Climax Review: Trip the Light Fantastic

The camera captures every freak-out, recrimination, stolen kiss, and betrayal in what is a miracle of synchronicity.

Photo: A24

Writer-director Gaspar Noé’s Climax begins with an intimation of a bygone horror, at once blissful and uneasy. A girl we later come to know as Lou (Souheila Yacoub) marches through snow, flailing her arms before hugging her bloodied midsection, the camera trailing her from a God’s-eye view until she falls into the sea of white. The scene is almost baptismal, as the earth would appear to receive her as a dedication, and in repose she brings to mind a child in utero. It’s an impression that’s difficult to avoid, then easily forgotten, only to be summoned anew when, not long into this film that delights in twinning states of ecstasy and agony, it’s understood that the girl died while miscarrying.

Unless Lou was never pregnant. But whether or not she actually was is of less consequence to Noé than the spectacle of performance, whether of the body or the mind, as when Lou desperately proclaims her innocence after it’s discovered that a member of her dance troupe spiked the communal sangria with LSD. Inside a cavernous building in the middle of nowhere, this racially and sexually diverse crew of krumpers, voguers, contortionists, and others gather to rehearse a routine that attests to the possibility of a new social order. And, indeed, the choreography of their first rehearsal so euphorically reflects the structure of the music, a remix of Cerrone’s “Supernature,” that it’s almost impossible to imagine these dancers apart.

“My worst nightmare? To find myself alone,” says one girl in a direct-to-camera address transmitted from a television set that’s flanked on one side by books and on the other by films in VHS cases. And those cases are just about the only thing that roots the events of Climax, according to the opening end scroll, in France in the winter of 1996. Which is to say, a time when it’s a little easier to imagine black dancers abroad dreaming of an America that’s “heaven on Earth.” And right out of the gate, Noé parallels his desires with that of his characters, asking us to contemplate his own worst nightmare—a world without Zulawski’s Possession, without Kobayashi’s Harakiri, without Argento’s Suspiria—before then dazzling us with the means by which he staves off that nightmare: his will to create.


The self-absorption writ large of Noé’s Love—all those movie posters that exist only to proclaim Noé’s favorite things—is put to purposeful and irreverent use here. Not for nothing is Buñuel’s Un Chien Analou nestled in between Fassbinder’s Querelle and Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom on the left side of the TV set from which Climax’s characters broadcast their dreams. Chaos, of course, will reign in Noé’s film, which takes place in a kind of purgatorial space not unlike the one at the center of Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, where a privileged group is unable—or, more likely, unwilling—to leave a drawing room that comes to reflect a world’s ills. But when the dust settles in this film—or, rather, the drugs wear off—who will claim responsibility for the performance of its chaos?

There’s humor, too, in our first glimpse of one dancer’s young son, Tito (Vince Galliot Cumant), taking a sip of the LSD-spiked sangria. This is Noé winking a philosophical thought experiment into being: “If a little boy appears in a Gaspar Noé film in act one, will he make it past act three?” And while anyone who’s ever seen one of Noé films, including Irréversible and Enter the Void, probably knows and fears the answer to that question, the collective response to Tito’s fate is less cruel than you might imagine because, like every other feat in the film, it projects itself as a kind of hallucination. It’s the ultimate gag—so much so that you almost expect the voguers in the room to death drop on cue.

But Climax is less comedy than it is musical, and the film arrives at a rather profound message about how all incivility isn’t equal—how bias, like blight or beauty, is in eye of the beholder—more successfully through the sheer force of dance than through the words exchanged between characters. (None of these dancers are particularly deep, though some of their chatter is quite funny, like one discussion about the “occupational hazard” of rimming.) As these young men and women increasingly lose themselves to the effects of LSD—walking, pushing, worming, writhing, and sometimes sprinting through the building’s rooms and hallways as if in suspended animation—Noé’s camera anchors itself to them in rhythmic lockstep, capturing every freak-out, recrimination, stolen kiss, and betrayal in what is a miracle of synchronicity.


Throughout Climax, the camera itself feels as if it’s slowly experiencing the effects of a drug. Early on, Noé happily cedes the stage to his characters, shooting them from above as they take turns plying their signature moves before capping the spectacle with a montage of the names of the dancers, as well as the musicians on the soundtrack. And then the camera becomes increasingly one with the dancers and the music, as in the film’s most extraordinary sequence, which locks on to the group’s de facto leader, Selva (Sofia Boutella), as if in a trance, following her as she submits to the throes of a Possession-inspired freak-out, and all the way to her collecting herself and walking past Taylor (Taylor Kastle) as he contorts his body into what seems like an optical illusion. The ultimate gag—no, masterstroke—of Noé’s career may be this perfect communion between his art and that of these bodies: a thrilling expression of the fear that to stop moving is to undo the social fabric of the world.

 Cast: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull, Giselle Palmer, Taylor Kastle, Thea Carla Schott, Sharleen Temple, Lea Vlamos, Alaia Alsafir, Kendall Mugler, Lakdhar Dridi, Adrien Sissoko, Mamadou Bathily, Alou Sidibe, Ashley Biscette, Vince Galliot Cumant  Director: Gaspar Noé  Screenwriter: Gaspar Noé  Distributor: A24  Running Time: 95 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2018  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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