with the eyes and ears of the viewer as a morbid European self-destructive interpretation of Hell. It links in with The 120 Days of Sodom written by Marques de Sade and the inner-demons and spirits shown in the ‘Danse Macabre’ (Dance of Death), which is a film that aims to unite those who have passed away and which is quite fitting for what the audience encounters (or suffers) throughout Climax.
After a heavy round of long, draining rehearsals, the characters decide to take a break and let loose in what is supposed to be a relaxed party. However, we gradually learn that the sangria made by the troupe’s manager and single mom, Emmanuelle, has been spiked with high doses of LSD, with the calm, semi-peaceful atmosphere of the party in the old and possibly haunted-former school turning into a paranoia fest, with the growing chaos of a mind-blowing purgatory filled with eighteen dancers and Emmanuelle’s ten-year-old son Tito (Vince Galliot Cumant), who, while not being watched, drinks the Sangria. Climax uses this premise and transforms it into a very unbalanced and restless psychological horror. After the final rehearsal, the dancers decide to let loose and enjoy their party. The metaphorical kool-aid then enters the picture, turning the idyllic and pervasive beauty of dance into a landscape of destruction and brutality by implanting Noé’s trademark manifesto. What emanates after is an anarchist drug-induced riot, which pins good vs. evil and prosecutes each character, with no one being safe or completely sane, not even the sober ones. The dancers are then plagued by aggressive, mob-mentality accusations. They fall into a moral condemnation of the 21st-century ‘Danse Macabre’. However, the film provides no indication of the characters’ ego-death that would arise from the consumption of a mystery liquid, which relates back to the distinctive teachings around healing trauma that was inflicted by the 17th-Century Black Death or the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno as there is no healing in Climax. The aesthetic metaphor of the Danse Macabre links back to France’s violent history—in particular, their participation in World War II—but with an added dash of the nine circles of Hell. It is in Noé’s points-of-realism that the film deals with questions of whether God exists or if there are demonic-sacrificial elements at play, causing the characters to fall into separate categories, including (but not limited to), Heretics, Limbo, Lust, Wrath, Violence, Greed, and, worst of all, Fraud. This, however, is based only on the drunk conversations of the characters before they plummet into these dark circles, wherein Climax begins to curate another category of madness that challenges the morality of both the characters and the audience.
This is not a typical slasher film, although some slashing does occur; for instance, when the blame game begins and Omar the Muslim (Adrien Sissoko), who is Gazelle’s (Giselle Palmer) boyfriend, was one of two who had not drunk the Sangria causing Gazelle’s already jealous brother, Taylor (Taylor Kastle) to blame him, which we later learn is because of his incestuous feelings for his sister, whom he rapes. The film aims to disrupt all of the audience’s senses as it is inspired by some of the weirdest films, books, and the strange mind of Noé himself. Climax beautifully welcomes its audience and introduces them to the circles of Hell through its use of psychological horror, fear, LSD, dance, and a disturbing reversed ego death for around 96 minutes. The film is split into two sections, with the first one including difficult to hear dialogue. Furthermore, it contains some of the most beautiful dance sequences to be shown in this kind of cinematic experience.
Although Noé has strayed from the typical Hollywood mainstream ideology, he delivers his audience a dance-based story that shoves films like ‘Step Up’ to the side as he incorporates the art of Krumping, an aggressive form of dancing. The two dance sequences shown, one beginning right after the video interview introductions and the other as the LSD starts to kick in, show the urgency and art of psychoanalysis being transfused into a non vixit (he-lives-not) style dream, which is one of the most macabre concepts that Freud developed. The film has a diverse line-up of twenty characters, with Noé then allowing the strangeness and beauty of the human body to be depicted through each one before they turn into psycho’s who are not in control of either their own morality or their bodies. There is no hedonistic behaviour when they are dancing. This is the time in which they can let loose and forget about their super-egos, which will soon become horrifyingly visible in their animalistic mannerisms.
