Photo courtesy of A24
Anyone who’s seen Gaspar Noe’s films will not be surprised by these themes. Yes, there is sex and violence in “Climax,” just like in his previous works, but here they are explored with more finesse and sophistication. Noe’s filmmaking style can be described as “cinema of body” — the images are loud, and the sex very much in-your-face.
The bodies become a large part of the narrative’s texture, with actors used as instruments. Noe’s films lack the conventional emotional depth of narrative films — the characters are usually shallow, left unexplored without much plot or narrative. However, what he lacks in storytelling he compensates for with larger philosophical themes such as existential despair and death itself.
The plot is very simple — so simple there can be no spoilers: 20 or so dancers rehearse in a space near the woods, then party. Someone laces the sangria with LSD, and things then take a nightmarish turn.
The film takes place in the 1990s, making it easy to leave the cell phone technology behind. It also follows a trend of recent counterculture films that are set in the same decade, like “Mid90s” or “Landline.” After all, Noe’s films are the epitome of dark and trendy, although he would probably claim to be more intellectual than that. Just think of “Enter the Void,” shot much like a video game about an American drug dealer in Tokyo, “Love,” which features an American film student in Paris troubled by the memories of an ex-girlfriend and lots and lots of graphic sex.
Noe, a French filmmaker citing Kubrick as a main influence, may share the rest of the world’s fascination with American culture when it comes to entertainment. The fact that the dancers in “Climax” are about to embark on a first-time tour to the U.S. is no coincidence. They are super excited about the trip, building up the contrast for the ensuing nightmare.
It can be said that the most effective type of horror films are the psychological, somewhat violent and suspenseful ones. The first half of the film is mostly blasting 1990s electronic music choreography scenes, filmed with a nonstop moving light Arri camera, giving the viewer a breathtaking 3D feel of a musical.
This is the work of Noe’s long-term cinematographer Benoit Debie, whom Harmony Korine “borrowed” for his last two pictures, “Spring Breakers” and “The Beach Bum.” The flawless camera movements of the dancing scenes were also achieved by the use of glass floors. The filmmakers did not shy away from using extremely long, Hitchcockian moving takes following one character to the next.
The second half of the film is what places it in the horror genre, with fluorescent lights dimming and turning on and off as characters wander through the abandoned, orphanage-like dark building, chasing the animal instincts of their subconscious desires. Out of the 20 dancers, only a few are truly spared; the ones who try to do the right thing are punished or self-reprimanded.
A main theme of the film involved trying to protect loved ones for the wrong reasons, doing it in the wrong way, or not knowing how to do it. The lights dim as the each character walks and interacts with others, similar to theatrical stage lighting.
The film is visceral, thanks to its strong aesthetic and the inner psychological desires of some characters. It is difficult to critique on an emotional level, as there are simply too many characters to track.
Perhaps that was Noe’s point— for the audience to witness the characters’ psychological hell when left to the mercy of others’ deepest inner nature.
The original version of the film on VHS tape is visible in the long opening shot of the film, along with the book entitled “Schizophrenia,” and other titles.
It would be appropriate to describe the leftover feeling of “Climax” as “Suspiria-meets-schizophrenia-in the club” — in a very dark, torturous, trendy, strange, trippy, good way.