“Mummy, there are bugs in here” | Climax (2018)

It begins, oddly enough, with Gary Numan. His 1980 rendition of Erik Satie’s “Trois Gymnopédies” accompanies a stark shot of a snowfield from above. In stumbles a hysterical young woman, barely able to stand. When she falls, she convulses on the ground. She leaves behind stains of blood, vividly contrasted by the white of the snow. Simple beauty is contrasted by prurient grotesquerie. It is a perfect single-shot encapsulation of the ensuing 97 minutes.

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In 2018 the Argentine filmmaker Gaspar Noé released Climax, a spontaneously-generated French horror film about a group of contemporary dancers who undergo a nightmarish odyssey when one of them – it is a mystery as to who – spikes their drinks with LSD.

I have been a fan of Noé’s challenging film works since his controversial 2002 film Irreversible. He is very much French cinema’s enfant terrible, although he would likely loathe the term (‘Why, why, why do English speaking people use this French word?’ he complained after one journalist called him a provocateur)[1]. He has made five features to date that do not challenge the viewer so much as provoke them. He appears to luxuriate in controversial subject matter. His breakout short feature Carne (1991) featured the on-screen butchering of a live horse[2]. Subsequent works have touched on sexual violence, incest, and murder, and been visually and structurally represented by reverse narratives, dizzying hand-held photography, strobe lighting, obtrusive and often ironic captions, nauseating low frequency sound, and an overwhelming embrace of chaos, cynicism, and nihilism. It is fair to describe Noé’s work as something of an acquired taste. You may not like it, but it is absolutely going to stimulate an emotional response.

Climax is, to my mind, his single-greatest achievement. It is the strongest of his films – both shorts and features – and is more energetic, playful, and sensorily overwhelming than anything else he has written and directed. On the Australian DVD release of the film, a large pull quote on the cover reads ‘a provocative masterpiece’. I wrote that, in a review for the film website FilmInk. It goes without saying that having your writing quoted on the cover of one of your favourite films is enormously healthy for the ego. More importantly, it is a sentiment that I still stand by. At the time of writing in May 2021 Climax remains one of my all-time favourite films. Hand-on-heart, I believe it is one of the greatest horror films of all time. It is up there with Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, or Wise’s The Haunting, or Kubrick’s The Shining.

If you have yet to see it, be aware you will very possibly hate it when you do.

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‘I was developing another project,’ Noé explained to Sight & Sound’s Anna Bogutskaya. ‘This process can take a long time – two or three years – and it’s very boring. I love directors like Fassbender, or experimental or documentary directors, who just start shooting with nothing. So I thought, what could I do while I’m working on this: a project that could be done quickly, that has a very short shooting period so I could easily raise the money for it? So this documentary-dance project emerged.’[3]

Thoughts of a project focused upon contemporary dance shifting to those of an improvised drama, in which a group of performers would become trapped in an enclosed space and play out their varied reactions on screen. Noé would later claim his key inspiration for Climax was the vast array of disaster movies produced in Hollywood in the 1970s – The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and the like – as well as independent horror films including Shivers (1975) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). The basic premise upon which Noé settled was that a group of dancers would rehearse in an isolated hall before someone would spike their sangria with LSD during the after party. In subsequent interviews he and his principal crew would talk of how the film was based on a true story; given no record of such an event can be found, and Noé’s reputation for mischief, it is overwhelmingly likely that this is a lie.

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The marriage of dance and horror is potentially the least inventive part of Climax. Indeed the two have a long and productive relationship dating back through the history of cinema and into the classical ballets of the 19th and 20th centuries. Uncanny automata featured in Saint-Léon and Delibes’ Coppélia. Physical transformation and suicide dominates Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. In Coralli, Perrot, and Adam’s Giselle, supernatural creatures almost force a man to dance himself to death.

This relationship has only strengthened in narrative cinema, and the history of cinema is littered with examples of combining the sensual physicality of dance – widely perceived as a female pursuit – and the frights and paranoia of horror cinema – which itself is liberally soaked in a historical focus on women, sexuality, and violence. Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 masterpiece The Red Shoes comes immediately to mind, as do more recent examples including Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), Luca Guadignino’s remake Suspiria (2018), and Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019).

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Casting for the film started with French-Algerian Sofia Boutella, who quit her original dancing career for acting in big budget films like Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman (2015), Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond (2016), and Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy (2017). With Noé casting the project based on dance talent above any other consideration, Boutella was ultimately the only professional actor involved.