The film’s epilogue is accompanied by a mise-en-scène that tells the audience that it is not set in the present. Being set in the year 1996—although in an interview Noé does state that he told the actors to think that it is 1995—the film continues its transition from the end to the beginning with video tape interviews/audition tapes that are played on an old TV set, which is surrounded by VHS tapes and books. Noé gives the audience a lot of clues about what is to come, which is the only element of the director’s subjectivity that we see in the entire film. Most of the VHS tapes are French versions of American films, such as Zombie (Dawn of the Dead), Labyrinth Man (Eraserhead), Possession, Suspiria, and Hara-Kiri—not the 1962 Japanese Jidaigeki film directed by Masaki Kobayashi, but rather a nod to the director’s favourite French magazine. Noé’s totality as a director can be found in the context of this out-of-print hardcore magazine, which not only included pornographic images but also a lot of anti-military and anti-religious messages, putting America’s Mad Magazine to shame. It is in this scene that we actually learn a few things about Noé and what inspires him.
One of the tapes—the 1982 East-German film Querelle directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder—contains some of the most extreme and vulgar language to ever appear in cinema. Its kitsch language is repeated in Climax when the men engage in discussions about fucking, how to fuck, who they will fuck, and so on. The most interesting aspect of this scene is how it implies that Noé is actually a closeted Surrealist. This makes sense considering his admiration for Luis Buñuel and Un Chien Andalou—a collaborative film directed by both Buñuel and iconic Surrealist Salvador Dali in 1929. In a sense, the film projects this idea of a barrier that means that one cannot escape their own consciousness. Noé’s showcasing of the twenty characters whom we, as the audience, become familiarised throughout the course of the movie is well structured. That is, there are so many characters to keep up with but Noé’s direction makes this possible as we are never left completely abandoned by a lack of narrative direction, dialogue, or the brilliant acting that spillith over into the raging fury of the cup that Satan drinks out of. We become familiar with not only the characters’ faces but with each of their unique personas and language, as the characters outline their intentions early on in the film as they use stories and language to introduce themselves, meaning that the film captures the audience’s attention from the start.
After the bizarre end credits fade away, we are introduced to each dancer, who is then interviewed by Noé and his assistant director. The way the audience is introduced to each persona is mostly improvised, adding a certain connection to each one that eventually leaves a gap in the viewers’ understanding of this collapse of social norms involving the overpowering awareness of what happens when certain taboos are explored in a subversive manner. We are left with a shocking realisation because, at first, Noé manipulates our association with who these characters are, to make it even more real, as they are mostly played by actual dancers and not actors. Even though these dancers do not have any prior acting experience, they transform into true characters whose obligation it is to fill the role of the space of the symbolic order of Climax as they experience the events that unravel in this dangerous narrative. Omar believes in paradise, while Psyche (Thea Carla Schott) explains how Berlin became too much for her—as there were too many drugs for her to deal with—telling Noé about her experience with her roommate who had started to drop acid into his eyes. Or, Lou (Souheila Yacoub), the first person introduced to the audience, who is asked by the interviewer: ‘If you couldn’t dance what would you do?’
Her answer is simple: suicide.
