Climax: Love in Motion, by David Bax
This review originally ran as a part of our TIFF 2018 coverage.
Gaspar Noé’s Climax is a Gaspar Noé movie, by which I mean that it delights in thrilling you as much it does in shocking and upsetting you. Let’s start with the first half of that equation. I’m delighted to report that this story of a group of dancers going violently crazy and turning on each other is actually—up until the whole violent, crazy part kicks in—an honest to God dance movie. These characters are the kinds of people who dance to let off steam after a long day of dancing professionally. Noé frames them with respect and even awe for their abilities, particularly so in the centerpiece number, which he presents mostly in wide group shots, either straight on or from directly above them (a viewpoint he’ll return to in less joyous moments). It’s sometimes difficult not to stand up and start moving in the aisles yourself, especially since, after a brief prologue in which we’re introduced to each dancer via their audition interviews, the blaring, thumping house music never lets up. Except, that is, for a couple of moments when it does and the sounds that replace it make you immediately wish it would start again.
Sofia Boutella stars as Selva, the choreographer of a large dance troupe. After their final rehearsal, before they are set to depart on a tour of the United States, they throw a party for themselves in their practice space. We get glimpses of the internal jealousies, desires and other emotions that have built up over the course of their time together. Noé lets us understand just enough to fully appreciate (if that’s the word) the mayhem that unfolds after they realize their sangria has been spiked with a particularly potent hallucinogen. The stack of horror VHS tapes next to the TV on which we saw those opening interviews turns out to have been a warning.
So, let’s count off some of the major Noé-isms in which Climax indulges (that’s definitely the right word). First off, the credits go wherever the fuck he wants them. Some of them are at the beginning, some of them are at the end and the main titles mostly happen, in a series of extremely stylized fonts, right in the goddamn middle of the movie. Second, there are the long, swirling Steadicam takes. Noé uses the fluidity of these not to establish spatial coherence but to distort it and, if possible, make the viewer a little queasy. Third (but by no means finally), there’s the inversion of the frame. The deeper the characters get into their chemical psychosis, the more often the floor and ceiling are flipped. Those left dancing become writhing stalactites.
Or maybe they’re more like squirming bats, hanging from the top of a cave but threatening to take flight. That would certainly be fitting imagery for the house of horrors Climax’s single setting steadily becomes. With its various sections—dance floor, hallway, kitchen, dorm rooms, lobby—the rehearsal space transforms into a sort of NC-17 Halloween maze as the characters berate, beat and (in one case) set fire to each other.
If his only goal were to freak you out, though, he wouldn’t be Gaspar Noé. As depraved as these young men and women become, he never lets us forget the eager hopes and dreams of those faces we first saw at the beginning, nervously aspiring toward their goals. Climax revels in the lives ruined (or, some cases, ended) by petty squabbles exploded but it never lets us forget the values and specifics of the lives themselves. That’s what makes it so sick. That’s what makes it so great.