‘We talked a lot about what the movie was going to be like,’ Noé explained, ‘and she was absolutely great from the beginning to the end with her improvisations. And I met her one month earlier, and on an instinctive level I thought she was so bright and she was such a good dancer and I said “trust me, I trust you on an instinctive level, I want you to be in this movie and I want you to play the main part of the choreographer.”’[4]

Boutella recalled that ‘at the time when he met me, all he said is, “I’ve seen your work as a dancer, and I really like what you’ve done, and I have in mind to do a movie with dancers spiked with LSD”, and I said, “What else?” He said, “I don’t know.” And I said, “Whom would you like me to play?” And he said, “I don’t know. I have a few ideas.” I’ve genuinely never met anybody who gave me those answers on the first meeting and I’ve certainly spent a lot of time with dancers and in their element, and that’s why I also respect him for that.’[5]

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Rather than seek professionally-trained dancers, Noé deliberately targeted talented amateurs that were self-taught and who performed competitively with one another in clubs or on the street. It provided a broad range of dance styles, as well as a much looser and aggressive energy. One performer cast (as a character named Ivana) was Siberian vogue dancer Sharleen Temple, whom Noé met at a Paris vogue ballroom event. Temple: ‘I won the Woman Performance award and he came to me and started saying something… I was in a hurry, so I simply told him my name and asked him to write to me on Facebook. He somehow found my email and dropped me a message. I was in Paris for a week and we met a couple of times.’[6]

Another dancer cast was Congolese contortionist Strauss Serpent. ‘That guy is a contortionist,’ said Noé. ‘He wasn’t from any of the dance families from France. We were talking about unusual dancers, or psychotic dance styles and someone said “oh, there’s this contortionist in Congo.” And he found us this website for a TV show in Congo, and there he was. So we got in touch with him, and flew him to Paris.’[7]

A key hire among the film’s crew was American choreographer Nina McNeely. Noé ‘I had cast my favorite dancers for the movie, [and] Sofia recommended who she said was the very best choreographer in LA to do the choreography. I never thought that Nina McNeely, after watching her videos, would accept coming to France with the financial conditions that we had. But she said yes, and she made a masterpiece of choreography.’[8]

‘I think Gaspar actually didn’t want to use a choreographer at first,’ said McNeely, ‘which would have been crazy. Sofia was like “No.” She sent him my reel, and one day I got a message like, “Hey, can you Skype with Gaspar in the morning?” and I was like, “Oh my god. Where should I put my computer in my apartment?” Fully freaking out.’[9]

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Climax was shot inside a disused high school building in the Parisian suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine. Due to the extraordinarily tight budget and schedule, the shoot only lasted 15 days. McNeely was afforded three days in advance to choreograph and rehearse all of the dance routines. She did not even have the entire cast at her disposal; five dancers only arrived the morning before photography commenced.

McNeely: ‘We began our first day with a freestyle circle/battle to see all the dancers skills and personality. Some of the cast had traditional dance training, but most were not used to being in choreographed routines. Since this opening dance needed to be a six-minute single take there were a lot of counts and cues to remember. We had three days of rehearsals total and not all of the dancers were there.’[10]

‘I was not on the set when she created [the opening dance] in two days with 15 dancers,’ Noé recalled, ‘and there were five additional dancers that just came the morning of the first day of shooting. So she had the morning to finalize her choreography. The crane was already onstage, and I saw the choreography that she had created with these dancers that mostly were not professional dancers.’[11]

The opening dance routine was the very first scene shot for the film, immediately after it had been fully choreographed. It was undertaken as an unbroken continuous shot, which required reshooting each time any one of the 20 dancers involved made a mistake. ‘I was operating the crane and the camera for the rest of the movie,’ said Noé, ‘but I’m responsible for 10% of that scene. The dancers and Nina are responsible for what it is.’[12]

So impressed was Noé with McNeely’s contribution that he hired her for the duration of the shoot. She continued to coach the cast in movement and physical performance – including the Japanese technique known as ‘butoh’ – as well as how their behaviours should change once their characters are high on LSD.

