The words “existence is a fleeting illusion” flash on screen early on in Gaspar Noé’s Climax, and so much of what happens in the following 90 or so minutes seems to be there to support this notion. Leaving aside its plot for a moment—someone spikes the sangria of a virtuosic dance troupe, tearing a hole in their little society and turning a party into a living nightmare of ids gone haywire—formally, this film repeatedly betrays our conception of how a movie works. Full credits scroll two minutes in. A list of the film’s literary and cinematic references—Nietzsche, Kafka, Argento, Fassbinder, and Pasolini, among them—is provided upfront in the form of stacks of VHS tapes and books that frame a TV on which we watch members of the dance troupe being interviewed during the prologue. Long takes are punctuated by brief bursts of action. As Thomas Bangalter’s “What To Do” rattles the sound system in the middle of the film, the names of the dancers, the musicians whose works are used in the film, and its crew flare on the screen, each in their own excellent font. Noé has chopped up the very notion of cinema into something that is virtually snortable.
Noé, though, waves away the idea that he set out to meta-comment.
“The movie’s not about other movies, even if it was inspired by many different movies,” the French director told Jezebel by phone last month. “It’s mostly inspired by real life.”
“You have seen a film based on real events that happened in France in winter 1996,” claims a title card preceding those premature rolling credits. Noé confirmed his source was a crime from that place and time, but declined to specify what that actual event was. “I decided not to promote the fact or give the names because then people were just going to compare it with the freedom I gave myself and I gave to the dancers to portray the situation,” he said.
Noé, who operated his own camera as he directed Climax, shot his film over the course of about two weeks in February 2018. He, the dancers, and choreographer Nina McNeely worked quickly off a one-page outline that left room for improvisation. Many of the dance sequences were choreographed the night before they were shot, as the production received licensing approval for various songs from the ‘80s and ‘90s that Noé desired.
Sofia Boutella (The Mummy, Atomic Blonde) leads the ensemble as the fictional troupe’s choreographer, Selva. She said that Noé approached her with little more than the general concept of dosed dancers. She requested the opportunity for her character to unleash, much like Isabelle Adjani does in Polish director Andrzej Zulawski’s primal scream of a horror film from 1981, Possession.
“I asked him if I could explore something similar and he said, ‘Yes, let’s do it,’” the Algerian-born actor-dancer told Jezebel by phone on Thursday.” The result is a thrashing meltdown in the third act that finds Selva alternately laughing hysterically, contorting her body carnally, and shouting at nothing with utter abandon.
“That scene in the corridor, we only did seven takes of that because it took the life out of all of us, to be honest,” said Boutella. “He pushes us. I like somebody that pushes me, personally. He pushes but he was in the limits of respect and consideration toward the other person. He was never rude or aggressive or impolite ever.”
One could reasonably say Selva’s meltdown is the climax of Climax, but then, in what is the film’s slipperiest cinematic sleight of hand, one could reasonably say that about many of this movie’s scenes. In my opinion, the actual climax starts about 10 minutes in as the entire varied troupe (whose members respectively employ elements of voguing, krumping, and waacking) performs a mesmerizing dance to an instrumental re-edit of Cerrone’s Eurodisco classic “Supernature” (Cerrone did the remixing, which mostly just adds a pumped-up, house-y rhythm section, himself.) Noé’s crane-operated camera captures it all in a single, stunning shot. It is one of the most intoxicating, and flat-out best scenes I’ve seen in a movie, ever. Things like this are why the phrase “worth the price of admission” was invented. I want to live in that scene.
“I am not a fan of musicals, whether it’s in theater or in movies. I never go to see contemporary dance, but the result there is incredible,” said Noé, admiring his own work. He said that the scene was shot the first day of shooting and that he called 16 takes. (Boutella says 17.) “When I introduce my movie at festivals, I always stay again and again to see that opening scene because they’re all dancing in different ways. Since there are 20 people on screen, you can watch it over and over and never get bored. I’m just partly responsible. I think what’s magic in that scene is the dancers themselves and the work that Nina McNeely did with the music I gave her.”