The quick jump-cut edits keep the pacing of the film flowing like clockwork as we watch some intense conversations that make us feel as if we are intruding as outsiders, but also as if we are an extra in the background who remains silent, similar to a sense of sleep paralysis wherein we want to move and talk but cannot. Most of the conversations are extremely vulgar and difficult to digest. From abortion and strap-on lesbian sex, to suggestions of threesomes and ass-licking techniques. Herein, Noé adds unpleasant bodily masculinity to project that men either will or will not control their urges as we witness the anal sex dialogue between the two cousins, Cyborg (Alexandre Moreau) and Rocco (Naab). Here, Noé makes you feel as if you are the one who is timid and perhaps not that experimental in your own sex-life; conversely, some viewers might rather relate to these conversations. These elements are so contradictive that listening to a song outside of Climax’s soundtrack—for example, ‘Sex and Candy’ by Macy Playground—might change one’s entire perception of the film, if it had been included. Noé’s use of reverse psychology has been evident throughout all of his previous movies as, not only does he hurt the characters, but he also fucks with the audience’s psyche. So, what does he want to achieve? Noé showcases that human existence is not all sunshine and roses—rather it is dark, disturbing, and lewd, which is shown when a person is put in a situation wherein there are no moral obligations at hand and their consciousness slowly bleeds into an animalistic darkness, turning them into monsters. The first part of the film involves the gradual dying of each character’s sense of self. We have, who we presume, is the main protagonist in Selva (played by the underrated Sofia Boutella)—although with nineteen other characters who have pivotal roles and borderline-super-egos it is difficult to say that there is only one protagonist— as she is the most well-recognised face in the cast after starring in films like Atomic Blonde (2017) and Hotel Artemis (2019).
We are then introduced to a splintering conversation between at least two characters in each jump cut. For example, we see Lou’s conversation with Selva, which is briefly interrupted by David (Romain Guillermic) who immediately gets the hint that he is not a welcome here- as their conversations sets up Climax’s most crippling moment that occurs when the drugs kick in and turn the dancers into psychotic patients of an absorbed violations of humanity It is here that Lou does not reveal to Selva that she is pregnant, and that she does not know who the baby’s father is; hence why she did not drink the Sangria. The reveal comes too late as we later witness a literal crime that endorses the taboo subject of birth.
As David walks away, defeated as usual, Lou looks around the dance hall, almost as if foreshadowing what is to unfold by discussing the existential crisis of a roadblock that can destroy her career, as she feels the internal angst of ‘if I, or should I’ moment with Selva.
‘I’m worried about the boy’
‘She was right not to abort him’
‘Have you ever had an abortion?’
Additionally, Lou is rightfully worried about the ten-year-old Tito. She tells Selva that his house is not suitable for a child, but Selva reassures her that Tito has been raised well, and that ‘She was right not to abort him’, referring to Emmanuelle, who used to be one of the dancers before she gave birth to Tito. Lou, while making a conscious life or death decision in her own mind, responds by asking Selva if she has ever had an abortion. After a lingering for a few seconds and taking a long drag from her cigarette, Selva responds in a manner that protects the sociological concerns of women’s rights of being in control of their bodies.
‘It’s good to have the choice, don’t you think?’
Noé does not give us a moment to grasp this message of women’s empowerment, however, as he inserts a title slate that, in traditional Gaspar Noé fashion, leads to all manner of debates and arguments. However, the title contradicts the conversation between Lou and Selva as it gets the audience ready for something either tragic or beautiful.
Based on a true story (with no real evidence other than the director’s word) of a dance troupe who were spiked with LSD back in 1996 in an abandoned school, the film starts with a brooding prelude of Gary Numan’s ‘Trois Gymnopedies (First Movement)’, as we cut back to the melodic tone of the carnage of the 19th century, wherein religious buildings became the property of the state. The opening scene lays the groundwork for what is to come. It opens with a woman who is clearly suffering from traumatic wounds and is crawling in the snow before finally giving up, with this being filmed via a high-angle drone shot, which is a technique that comes into play a few times throughout the film, following which the end credits of the film roll. That’s it. We already know the ending… so what is the point of watching the rest of it? Well, the reverse-psychology that Noé uses as a central device of the narrative highlights the irony of the human condition as it leaves us with a sense of emptiness if we do not know exactly what has happened—our sense of morality leaves us wanting more and, in this way, Noé plays on the psychological needs of the viewer, like in his previous films. After the end credits finish, we cut to a flashback that introduces us to dancers who want to be accepted into a touring French dance troupe who will embark on a tour in the United States. Here, Chris Carter’s ‘Solidit’ track plays and the end credits begin after the drone slowly flies over a single tree in the snow and fades out.