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Climax was shot in chronological order – something of a rarity in narrative filmmaking – since Noé was essentially making up his story as he went along. It also acted as something of an insurance policy should there be any mishaps during production. ‘If someone broke their legs, or if one of the dancers wanted to escape from the filming, we could just say that they disappeared. I left the door open to any accidents that might happen.’[13]

Scenes were developed with the cast, with Noé shooting as many as 15 takes each time. This allowed the dancers to improvise their dialogue and iteratively build each moment and conversation. ‘They said “are you going to give us lines to read and to rehearse?” I said “no, just come to the set and do whatever you want, I’ll never push you to do anything against your will and if you have any ideas please tell them to me.”’[14]

‘I asked them what you would enjoy doing in the movie? How would you want to shock an audience? I would never ask them to do, what they would not like doing. Tell me who you want to kiss? Who you want to smash? Who you want to insult? And I would ask the other person, would you mind if this person wants to do this or that. And of-course the reciprocal person was welcome to anything.’[15]

Despite the nightmarish content, the production shoot ran remarkably smoothly. Noé said: ‘It’s the first time that it’s ever happened to me that there were no tensions in pre-production, during the production, or in post-production. They were all small dancers, so they’re all very healthy. They barely drink because when they drink, they’re not used to it, so they can’t dance.’[16]

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The production was shot by Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie (Enter the Void, The Runaways). It was recorded on digital video both due to the budget and the pace of shooting. Noé was eager to utilise complicated tracking shots once the characters were high on drugs, including rolling the camera 360 degrees in any direction to produce dizzying and nauseating effects on the viewer. To help achieve this effect on a fast schedule, the camera shot scenes at a large 4:3 ratio which could then be digitally cropped to the much wider 2.39:1 during post-production. Debie explained: ‘In the final act of the film we were doing more and more crazy camera movement, including rotations around the optical axis, so our 2.39 ground glass was designed so that we could rotate 360° within the 1.37 image captured by the camera.’[17]

To light the film, Debie and art director Jean Rabasse used Astera LED tubes. It meant they could control both colour and illumination on the fly using an iPad, and hide the entire lighting set in the building’s pre-existing fittings. Colour balance could also be manipulated live on set, cutting down on post-production time and costs and providing Noé with an immediate understanding of what each shot would look like.

A last-minute addition to the film was a series of interview sessions with the characters. Noé acted as the interviewer from off-camera, with each member of the cast improvising their responses. They were seen as a means of better introducing the large cast to the viewer from the outset. On-screen they were presented on an old cathode-ray tube television surrounded by old books and videotapes.

One actor did not improvise their lines, and instead performed dialogue written for them by Noé, to specifically inform the plot of the film.

The woman in the snow, the interviews, and the opening dance routine; after these the film begins in earnest.

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There is a deliberately odd structure to Climax’s titles; a typical example of Noé’s penchant for disrupting and even teasing audience expectation. Two minutes in, the closing titles scroll backwards over the screen. At nine minutes the production companies and funding organisations are credited, along with a caption: ‘a French film and proud of it.’ The opening titles and cast credits unexpectedly arrive at the 44-minute mark. The film’s title is not seen until the very end.

It sounds frivolous, perhaps even irritating, to break up the titles in this fashion, but it actually enables a strong structure to the film. Given that the first scene in the snow is set at the end of the story, chronologically speaking, immediately rolling the closing titles is simply a powerful extension of that moment. Putting the bulk of the opening titles at 44-minutes – essentially the mid-point of the entire film – acts as a sharp delineator between the funny, energised, and playful after party and the much more oppressive and harrowing communal drug trip that follows. There is a palpable shift in the film’s visual texture between the two halves, and the credits help emphasise that effect.

The after party scene feels light and frivolous, and is packed with outstanding moments of dance, but it also begins to subtly layer in the conflicts that will drive the second half of the narrative. Much is on a simple level of who-is-besotten-is-whom, but there are also more troubling threads. Two siblings are among the group – and Taylor (Taylor Kastle) is paranoid of his sister Gazelle’s (Giselle Palmer) sexualised behaviour towards other men. Several of the male performers are irritated by how David (Romain Guillermic) is aggressively trying it on with every woman in the group. Lou (Souheila Yacoub) is abstaining from drinking like everybody else. The group’s manager Emmanuelle (Claude-Gajan Maull) has made sangria from everyone, but has to regularly shoo away her young son Tito (Vince Galliot Cumant) from trying to drink it.

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This is all clever set-up, because in the heat of the scene it feels less like foreshadowing and more like character detail. It quietly establishes enough relationships and small conflicts that the second half – the drug trip – has a rich bed of material from which to draw.

The second half ramps up its tension carefully, and in a measured fashion. At first it seems a little out of sorts, but then it feels unsettling, and then troubling, and then actively confronting. As the paranoia grows, so does the panic. As the panic accelerates, the behaviour shifts into violence, terror, and hysteria.

The photography and mise-en-scene transforms as well, tracking alongside the characters’ behaviour. By the time it reaches the titular climax, the camera is rolling upside-down as it races across the floor, still dancing bodies contorted out of shape and lit by the bleakest of red light. If a more effective screen representation of hell exists, I am yet to see it. These late scenes are actively nauseating; during its theatrical run, there were reports of viewers running out of the theatre to be violently sick.

