It’s amazing more directors don't leap to make dance movies. Dance movies are action movies without the violence, musicals without the singing. Eschewing visual effects for the simple pleasures of watching the human body do amazing things, they’re among the most purely cinematic films out there. From Singin’ In The Rain to Magic Mike XXL, it’s hard to argue with that particular thrill. There’s even a Twitter account dedicated to the celebration of dance in the movies.
Gaspar Noe clearly understands this with his latest film Climax. Taking place in a French dance studio full of young dancers from around the world, Noe’s fifth feature is a pulsating, throbbing disco nightmare. Bodies flail with verve and energy, producing movements and shapes that captivate and enthral. Rarely has dance been captured onscreen with this much barely-restrained chaos, crazy gyrating figures filling the frame and then some as they work out all their stresses and passions. Climax takes place at a party, and initially at least, it’s hard to not want in on that party.
Where everything goes wrong is in a situation many partygoers have likely experienced themselves. Partway in, it becomes clear that the fruit punch has been spiked with something stronger than alcohol. As the night wears on, the dancers fall into incredibly potent panic. Who spiked the punch? What with, exactly? Does it even matter, when everyone is freaking the fuck out?
Along the way from elated prologue to moaning denouement, micro-narratives play out amidst the carnage, set up by vox-pop interviews at the top of the film. Some characters get caught up in romantic or professional jealousy. Others have panic attacks or vanish into their own little psychedelic universes. Others still straight-up get it on in the middle of the dance floor. Most harrowing of all is a subplot about a mother and young son, both of whom drink the acid-laced punch, and both of whom meet with personal disaster.
All this plays out, as should be unsurprising to veterans of Noe's filmography, as a nightmarish assault on the senses and emotions. The cast uses their full range of physicality to communicate their various experiences, playing to the rafters in an incredible sustained cry of horror. Sofia Boutella (of Kingsman, Star Trek, and The Mummy fame) is the ostensible lead here, the only character trying in vain to hold the group together, and her performance would be a standout if the entire rest of the cast were not also operating at Isabella-Adjani-in-Possession levels. As the relentless, pounding soundtrack traps them in endless dance, so too are we pummeled into submission. We don't see through the characters' eyes (no Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas LSD imagery here), but we feel their pain - and their pleasure.
Despite clearly being envigorated by his cast’s dynamism, Noe himself appears to be on a kind of autopilot in Climax. His direction maintains the same precision of camerawork and sloppiness of action that makes all his films so unsettling. He shoots scenes from above, with slowly rotating cameras; in long takes both precisely choreographed and sickeningly handheld; and by the end of the film, entirely upside-down. It’s not ineffective - Noe’s style definitely enhances the nightmarish quality of the film - but it feels like treading water from a director who’s done all this stuff before. Add in some pretentious onscreen statements of theme (birth, death, transformation), and you get a film that’s as intellectually wanting as it is viscerally gripping.
Climax feels like a minor film from Noe, taking place entirely in one location and in near real-time. It’s an entirely different kind of dance-studio horror freakout to that of Suspiria, also hitting cinemas this season, but no less disconcerting. One wonders what the meaning of it all is. Noe claims it was inspired by a party from his youth, but there's too much French iconography to not view it as a national metaphor. One potential reading sees it as an immigration allegory, with a multicultural troupe coming together under a French flag only to lose their minds and, in some cases, be driven into the icy world outside.
Or maybe it's an anti-drug PSA, or just a cinematic dance/horror experience in which to lose onesself. It's definitely unlike anything else on screen this year - and a must-see for lovers of transgressive art cinema.