by Katherine Schloss
I’ve never been one for horror films. Sometimes I get unpredictably queasy at the sight of blood, and I often laugh disappointedly at the overly emotional responses from female characters boxed into the limiting role of the victim. Why would I put myself into a situation of simulated stress for two (plus) hours only to find out who the killer was when I can so easily look it up?
But I’ve started to realize that there is a sweet spot between thriller and horror. Create just enough violence and sprinkle in just enough nail biting suspense and you’ve got a perfect concoction. I thought it was worth a try to watch Gaspar Noé’s Climax purely because it was tantalizingly French.
Watching Climax was like stumbling through a beautifully lit haunted house, minus the jump scares. There was an uneasiness in that lack. Besides a playful title, Climax was a lot of things. Highly intimate, jarring, nauseating…it was like we were on a drug trip ourselves, with a sensory overload of dancing figures paired with the constantly droning electronic music that became overwhelming in its consistency. The filming style was a couple of long, mesmerizing takes, and it became clear that the film is focused less on forcing viewers to attempt to solve a psychological puzzle and more on presenting life as an ongoing, chaotic dance that we’re all wrapped up in.
Cinematographically, the film was beautiful. It retells a (mostly) true story of a French dance troupe that discovers that the sangria bowl which they’ve been drinking copious amounts of at a small party has been spiked with LSD. The film, which was shot in fifteen days and based off of a three page script outline, is enticingly raw with a supersaturated color scheme. Noé’s decision to cast dancers instead of actors-- save for Sofia Boutella-- created very accessible characters and exposed universal truths, despite the language barrier and sparse dialogue. Their dance background allowed for a freedom in which they weren’t overly conscious of their performance character-wise and were instead able to give into their bodily aesthetic.
I felt this movie presented a sort of microcosm of the world within which the seven deadly sins were present. Certainly lust, but also envy and the like. The characters all seemed to be insanely aware of power dynamics, and then slowly their social positions began to break down as the drugs set in. Reading some articles about the film, which are bound to be mixed with the good and the bad, I realized that there’s a confusing gray area in relation to the fact that the film is presented as “French made,” in congruence with the presence of a huge, sparkly French flag playfully displayed over the DJ’s turntables. Is the movie presented as notably French? I honestly walked out of it feeling that the disturbing messages were universal, and that the flag was somehow ironically placed and discussed. However, upon closer examination one finds that the first one to be accused of lacing the sangria bowl and to be thrown out into the snow was a Muslim man. Is this a commentary in conjunction with racial unrest in France? The fact that all of the characters are insanely different and that their supposed civility at the beginning of the film devolves and degenerates into a hellish-but highly aesthetically pleasing in the red moody lighting- combination of death drops (dancing term), voguing, and bone breaking intermixed with nervous breakdowns, shaky trips down long hallways, and sex, sex, sex further presents the idea of tensions amongst diverse groups of people.
The movie doesn’t have a high point of tension. The line between sanity and whatever else lies on the other side is perpetually blurred with prolonged traipses down hallways, upside down shots, and close-ups of wild eyes. As a viewer you are never truly grounded, as the camera is almost constantly moving and the main character is in a state of paranoia punctuated by bodily outbursts and screams. The camera’s tendency to slowly pan from character to character means that we never quite learn enough about any of them or fully trust any individual character, and are thus presented with the unique ability to make value judgements on our own. The performances are insanely physical and somehow Noé manages to coax out a reveal of the darkness that lies beneath human nature through them.
An interesting trope throughout the film was that of the men as a negative presence, giving into their sexual desires and disregarding how the women actually feel. David’s main goal is to sleep with all of the women. Taylor essentially rapes his sister because…incest. The film essentially breaks down male sexuality into a meaningless search for dominance and pleasure, resulting in their reveal in harsh lighting at the end of the movie as a mass of exhausted bodies. The men are presented as primal and crass, and the women are often manipulated despite their strong personalities. Lou is cornered, Gazelle is raped, and Selva is harassed. In the end, Psyche is the one who spiked the punch and watched unharmed, so perhaps a female prevails? However, she ends up giving in to her supposedly regretted past by applying acid eye drops.
It is clear that, in Climax, dance is presented as a reflection of life itself. This idea can even be found in the opening bird’s eye view shot of a woman screaming in a bloody, snowing, writhing panic. It is especially apparent when Ivana’s response to, “If you couldn’t dance what would you do?” is simply, “Suicide.” I’ll leave you with one of the intertitles from the film: “Life is a collective impossibility,” which hopefully leaves you spinning around like the fruit in their endless cups of sangria.