NAITREEST UNE OPPORTINITE UNIQUE
(BIRTH IS A UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY)
Next, a spectacular creative regression occurs that places the camera in a high-angle crane shot, as if it is something powerful and spiritual, swallowing the ghostly movements of the dancers. It is here we get to witness the body movements as a transformational artistic object. This regression and movement uses an overhead shot to demonstrate the full extent of what the dancers’ bodies can transmute; not only a show for an audience, but also as an orgasmic display of energy, with the camera’s focus being vital to how we judge both the characters’ creative slate and their own possessed spirits that are trying to let loose through the art of dance. The psychoanalytic interpretation of the dance form, with the addition of long takes that are reminiscent of the Kubrick style, visualises the body movements underlying the beauty of this scene and prepares the Climax of human suffering that each of these dancers have buried within the fluidity of their limbs, succumbing to the reality of nature vs. nurture after the second dance sequence. As such, we can ask a simple question: What was France like in the 1990s as the peak of the movie’s bad trip suddenly turns into a frenzied Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) style mob-mentality and claustrophobic manic drug episode while also showing the tragic sickness of humanity, which well and truly puts Freddy Krueger in the corner. What is the cause of the frantic kinetics that the LSD contributes to? What is the real source of this madness? It arises from the psychical horror of the minds of the dancers that are present before they have even drunk the Sangria. Climax’s two dance sequences are not just for show, rather they are a creative transformation that prepares the dancers to experience their unknown traumas. It is brutal but honest, with Noé clearly making note of this fact. That is why this film’s dancing can be compared to a Dance Macabre of Hell, wherein death, anxiety, and fear all exist within the denial and acceptance of the characters and the plot.
Doses of an oedipal-horror infiltrate the gyroscopic lude drama that overtakes the characters’ morality before they get fucked up on LSD. With all the psychological trauma taking place, the audience is just as disoriented as the characters, with them then focusing on the actions that are taking place, making one forget to actually question who spiked the Sangria. Was it Emmanuelle herself, a former dancer turned single mother of the ten-year-old Tito who is so proud of what she has made because she feels helpless in her contribution to the dance troupe? Or was it Lou, the pregnant dancer, who feels sick in the first part of the film and is then involved in one of the most traumatic scenes wherein evil attacks her and she has nowhere to escape as she is sober and then accused of dosing the rest of the troupe, while also trying to hide the fact that she is pregnant and is considering terminating it?
But who can concentrate on dissecting all this information when DJ Daddy is already overwhelming our auditory senses, hauling us into a borderline SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) ‘hyperacusis’ along with the already liquescing minds of the characters by switching into his Kiddy Smile persona. Herein, he metaphorically ‘Dickmatizes’ everyone and everything while the camera tilts and bends throughout the main hall and corridors that are then lit with his trademark lightening colour pallet of bloody red, blue, and green, followed by ‘a DJ set from Hell’.
The opening credits only roll in around the 46-minute mark, right after someone screams out that ‘This is war!’ Thus, begins Noé’s psychological self-sabotage of the film’s characters. They engage in belligerent delinquency, proudly presenting us with images of law-breaking and reckless taboo acts. In fact, this film shows us that the drugged dance troupe needs serious help from the flag that sits behind DJ Daddy’s set-up. Through the conflict between the visceral-cerebral human condition vs. our baser animal instincts, we find ourselves watching this assault on each of the character’s primal senses. At one point, the main hall is disrupted by camera tilts and up-side down shots, while the group of bodies becomes difficult to identify because of the red light that is woven in with the camera technique. Marques de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom is now metaphorically captured in the ultimate grip of LSD, with some characters participating in an orgy on the dance floor.
