Climax opens near its end, with a god’s-eye aerial view of virgin snow being disturbed by the staggering traversal – and collapse – of a young, blood-stained woman dressed in a tank top. Text appears on screen which reads, “To our creators who are no longer with us,” framing the full listed credits which immediately follow as a sort of obituary for the (very much still living, at least for now) cast and crew. The shadow of death looms over Gaspar Noé’s film, ensuring that even its early scenes of partying and pleasure ripple with the tension of inevitable disruption and doom lying ahead.
After the opening credits (which are repeated midway through the film, but unusually not at its end), there is a series of interviews introducing the characters – all members of a large dance troupe – who briefly describe their hopes and fears, where they have come from and where they hope to go. For example, Psyche (Thea Carla Schott) – whose name was also the film’s working title – says she had to get away from Berlin because, having seen a roommate there taking LSD through the eyes, she “didn’t want to end up like Christiane F..
Even as Psyche expresses this anxiety about falling under the influence of a film as much as of drugs, her interview, and those of the other dancers, are shown on a television set alongside a pile of videos whose titles – Suspiria, Possession, Hara-Kiri, Querelle, La Maman et la Putain, Un Chien Andalou, Labyrinth Man (i.e. the French title of Eraserhead) – will also cast a dark spell over what follows, dosing the narrative of Climax with their own specific motifs and moods (chiefly free love, writhing hysteria, disorientation and danses macabres, infanticide, suicide and transcendence).
Climax also plays like a dance remix of all Gaspar Noé’s other hits: for there is the the incest of I Stand Alone (Seul contre tous), the begin-at-the-end structure of Irréversible, the blink-cut wooziness of Enter The Void and the messy, sexually liberated conjunctions of Love. It is 1996, and the troupe’s multiracial, polysexual members, led by Selva (Sofia Boutella), have congregated in an empty, winter-bound boarding school to rehearse their latest routine and revel together – but someone has spiked the sangria, and as the drug kicks in, their inhibitions begin to evaporate and madness takes over, in what will be a long night of sex, violence, ecstasy and despair.
Constantly choreographed to the pounding rhythms of an eclectic score, lit in giallo-esque reds, greens and yellows, and shot by Noé’s regular DP Benoît Debie in long, sinuous takes that become ever more canted and confusing as the night progresses, Climax offers a 12-hour compression of the human condition, where birth, death and everything in between are figured as the rise, peak and crash from an involuntary acid trip. Like all of Noé’s œuvre, this is a film ‘experience’ that you do not so much enjoy as survive – an orgiastic assault (on the psyche) of heaven and hell, of Sadean libertinage and harrowing regret. For most of the participants, and perhaps some of the viewers, the party cannot be over soon enough – but there will always be some who, confronted with their own unrestrained urges and unbounded excesses, just want more. This viewer, for one, shall certainly be rewatching, with eyes wide open and tearing. Either way, the comedown that follows this climax will scar you.
Climax was seen and reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest 2018.