I think it’s so important to begin with a bang, don’t you? – Party Monster
At the very end of Gaspar Noé’s new film, Climax, a bloodied girl crawls through the crisp pure powder of freshly fallen snow before collapsing as the camera pans away to reveal the final credits. That is to say, at the very beginning of Climax, Noé announces that by the end of this dance movie, at least one bloody woman is going to escape through fallen snow. How do we get there? Sex and drugs.
One night in mid 1990s France, a group of young dancers rehearse before they’re set to make their big debut in America. Half of the first act is a glorious extended dance sequence that alone is worth the price of admission. An extended orgy of bodies and dance moves set to an energetic blast of dance music of varying popularity, the dance sequences in Climax are to die for (and some of them actually do).
Combining different cultural backgrounds and sexualities, Climax uses the first act to flesh out characters with a long sequence of video interviews and another extended sequence of the students standing around gossiping and trash talking. There’s the gay older DJ named Daddy, the manager who is actually a mother, a pair of blonde lesbians, a brother/sister pair, the sister of whom is chased after by the group’s slutty lothario who is being targeted by the younger gay boy. That’s just for starters; Noé offers about 20 young sexualized characters to bang and bash against each other when the drugs kick in…
Somebody spiked the sangria with LSD and didn’t tell anybody. Being stealth drugged is bad enough but the abandoned school is also giving off bad vibes and the party turns into a horror show as everybody turns into animals trying to keep their heads together while preserving their lives. When I say horror, I don’t mean that there are ghosts or witches wandering the halls. The real demons are us, and the drugs take us to the worst possible place. It doesn’t help that the school is drenched in the most sickening reds and greens this side of Natural Born Killers.
In more ways than one, Climax channels the look and feel of Dario Argento’s Suspiria more than Guadagnino’s Suspiria even attempted. While not having Argento’s eye for grandiose geometric patterns, Noé still unnerves through pure visual density as the drugs kick in and Noé’s constantly roving camera leads us from one horror to the next, keeping our sympathies with the person trying to stay alive at that moment. By the end, people will be injured, sexually assaulted, and die in a multitude of visceral ways that intend to shock the audience out of their comfort zone…all set to some of the greatest EDM ever made.
But, in classic French fashion, there are some uncomfortable characters to reckon with here. There is the sexually aggressive black guys who objectify everybody…even though they’re not as sexually assaultive as the white lothario. The gay boy is predatory because the only other gay guy is the older black Daddy. And then there’s the aggressive black girl who is a total carbon copy of the black dancer (Ungela Brockman) from Showgirls (“You fucked the meter reader!”). But, all the characters are messy aggressive lived-in cliches with pointed counter parts that I can’t quite get all offended by it even though I feel like I kinda should be. Feel free to yell at me and tell me why I’m wrong in the comments.
By the end, with an extended sequence filmed completely upside down, Climax does wear out its welcome. Up to then, the purely visceral experience that is Climax blows the broadly intellectual exercise of Suspiria out of the water.