One by one, the film breaks various taboos through its depiction of conflict between the visceral-cerebral human condition vs. our animal instincts by assaulting the various senses of each of the dancers. Hell’s moral law draws into question who or what is God. It shows either God as the son or the Devil as the father/the son; however, in the end, it boils down to the use of chemicals in a dangerous situation that none of the characters had expected to be placed in. Each dancer is haunted by their inner demons, which results in an existential-animalistic irony as they forget to question who actually drugged them and are no longer concerned by the ‘whodunnit’ scenario. Suddenly, Climax becomes another example of the New French Extremity; another representation of torturing the French National Identity but also being proud of it as a quick title appears at the beginning of this pulsing-altered state film:
UN FILM FRANCAIS
ET FIER DE L’ETRE
(PRESENTING A FRENCH FILM AND BEING PROUD OF IT)
While all this is happening, the camera shifts its focus onto David, who seems to be the only one of the dancers to show any sign of progressive change in his personality (or his true self has risen to the surface), making him the lone wolf in this pack of savages. David’s experience is a sad one. His earlier conversations and dishonourable sexual mannerisms, which is revealed as a façade of who he truly is, backfires on him in his chaotic interactions with the other dancers. He gets beaten up at the start of the chaos, mostly due to Taylor’s insanely incestualised jealousy when he saw David flirting with his sister. The cousins then help Taylor (Taylor Kastle) to beat up David, knocking him out and drawing a Swastika on his forehead with a black marker. Selva, who is not managing well at all with her own LSD trip, finally shows some empathy toward David and helps him by telling the others to stop.
Selva demonstrates her own pleasure and pain when she finds a room decorated with a painting of a forest. The metaphor at play is that Selva is now lost in this forest and can not find the correct route to get back to safety. That is out of the question, and she has no other choice but to surrender to the violent yet poetical mood that LSD has evoked. She allows her hands to crawl under her fishnet tights, embracing the nightmarish transference expressions of gestures of hallucinatory wounds and fears, knowing her fellow dancers have given into a primal environment. This is her safe space, and her only way of feeling safe is by crawling at her own skin, and later fucking a woman.
Alaya (Alaia Alsafir) is on the mission of finding coke to snap out of her psychological restraint (although it seems impossible to do so at this point of the movie), no matter the cost. As she searches for the ‘druggy’, aka Jennifer (Sarah Belala), she too forgets her own morality against sins. She becomes insanely aggressive when she finally finds Jennifer, who is in the kitchen that so happens to have a stove or some sort of appliance which is set on fire, well; needless to say, Alaya’s aggression literally combusts as Jennifer’s hair is set on fire, while Tito’s screams for his mother can be heard in the background as the walls of insanity are closing in on everyone who drank the fucking Sangria.
One of the most iconic scenes in this movie includes one of Noé’s most memorable lines: ‘Holy Shit, Tito’s Fried!‘ Emmanuelle’s motherhood was tested earlier as she attempted to protect her son out of love in trying to save him from the dangerous LSD frenzy. However, Tito has no chance but to become a victim of the drug-fuelled insanity while Emmanuelle is crawling on the floor to find the key and progressively loses touch with reality as her son is prematurely tripping on LSD in the electric room, surrounded by a dark shadow and horrible waking nightmares. He is then electrocuted; however, none of the dancer’s care, because at this stage their only concern is reflecting in their own self-reflection that is hindered by hallucinations and heavy bass music. It only takes them a few seconds to acknowledge what has really happened, while their main concern is to bring back the music. Tito found his way into the electric room’s cabinet and turned off the electricity in the main hall, thereby stopping the music. However, to the dancers, the ‘Ghetto Blaster’ music is more important than ten-year old Tito being electrocuted—but as iconic, and horrifying as the scene is, Lou’s self-mutilation, and Dom’s attack on her, is something that one can not get over so easily.
