While it might not seem to be a horror film at first glance, the dreadful world of Gaspar Noé’s Climax (2018) is soon unveiled in a flurry of sangria, dancing and screams – a visceral, haunting film that plays out like a vivid fever dream, and which dares you to come along for the terrifying ride. Bearing the mantle of being based on a true story (whether that’s the case or not really doesn’t matter), a dance troupe holed up in an old building find their latest party slowly descend into chaos after someone spikes their drinks, each of them unravelling in their own different ways as facades slip away and awful secrets come to light. Mixing hypnotic visuals, acrobatic camerawork and shocking realism, Noé turns this into a film you experience with the characters rather than watch – a hellish journey that only the controversial writer-director could bring to life onscreen.
It’s surprising then that Climax takes a little while to get going, the initial moments unusually tame for a Noé film. Although this opens with the terrible sight of a girl injured and writhing around in the snow (a taste of what’s to come), Noé then steps back, keen to take the time to let us get to know the dancers at the centre of his tale. He does this quite literally, interviews with each of the characters playing out on an old television set as they discuss everything from what dancing means to them, to their hopes and dreams for the future, to the French culture itself. When we jump ahead to see the group in the midst of their celebrations – which also features a spectacular opening dance number – their confessionals continue as they chat amongst themselves, Noé’s roaming camera zipping between each of them as he lets us get a sense of their relationships to one another. It is here that the pace of Noé’s film can drag a little, despite the fascinating camerawork that accompanies it (with one part playing out in an incredible long take). However, it is this slow build-up that makes what’s to come more horrifying, Noé leading us into a false sense of security even as something is stirring away underneath the pleasantries.
Indeed, this is really a film of two halves – something that Noé acknowledges by having his vibrant, hyper-stylised title sequence show up 45 minutes in. And all of a sudden, things take a much darker turn, the booze spilling onto the dance floor and the pulsing music becoming more sinister, that party atmosphere starting to fade into something else entirely. Although Noé’s camerawork is woozy from the off, it is here that it becomes almost sickening, the camera flipping and spinning in impossible ways, Noé giving us a sense of what the group are experiencing, making us part of their trip whether we want to be or not. Unravelling in real-time and keeping the action to one long take again, we follow alongside the group’s choreographer Selva (Sofia Boutella) as she tries to make sense of what is happening, the others around her either unwilling or unable to help her, much too busy with whatever it is they are going through in their own heads. As fun conversations turn into raging arguments, jealousy runs wild, and the pack mentality boils over, Noé’s unflinching story becomes harder to swallow, the violent imagery that often accompanies it difficult to watch. And yet, there’s an awful inevitability to it all that we can’t help be drawn in by, the visceral energy of the whole thing undeniably entrancing, especially when things start to reach a point of no return for the group.
That isolated setting further enhances the feeling of watching a nightmare unfolding, the warren-like corridors Selva wanders down pulling us in as fresh horrors are revealed around every corner. While the hellish metaphor Noé conjures becomes increasingly obvious (least of all with the vivid red colour palette that pops up throughout), that fantastic soundtrack also becomes steadily more eerie, the tunes constantly echoing down the hallways as Selva’s trip takes over and panic sets it. A moment that uses the atmospheric riffs of Aphex Twin’s ‘Windowlicker’ is particularly striking, Selva switching from feelings of euphoria to sudden terror, throwing herself about a room as if she’s possessed by a demon. Indeed, Sofia Boutella’s whole performance during the latter half of the film is astounding, the anguish and pain she portrays onscreen incredibly raw and often horrifying to see. It’s a powerhouse performance that allows us to almost directly experience the abject fear at the centre of Climax’s compelling plot, and something that haunts well beyond its final frames. Although Boutella is certainly the standout here, the rest of the cast are all equally exceptional throughout, their portrayals stunningly realistic as they each go through the extreme ups and downs of their own separate trips. Whether they’re simply swaying in the background or confronting someone they hate head on, Noé is able to coax brilliant performances from these non-professional actors, the chaos that’s happening around them made all the more potent by their natural reactions. And as things become more disturbing and Climax hurtles towards its tragic conclusion, you know that the hangovers will be the least of their worries the next morning.
Not everything in Noé’s film works as well as the writer-director would like. The title cards that flash up throughout (bearing slogans such as ‘Life is a Collective Impossibility’) are pretentious rather than thought-provoking, each of them not really adding anything to the narrative and feeling thrown in at the last minute. However, this can be forgiven when the end result is as powerful as it is – a fascinating film that combines bold structure, compelling themes of sex and death, incredible imagery, and a minimalistic plot that allows us to organically experience the story alongside its characters. It’s a film that you’ll find difficult to shake, but which you’ll also want to revisit time and time again to catch what you missed – especially on Blu-ray where those visuals really pop and that amazing soundtrack is enhanced in all its thumping glory (the extras sadly weren’t available for me to review). Climax is without a doubt one of Noé’s finest works of recent years, and one of the most thrilling filmic experiences you’ll have for a long while.
Climax is out on Blu-ray from 11th February 2019