Gaspar Noe’s films have an uncanny knack for being gimmicky and visionary at the same time, which is perhaps one of the reasons they receive such a scornful reaction from critics. His latest, Climax, is no exception, offering an almost chaste vision after the softcore fantasies of Love, but one that is equally preposterous and profound in equal measure. It’s set in its entirety on a throbbing dance floor, which for the vast majority of the film takes place in a purely notional and decontextualized space – surrounded by some vague rooms and corridors, and apparently set in a snowy climate, but apart from that a largely self-contained and solipsistic entity. For the first part of the film, we’re treated to a series of virtuosic cutting-edge dance moves by a cast of primarily professional dancers, all of whom flex, contort, gyrate and writhe with postures that will seem radically alien to all but the most up-to-date of dance connoisseurs. Indeed, so far removed is this dancing from the colloquial understanding of dance that is feels more like an abstract work of performance art, a mechanism that the dancers use to inhabit their true bodies, as well as to inhabit a collective social body, in which the constrictions of gender, race and sexual orientation break down into a genuinely communal haptic identity. While the film is flush with allusions to drugs and sex, it’s largely devoid of either, suggesting that both are mere surrogates for the all-consuming horizon of dance, and the way in which dance can allow people to tap into and then inhabit bodily desire in a manner unmatched by any other human experience.
Throughout the first part of the film, Noe documents all this through a series of virtuosic tracking-shots in which the camera winds its ways through the collective ambience, immersing us in a continuous contortion of limbs and triple-joined manoeuvres that seems to defy any eventual recourse to horror, so perfectly have these bodies internalised and contained physical trauma. As in Brian De Palma’s films, there’s a deep and visceral sense of the anarchy and chaos that these kinds of sequence shots ultimately contain, and that they can release at a moment’s notice, although the film doesn’t embrace that more chaotic energy until its second half. Before then, Noe sometimes cuts away from the floor for a series of dialogue fragments between the different characters, but these are full of redundant internal cuts, ensuring that even when the camera is still it never leaves the beat behind, which continues to function as a point of auteurist cohesion until a second credit sequence appears midway through the film, outlining the musical pieces and dancers featured, just as the opening sequence outlined the more traditional cinematic division of labour. This supplementary credit sequence decisively ruptures any sense of Climax being a feature-length film, instead repackaging it as something closer and more organically affiliated with the dancefloor, as Noe’s camera starts to untether itself from this stately, classicist opening act and invite us deeper into the hazy, murky back end of the dance floor.
That transition corresponds to the only real narrative moment in the film – the dancers’ collective discovery that their punch has been spiked by a hallucinatory drug, whose effects they now have to wait out and endure over the course of the night ahead. In truth, though, this narrative moment evaporates as soon as it is articulated, since the second half more or less plays as a natural extension of the first half, drawing upon the privileged role that the nightclub holds in Noe’s body of work as a space in which classical cinematic optics fail to properly ramify. From Irreversible onwards, Noe has framed the nightclub, and the dance floor, in this way, suggesting that nightlife has always been one step ahead of digital technology, and that the more anarchic fringes of dance culture still can’t be properly computed by a traditionally cinematic worldview. While that might have been a novel stance in Irreversible, and given a sublime new spin in Enter The Void, it’s a bit of a cheesy outlook by 2018, and yet the film acknowledges that cheesiness too, peppering its mise-en-scenes with the kinds of clichéd expressions of bonhomie and universal love that are so integral to the mythology of the dancefloor, both in its credit sequences and actual scenes.
Because it’s a Noe film, however, the dance floor is also reinvented in a quite a visionary way despite that cheesiness, since for all that the second half immediately takes on the tone of a horror film, there’s never any sense that dance has merely “devolved” into violence, gore or the final bloodbath. Instead, each new threshold of bodily trauma is integrated and absorbed back into the dance, which becomes more resilient and powerful as the film proceeds – consuming some of the characters, to be sure, but also keeping them alive as a collective as they wait out the effects of the drugs. As far as the action might stray from the dance floor in these scenes (and they are the first time we see anything outside the dance floor), Noe never suggests that we’ve entered a different kind of space, since the beat is present wherever the camera takes us, just as all the interstices of the building are cast in the same lurid fluorescent glow. Nobody and nothing exists outside the dance, which creates its own spatial logic as it proceeds, culminating with an incredible sustained sequence set to Giorgio Moroder’s “Utopia (Me Giorgio),” in which the whirling maelstrom of camera and bodies makes it impossible to discern what’s dance and what’s not, what’s dancer and what’s not, what’s dancefloor and what’s not – all quite literally, as all spatial orientation utterly dissolves and the dancefloor becomes a field, rather than a surface.
No doubt, this is the moment of peak trauma in the film, as attested by the abject sea of vomiting, contorting, bone-breaking and other tableaux of horror that we glimpse amidst the stuttering strobe lights. Yet it also marks the moment in Moroder’s song at which the voices start to cathartically ring out, attaching themselves to faces in the crowd now registering a fleeting rapture unlike anything else we’ve seen in the film so far. You could almost say that this is Noe’s effort to illustrate Moroder’s track, whose title designates the dance floor as just this place where a new and utopian kind of self can articulate and announce itself, albeit only by subsuming individual aspirations into a more collective groove and rhythm. It feels appropriate, then, that this sequence ends with an intertitle announcing that “life is a collective impossibility,” since the point of both Moroder’s track and Noe’s illustration of it is to frame the dance floor as a collective affirmation of the impossible, whatever that might mean in terms of bodies, desires and orientations at the moment at which they embark upon it. Outside of the dance floor, the only vocabulary that the film can provide for that affirmation is death, since imminent mortality is the ultimate mechanism for apprehending and inhabiting the body, which is presumably why the characters ultimately seem destined or determined to dance themselves right into death.
Yet just as Noe never presents the second half of the film as “devolving” from the first half, he never presents the dance floor itself as destined to death either. Instead, the dance floor is here offered as a space in which bodies that are consigned to the heightened embodiment of mortality – whether through actual illness, or an assumption of social inutility – are able to creative and flexibly repurpose that heightened embodiment, working their way through a death that has been cast so emphatically on their bodies that it requires continuous and ingenious momentum to elude it in plain sight. When the final intertitle informs us that “death is an extraordinary performance,” it thus doesn’t seem ironic, or tongue-in-cheek, but an affirmation that this aspersion of social bodily death can produce extraordinary bodily experiences within spaces, like the dance floor, that both provoke and contain it. While the concluding bloodbath is shocking, it could just as conceivably be an avant-garde dance piece – it is an avant-garde dance piece – in which trauma and dance becomes inextricable, and all distinction between fight choreography and regular choreography dissolves. After all, in this radical model of dance, all choreography is fight choreography, and nothing, including Noe’s camera, is permitted to retain the illusion of being unembodied. It’s no coincidence, then, that we only return to naturalistic camera effects to steady the final shot of the drug-spiking perpetrator dripping LSD into her eye, before a subliminal fade to white that ends the film without any recourse to credits. In that final image lies Noe’s refusal to disembody the lens, and his insistence that it has been as much as participant as everyone else in the film. Call it a tribute, then, to the trauma choreography of horror films rather than a horror film itself – a serene slasher film in which everyone is both victim and perpetrator and galvanised by their mutual interdependence.