It is a perfectly sensible question to ask why anybody would seek such a deliberately queasy experience for entertainment. It is a question that can be asked of much of Noé’s work and, indeed, of the entire ‘New French Extremity’ movement that he effectively founded. Be aware it is not just the technical production of Climax that is confronting, but its content. Horror cinema, no matter how harrowing, still tends to observe a few key rules of what is and is not acceptable to an audience. There are things audiences generally will not reasonably expect to happen to pregnant women, for example, or particularly to children. Noé is clearly as aware of these conventions as any moviegoer, and he breaches them with a purposeful and confronting provocation.

Why would we torture ourselves like this?

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Narrative cinema exists, like most art, to generate an emotional response. Audiences watch comedies to laugh, action films to be exhilarated, and tragedies to be sorrowful. Any first-year drama student can explain to you about catharsis – the idea of experiencing powerful emotions in a simulated fashion so as to engage them in a way that is transitory and safe. Climax simply exercises those emotions in-extremis. At his most effective, Noé can affect his audience physically. That, to me, is a profound achievement.

If good cinema provokes our engagement, and leads to an emotional response, then Climax is cinema at its very best – and certainly among its purest. There is no attempt here at social commentary or critique. ‘If it seems that the movie was allegory,’ Noé once said, ‘it wasn’t meant to be.’[18] Climax is a journey to an emotional and physical hell. It disgusts and shocks. It horrifies and terrifies. It is not simply pure cinema, it is pure horror as well.

From first meeting to its world premiere at Cannes, Climax took only four-and-a-half months to produce. It emerged as Noé’s greatest critical success; a far cry from the disgust and vehement contempt that met his earlier films. ‘I must be doing something wrong,’ he joked to The Guardian. ‘I have to take a long holiday and rethink my career.’[19]

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[1] Interviewed in “Gaspar Noé offers us advice on getting high and how to watch his sometimes gruesome films”, The Ion Pack, 11 March 2019.

[2] To be clear: the horse was going to die anyway. Noé simply bluffed his way into a Paris abattoir and filmed it being slaughtered.

[3] Anna Bogutskaya, “Disco Inferno”, SIght & Sound, October 2018.

[4] Anna Bogutskaya, “Disco Inferno”, SIght & Sound, October 2018.

[5] Gregory Ellwood, “Sofia Boutella: Make Sure You See ‘Climax’ Sober”, The Play List, 1 March 2019.

[6] Quoted in “How a girl from Siberia danced her way into a Gaspar Noé movie”, Russia Beyond, 7 November 2018. (https://www.rbth.com/arts/329457-sharleen-temple-climax)

[7] Maybelle Morgan, “Gasper Noé: The master of provocation on his trippy dance masterpiece, Climax”, Wonderland, 20 September 2018.

[8]  Dominick Suzanne-Mayer, “Climax director Gaspar Noé on modern cinema and why he skips Star Wars for documentaries”, Consequence of Sound, 2 March 2019.

[9] Quoted in “Choreographing a dance party from hell”, a24films.com, 14 March 2019.

[10] Interviewed in “Climax film choreographer Nina McNeely reveals how she designed dance for Gaspar Noé’s new film

[11]  Dominick Suzanne-Mayer, “Climax director Gaspar Noé on modern cinema and why he skips Star Wars for documentaries”, Consequence of Sound, 2 March 2019.

[12] Dominick Suzanne-Mayer, “Climax director Gaspar Noé on modern cinema and why he skips Star Wars for documentaries”, Consequence of Sound, 2 March 2019.

[13] Anna Bogutskaya, “Disco Inferno”, SIght & Sound, October 2018.

[14] Maybelle Morgan, “Gasper Noé: The master of provocation on his trippy dance masterpiece, Climax”, Wonderland, 20 September 2018.

[15] Daniel Theophanous, “Climax: An Interview with director Gaspar Noé”, Candid,

[16] Andy Crump, “Gasper Noé on Climax, accidental allegories, catastrophe movies and more”, Roger Ebert, 28 February 2019.

[17] François Reumont (transl. Anton Mertens), “Cinematographer Benoît Debie, SBC, talks about his work on “Climax”, by Gaspar Noé”, AFC, 3 October 2018.

[18] Andy Crump, “Gasper Noé on Climax, accidental allegories, catastrophe movies and more”, Roger Ebert, 28 February 2019.

[19] Xan Brooks, “Gaspar Noé: ‘Six people walked out of Climax? No! I usually have 25%’”, The Guardian, 22 May 2018.

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