Yasmine Rayyis
10 March 2019

Spoiler Alert: article contains plot details.

Gaspar Noé’s newest film, Climax, is a single, massive, writhing body of selectively exposed skin, leather, and glitter. Noé has been on my list of favorite directors since his 2015 film, Love. I find his work to be viceral in its capturing of human sensation. He interjects a magnetizing visual precision into every aspect of his cinematic work. I expected no less from Climax. I wanted to feel emotionally drained by the end– this is what I have become accustomed to in his work and part of what makes it so effective. My expectations, in this respect, were surpassed.

On February the 28th, at Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas, Superb x A24 hosted a screening of Climax. The event was broadcasted with a description that functioned almost dually as a warning: ‘a hypnotic, hallucinatory, and ultimately hair-raising depiction of a party that descends into delirium over the course of one wintry night…Climax is Noé’s most brazen and visionary statement yet.’

Those familiar with Noé’s past work– I Stand Alone (1998), Irréversible (2002), Enter the Void (2009), and Love (2015)– will know him as a director of New French Extremity. Born from both Arthouse and Horror, these films exist in an intersection of sexual indulgence, brutal violence, and vicious psychosis. Eraserhead (1977) for the fan of the Bring it On film series, Climax is both very Noé and very new. If Love was created from a stream of cum and tears, Noé poses that Climax is love in the taste of blood, urine, and vomit.

The film’s premise is a straightforward concept. A young and vibrant Parisian dance troupe has just completed a rehearsal in a remote school building. Surrounded by nothing but a vast snowy emptiness, they indulge themselves with celebratory dance, drink, and love. The late night vibe takes a dark turn when it is discovered that the sangria has been spiked with potent LSD. Chaos ensues.

In a VHS-style opening, we meet each dancer through their audition tapes for an ensemble that is scheduled to tour France and the U.S. Dancing is their life. They are young, racially and sexually diverse, and “will do anything” for this opportunity. They are the kind of cast that one would see in a Vice fashion shoot– avant-garde, street smart, and much cooler than you. The nostalgia of this scene also communicates a clear message. This is 1996. There are no cell phones here. People live in the moment. There is no way to call for help when things go south.

Next, we get an enthralling dance number. The dancers, notably, are all actual members of Paris’ underground ballroom scene, not professional actors. You can tell– this kind of passion and effervescence cannot be choreographed or taught. We see an intricate mix of krumping, voguing, waacking, and everything in between. They all express the pulsating erotic energy of the new world, uncontained and driven by a gleeful sexual and racial equality. The whole scene is a single-sequence shot that the audience is able to both feel a part of and observe from a safe distance. Noé never allows a single frame to rest. You move with them and around them. You are part of the mayhem. We are shown that this is a complete and collective unit.

In preparation for filming this scene, Noé showed the actors videos of people dancing under the influence of crack, of LSD, and other drugs, telling them to recreate what they saw but make it their own. Hypnotized by the dancers and wanting to capture their authenticity accurately, he completed all the camerawork by himself.

The dance ends with the exclamation of “Now let us celebrate!” A thumping nineties techno soundtrack is interlaced with Daft Punk and Aphex Twin. People dance, drink, talk, snort coke, and canoodle. Lengthy discussions between the dancers play out as two or three person scenes. These scenes are improvised with only loose directive input (the whole script was a mere five pages long, with only the start and end fully written). We see that this is no longer a collective unit, but cliques and individuals with distinct rivalries, desires, and frustrations.

After the dancers have their drinks spiked, the scene changes. Lights flash, the camera levitates and weaves between them, backing in and out, chasing after them down lurid hallways. The long takes that were equally elemental to Noé’s past work create a wicked energy, a life force, that follow through to the very end.

The conversations about relationships turn into discussions of sex, violence, and violent sex, and escalate later to exactly that. The audience feels what the dancers feel— both overlapping and separate pleasure and pain. The technicolor red of the set and costumes that embodied the life of the dancers starts to tint the overall visual experience. The red becomes the red of blood, of flesh, of death.

The film, additionally, has political undertones. When the dancers take part in a rage-fueled game of whodunit, it is a Muslim man that is violently ostracized and pushed out into the cold. In the end, it is the tall, blonde, Aryan girl (‘a Nazi!’ as Noé claims in his interviews) who ‘wins:’ we never see her face the consequences of her actions and the pain she caused within the group of multi-ethnic talent. The political message, though, is not central to the film beyond grounding it in both our collective cultural past and political present. Noé is leaving the audience breadcrumbs and red herrings. Overarchingly, it is a celebration of life that culminates in death.

Heading out of the theatre after Thursday’s screening, I overheard someone exclaim “I almost walked out!” This was a common sentiment. Interviews with Noé confirm this. Climax is not for the faint of heart, stomach, or temperament. Watch it with caution, a critical eye, and someone to talk to for support after the credits roll. Though only 95 minutes, it feels longer. You will want to escape. I urge you to stay.

Noé has said that the film’s title of Climax is misconstrued—“Climax is more than sex!” Unlike his other works, Climax shows no erect penises or graphic sex scenes. If Love left you longing for phallic imagery and hot group sex, you will be left in want. Climax is, very literally, a danse macabre, or ‘dance of the death’a Middle Age allegory that speaks of death as a universal experience. Creatures from all walks of life, gleefully dance towards their grave. Climax is also la petite mort, or ‘the little death,’ taken from the idea that the sensation of post-orgasm is similar to that of eternal rest. In essence, Noé makes the statement that death is the orgasm of life.  

As the screen momentarily yells at the audience in bold yellow capital letters, Climax contends that ‘DEATH IS AN EXTRAORDINARY EXPERIENCE.’