Climax (2018)

It’s well known that you don’t go to a Gaspar Noé film for A Good Time. I mean, this is a guy who has put 28Hz hums into his films to induce audience nausea, as if the rape and face-poundings weren’t enough to put you off.

So with that in mind, I went to see his latest, Climax, at the Sydney Film Festival. It’s a film about a dance company that suffers from a spiked punch incident, so practically bucolic in comparison to the director’s other work. I figured – given only six people had walked out on it in Cannes – that it’d probably be all right.

What I discovered that it’s basically Jacob’s Ladder: The Dance Spectacular, if such a film were set in the Pink Room from Fire Walk With Me.

(Interesting trivia tidbit: Wikipedia labels this a horror musical which is at once the best and worst thing ever.)

The cinema I saw the film in was pretty packed, so mine was a front-row viewing. I think this kind of proximity-induced distortion really heightened the sort of thing Noé was going for: I spent the first 45 minutes of the film wondering whether I’d have to leave, because the vertiginous camerawork – a lot is shot overhead, slowly moving and angling – was making me feel deeply uncomfortable and dizzy. There was a lot of strobing at times, and I had to look away from the screen a couple of times to just maintain. But I persevered and I’m glad I did, because what I saw was a film that I can’t say that I enjoyed, but one that – like The Boys or Wake in Fright or Funny Games – offered a specifically harrowing experience of directorial control.

The story begins fairly innocuously. We’re presented with an old TV, showing dancers’ audition videos. There’s an air of playfulness, of boundary-poking. Questions are answered and dodged: drugs, sex and dancing. Opportunism and travel. The support of France in the arts. We’re voyeurs on a process that could make or break these dancers’ careers.

And then we see them dance. And it’s phenomenal.

I figured dancers spent all their time like this, to be honest. That and chain smoking.

I’m neither a dancer nor particularly well versed in the language of modern dance, but the people in this thing can move for real. It’s as good as Rize for the pure fucking joy of watching people in complete control of their bodies pushing them into shapes that I just can’t comprehend. There’s an extended dance scene in the beginning of the film that introduces all the major players with a bit of a solo, and the range of movement and skills is incredible, even to someone as borderline interested as me.

It’s something that persists all the way through the movie, almost – the drive to move, to dance out the demons, either voluntarily or because you’re out of your fucking mind. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to label this as psychotically hyperkinetic cinema, soundtracked at fuck-off club levels of volume.

Sound is deeply important to this film, and the soundtrack is fucking great. It’s period-appropriate, and fits with the lithe bodies: lots of kick, lots of bass. But there’s some oddity as well: opening with Gary Numan’s version of one of Satie’s Gymnopédies, we’re put in a kind of dreamlike state… at least until focus is taken by a screaming woman’s crawl through the snow. There’s a lot of well-known stuff – M|A|R|R|S and Daft Punk, Soft Cell and the Rolling Stones – but a lot of the time we’re hearing stuff at a remove. There’s walls and corridors, the distortion of distance. It all sounds like the noise from inside the bathroom when you’ve spent too long out, and you’re holding onto the sink to try and keep from falling over. And all the while, ‘Windowlicker’ is putting the fucking fear into you, so much so that you wonder if that’s really your face you can see under the fluoro tubes. It’s a psychic assault, waiting for you to slip from the joy of the seemingly universe-centred moment of the dance to the precipitous decline of the comedown.

It’s loud, and menacing and fucking great. It drives the film in the same way Trainspotting‘s collection of songs did. The video above isn’t complete, as the tracks made for the film haven’t been released yet – they’re out when the film is released in September – but it’s one I’ll be nabbing on release.

The story is pretty simple: talented dancers drink spiked sangria and get pissed and talk a lot about fucking and then bad shit happens. There’s some huge flags early on that Things Will Not End Well For Particular Characters, but some of their destinations are truly shocking. There’s moments of snatched happiness, sure, but more of the film’s time is taken up by the camera’s fluid observation of this company as they try, individually and together, to claw back from the acid-dosed edge. Horror – psychic and emotional horror, rather than the more physical versions you’d expect from the director (though there’s some of that, too) – is what drives this bus, and it can be hard to watch. But Noé’s use of colour (smeared greens and hellish reds), of mirrors and of a particularly funkily-wallpapered room has a sort of wonky beauty that’s hard to ignore.

The camerawork is exceptional, though can be hard to deal with. It tracks with characters, snapping from one to another in conversation. It lingers behind figures walking down hallways, and floats wonkily above dancers, watching them drop and thrust. The Eye is everywhere and it comes across as an embodiment of thought, almost – a visual track through synapses, or something guided by the ranging of a twitchy eye. There is no doubt that this film was shot – in fifteen days, no less – by a team with incredible chops.

Noé contends that though the names are changed, the story is true – that in the 1990s, a dance group suffered LSD-dosed punch at a celebratory party – and though this could all be bullshit, it makes what goes on all the more horrific, as I couldn’t help but hear a voice reminding me that it was A Real Thing. I mean shit, we’ve all known people who’ve had drinks spiked, or can remember the last time we had a little bit much of something, knowingly or unknowingly, and had to try really fucking hard to keep a grip on reality. That fine line between “I’m sweet, man!” and “HOLY FUCK THE BUGS!” is ably captured in this film, and the absolute gut-wrenching terror of psychedelic brain-fuckery is ably portrayed, particularly by Sofia Boutella, whose journey from discomfort to pants-shitting terror to horniness to The Fear and more is absolutely spot-on.

Gaspar Noé. Definitely not a creeper. No sir, no way.

(While I watched the film, I couldn’t help be reminded of the other great post-work drugging story: of PCP-dosed chowder on the set of Titanic. If Noé had wanted this to be a proper horror film, he would’ve used more Celine Dion.)

What I like about the film is that pretty much everything that happens is flagged from the opening collection of dancers’ interviews. There’s a bunch of videocassette cases lining the television that introduces the characters: SuspiriaSalò, and Un chien Andalou and more. There’s a bunch of books on the other side, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t hold similar revelations. Everything you need to know about what will happen – who will do what, and to whom – is there in the videos on screen, and the cultural artefacts surrounding it. It’s enough to make me want to see this again on release to see just what I’d missed, because I think there’s going to be a lot more salted through that only comes up on another pass.

At the end of the screening there was no customary SFF clapping. I couldn’t tell, from my cricked-neck position, whether anyone had walked out of the screening, but the hit-by-a-truck feeling seemed pretty common. It was a quiet audience that walked into the Newtown night, so I guess the director’s goal – shell-shock the fuckers! – was pretty successful.

I’ve read that the film is Noé in a positive mode, and I think that’s about right. It’s horrible and claustrophobic, but this is because of the actions – the sangria dosing – of one of the characters. He’s whistling, just over there, but he’s not the reason this dance party goes to hell.

Oh sweetie, that existential dread isn’t going to just wash off.

(He is the creeper filming it surreptitiously, but that’s probably what you expected going in, right?)

This is a hard film to recommend, as it’s draining and is designed to be discomforting. But you should really see it, if only to ponder how the fuck people can move like that. (And you know, whether hell is real.)

(Thanks to Billy from Geek of Oz for the ticket.)

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