This is unfortunately not the most shocking scene of this movie; that honour goes to Lou who, while sober, is tragically hurt by those around her. First, she is attacked, kicked, and kneed in the stomach by Dom, who claims that Lou is the one who spiked the Sangria. As Lou falls to ground in agony- the viewers still unsure if she is having a miscarriage or not- she seeks help from her fellow dancers by going to the main dance floor. It is here, that the monsters of Goe’s film turns into a ‘Battle Royale’ form, while most of the dancers scream at Lou as she holds a knife to protect herself while they scream out ‘Kill yourself!’ in a paranoid- suffering subtext. Lou begins to punch herself in the stomach multiple times, and begins to cut herself with the knife, first ripping into her arm, and then her face. It is here that the audience realises that the LSD not only resembles the extent of New French Extremity, but the end of humanity as Lou suffers a miscarriage while the others laugh away. Lou’s self-induced abortion with the help of Dom and the encouragement of the other dancers is a spectacular display that cuts right into the pits of the stomachs of the viewer.
The super-ego is not only killed by the LSD, but is metaphorically buried in the snow outside, as shown by Omar who has frozen to death because he did not touch the Sangria—which is perhaps a nod to his religious beliefs. If there is any empathy left in this depiction of human madness, David embodies it as he takes on the role of a lost puppy who is trying to help; sadly, the LSD prevents him from being able to do anything. He is rejected multiple times from different people as he tries to seek help while reflecting on his own sense of morality that he has found in his own drug trip. David is the most hated character from the start of the film because of his misogyny and mostly falsified sexual endeavours. He also uses crude words to describe the female body; however, after the LSD kicks in, he is the only one who is aware of the brutality of the primal scenes that are taking place before him. He gets beaten up when the dancers realise that they had been taken advantage of. However, after he wakes up, he is not looking to engage in any conflict but rather tries to heal the tragedies that are taking place around him. This interplay is emphasised when he tries to stop Selva from having sex with Ivana (Sharleen Temple) because he cares for her, but she screams in his face as if possessed by the hauntings of the so-called ‘ritual sacrifices’ that have possibly taken place in this remote Christian school.
Although some shots linger as if in limbo, with nothing left but to accept that there is no escape, we are immediately confronted by micro-narratives of various horrible actions. Like an orgasm, the tension within each character and in the viewer, builds until it explodes. However, there is no dopamine release in the minds of the viewer, while, within the characters themselves, it drives them insane.
Entering the world of Climax is a complete 180-degree experience compared to Noé’s critically-acclaimed film Enter the Void. Although hardcore fans may already envisage the worse going into this film based on Noé’s prior filmography, we still enter his world with a false sense of security, thinking that maybe all will be well, especially as the film transitions into one of the most spectacular dance choreographies in cinematic history. This form of manipulative distraction works for the first half of the film as it offers us dialogues that are often difficult to listen to, especially with the way sex is so casually discussed in a misogynistic tone that will nauseate most radical feminists. This lasts for approximately forty minutes until we realise that something is terribly wrong and the dancers start to fall further away from their already unruly persona’s. Yep, someone’s spiked the Sangria and shit is about to go down—right into every circle of Hell.
By the end of the film, there is a pairing of hope with death, as those who managed to survive the night are able to start a new life or even be reborn. Alternatively, perhaps freedom was death for some. In sum, the moral of the story is to avoid drinking homemade Sangria and to not trust everyone you meet because they might not be who you assume they are. This is yet another horror film with grim pessimistic tones, but is definitely worth the watch because it will keep coming back, if not for the soundtrack and plot, then for the incredible dance sequences that foreshadow the irrefutable truth of death and human brutality in a poetic way. Climax is an underrated horror film, that should be watched by the most hardcore horror fanatic because it has the stains of piss-floors, sweat filled essences and dark-room fuck orgies that are accompanied by the fanatic bass of Daft Punk’s ‘Rolling and Scratching’, as we see at the climax of the film how fast and hard these dancers are clawing away at their literal, an imaginative itch of a carnival-esque frenzy of Dante’s sinners, and The 120 Days of Sodom’s disorientation.
Gaspar Noé is right in one sense,
MOURIR EST UNE EXPERIENCE EXTRAORDINAIRE
(Death Is An Extraordinary Experience.)