Starring: Sofia Boutella, Sharleen Temple, Souheila Yacoub, Thea Carla Schott
Director: Gaspar Noé
Writer: Gaspar Noé
This review CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
Every once in a while, you come across a movie that hits you to the core. In many cases, those movies tend to push the envelope and make us uncomfortable. The methods used to “cure” Alex (Malcolm McDowell) in A Clockwork Orange still haunt after 47 years. When Hugh Jackman took matters into his own hands in Prisoners, it was chilling, brutal, and shocking. The results of surgically connecting a number of humans from one end of the digestive track to the other in The Human Centipede was unnerving.
Some directors like to push the envelope, using the medium to depict what they feel is human nature at its worse as though it is normal. Lars von Trier is one such director who has given us plenty of shocking, raw, and controversial movies including Nymphomaniac, Antichrist, and his most recent The House that Jack Built. Gaspar Noé is another such director with Irreversible, a movie that gave us two uncomfortable assault scenes. Would his most recent work Climax (2018) be similar? Let’s take a look.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first heard of the movie. A quick search on the Internet provided me with some answers. It sounded like a fairly straightforward movie, categorized as a music, drama, and horror movie. A group of dancers decide to get together at an old, abandoned school and rehearse on a cold winter night. Once finished, they continue to party and, of course, dance. However, as the hours pass, some of them begin to feel a loss of control, acting out of character. In an unexpected twist, it turns out that someone laced the sangria with LSD. Now, that sounded interesting. Plenty of movies have dealt with trying to show the effects of drug trips, with varying success (e.g. The Doors, Natural Born Killers, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).
The movie is split into three parts. In the first, the dancers finish up their rehearsal and then continue dancing for fun. During this time, a table with various drinks, including the sangria, is set up. This part is fairly straightforward and you’d be hard pressed to find anything that remotely resembles any inappropriate behaviors, let alone ones attributable to the horror genre. Noé’s love of dance is obvious here as it’s the main focus. As the camera follows the dancers and seamlessly shifts from one to the other, we get to meet all the various actors, including the star Sofia Boutella (The Mummy, The Kingsman: Secret Service, Star Trek: Beyond), as they relax and enjoy their time together.
In the second act, the dancers pair up with one another and discuss their lives, mostly about the relationships they are in. Once again, not a whole lot is happening that is out of the ordinary. The characters chat, dance, and drink, but nothing dramatic. That calm before the storm is how Noé lulls you into a sense of normalcy. These people are normal and have normal lives. There are no clues to set viewers off about the things they would be capable of doing. But as we enter the next act of the movie, that changes.
Unbeknownst to the dancers, someone’s laced the sangria with LSD. Without a reason to worry, most of them simply drink it without hesitation. And in this third act, the effects begin to show themselves. The dancers panic as they don’t know what’s going on or why, ultimately adding to the paranoia. And whereas the first two acts were calm and straightforward, this act is the opposite. It’s chaotic and stormy. What began as friends having a good time quickly turns into a nightmare, with every person acting differently from the LSD effects. And it’s in this third act that we see the horror.
As humans, we tend to pride ourselves as being different from animals, no? We glorify our cultural evolution, idolize our technological advancement and prowess, and we pontificate that, as the master race, we own Earth. Animals are just creatures who, without imagination, without a soul, without what essentially makes us human, act on instinct and not much else. However, Noé would have you believe differently. Not only does he create a situation that involves dancers — purveyors of artistic expression, something that many would argue is an indicator of the human spirit — but he presents them as placeholders. Though they have recognizable traits allowing viewers to differentiate them, their names are forgettable. Essentially, anyone could be in that “shell.” It could be you, your friend, your coworker, anyone. This is the point Noé tries to drive home.
As representatives of the human spirit, the dancers regress to the darkest of places, engaging in behaviors that are no different from the primal and instinctive ways of animals. It contrasts Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (of which Noé is a self-professed fan) where the apes evolve into modern humans after coming into contact with the monolith. However, in Climax, Noé takes the modern human and regresses them back into that primal and savage ape. Perhaps he’s claiming that drugs are an anti-monolith to the modern man? Whatever the reason, it’s deftly done.
Climax is different from typical horror movies, but it is terrifying and shocking nonetheless, something that Gaspar Noé is familiar with. The assault scenes in Irreversible left viewers numb due to their graphic and raw depictions. Though perhaps lighter from a graphic content point of view, Climax is no different. Whether it’s the self-mutilation or the beatings or even the ensuing orgy-like sexual encounters, the scenes are cold, harsh, and shocking. Noé is direct in blaming the dangers of overindulging in alcohol and drugs. It can turn anyone, at any time, into ugliness. Fun social situations with the gentlest of people can quickly become a chaotic, violent, paranoid mess. There’s no holding back by Noé in telling this story.
Climax is an aptly chosen title. The buildup, like a dance or a mating ritual, builds over the first two acts and finally erupts in the third one. But this climax is made up of numerous peaks, with every dancer reacting differently. Like a living nightmare, peak after peak is reached without an apparent end. And like a bucket of ice-cold water, the nightmare suddenly ends. It is only in the morning that the consequences of their hell begin to be seen, but not by the culprits themselves. Rather, as is often the case with a destructive event, it is outsiders who see the destruction first, embodied in Climax by the police. As expected, they are left perplexed, unable to understand — at least initially — what took place.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that this is, to an extent, also a whodunit. Throughout the third act, as the dancers realize something was done to them and that the sangria was the source, there’s a disconnected effort (hampered by the effects of the LSD) to find who is responsible. That investigation is turned into a quasi-medieval witch hunt given the drug-induced paranoia, leading to false accusations and actions unsupported by the evidence. At the end, viewers will certainly be surprised when the guilty party is finally revealed, as well as the probable motive for doing so. It’s brilliantly executed by Noé.
The movie was filmed in 15 days, an impressive feat. The actors were all dancers, including Sofia Boutella, and their choreography from the first 15-minute scene was the only prepared and rehearsed part of the movie. Gaspar Noé only wrote a structure, an idea of what he wanted to happen in the movie, and let the actors improvise their dialogue. At times, they were given directions, especially when it came to filming their drug-induced reactions, but almost all of it was on the fly. It improved the realism of the story and is a testament to the acting skills and the faith Gaspar Noé had in his cast.
Climax is a must-watch. Though lighter than some of Noé’s past offerings, the movie still hits hard. After watching it, you’ll be left wondering whether you’ve seen a documentary or a work of fiction. It will make you think about the use of drugs and alcohol and its consequences. But mostly, you’ll be left wondering how humans so quickly deteriorate to a base state, capable of such extreme behaviors. Gaspar Noé intended that to be the case, and he manages to do it outstandingly.