The movie is paced like a DJ set—the songs’ BPMs increase for a while, there’s a noisy section, an ‘80s crowd pleaser (Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go” medley), and a denouement (an instrumental version of the Rolling Stones’ “Angie” performed by Thibaut Barbillon). The resulting collection of tunes is as jaw-droppingly curated as a classic soundtrack from the era in which the movie is set (for sheer playability, it reminds me of Trainspotting).
“I was so happy that we could use my two favorite techno tracks from the ‘90s, ‘Rollin’ and Scratchin’’ by Daft Punk and ‘Windowlicker’ by Aphex Twin,” said Noé. “I know how many hundreds of times I’ve danced to both of them and when you put music that people know in a movie, those who have already heard them they kind of feel at home. There’s some kind of familiarity that is created. What you see on screen is also linked to your own life.”
In Noé’s estimation, those whom his movie makes the most uncomfortable fall into two camps: heavy partiers and parents. The former seems obvious—Climax completely nails that feeling of still being in a club at 4 am, knowing it’s time to go, but not being able to tear your eyes away from the scene’s deterioration, the zombie-like state that conviviality has given way to. The latter has to do with a child character, who is in clear danger as a result of the madness that breaks out among the adult dancers. I asked Noé if putting a fictional child in peril was an open provocation.
“I like very dramatic movies,” he said of his creative decision. “I know especially when it’s not a documentary, when it’s a narrative film, I like strong emotions, whether the film makes you cry or be scared. It doesn’t happen so often. There aren’t many movies that scare you or make you cry or make you laugh. Most of the time you’re just waiting until the movie ends.”
Much of the drama comes from the dancers’ negative reactions to the LSD in their sangria. Boutella said she has never dropped acid before and drew inspiration from research she performed on the synthetic drug flakka.
“I wanted an extreme drug,” she explained. “When I was looking at LSD, it was not enough, but I also found that everybody experiences drugs differently. I wanted to find a drug that was quite extreme and quite shocking to live with. Flakka is the one that caught my attention. It’s a pretty disturbing drug where people completely lose their mind and they turn into zombies and very aggressive machines. They turn superhuman in a bizarre way. It’s not very pretty to look at. I thought that this color would be the right one for me to go toward. That was very helpful but I wanted to go for something quite psychologically interesting in terms of playing the choreographer, like what would be interesting to watch and to observe and I thought, maybe playing a choreographer who probably wasn’t the dancer she wanted to be and she didn’t succeed where she wanted to succeed and became a choreographer. The thing that hadn’t made her happy in a very long time was this dance competition, this dance show she had built and made her happy and she was trying to relate to other people and trying to be nurturing. At the peak of her climax, that’s what she’s realizing, that she had failed.”
Via its depiction of a unified dance troupe whose members turn on each other when a mind-altering variable is introduced, Climax seems to be a comment on humanity’s tenuous grasp on civilization, and how one rift can tear it all apart.
“You always hear the words ‘order’ and ‘chaos,’” said Noé about the responses to his movie. With a current 81 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, Climax happens to be his best-reviewed movie since his 1998 debut, I Stand Alone—the cover for the Climax press kit at Cannes, where it debuted, cheekily referenced his past bad reviews, predicting more of the same. Oops.
“It’s a movie about construction and destruction, like the Babel Tower story,” he continued. “It’s also a movie like The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure, in which a bunch of rich people are having fun, drinking champagne, and then the fire starts or the ship starts sinking and everybody’s afraid of dying and some people are more cruel than other people. In American movies, the most cruel people die and the ones who are good end up surviving. They’re very predictable. In real life, when things happen like that, or during wartime, the truth is that the strongest ones survive and the most fragile ones die first.”
“I don’t think there are good and bad characters in the movie,” he said. “They all have multiple faces. They’re all sweet and cruel.”
Boutella said her experience on set with her fellow dancer-actors somewhat mirrored the film’s descent into madness (the film was shot in chronological order to boot).
“Dancers are very comfortable with each other, they make friends super easily,” she recalled. “We created such a tight, loving family quickly. But as the days went by, we started to get tired, so that was helpful for the circumstances of the story. It went darker and darker. It was a lot of responsibility and a short amount of time.”
So did they finally turn on each other IRL?
“No, we all kept a tight, good bond, respectful and loving toward one another. It’s not like onscreen,” she said with a laugh.
Climax is now playing in select theaters.