What We're Watching - Gaspar Noé’s "Climax"
Andrew K. Meyer // Co-Founder, StoneStreet Cinema
It was 1:20pm at the Nitehawk Theater in Williamsburg when I sat down to finally watch Gaspar Noé’s Climax. I feel it important to point out that I was a tad hungover and my stomach was completely empty. It was the most effective time to experience this most affective film, this hour-and-a-half bottle episode of my most sexy and horrible nightmares.
Climax (distributed by A24) is a psychological horror film directed, written and co-edited by Gaspar Noé and co-produced between France and Belgium (although make no mistake, this film insists on being utterly French). Starring Sofia Boutella and a score of dancers with no previous acting experience, Climax holds a very simple premise. A French dance troupe is about to embark on a tour of America, and they celebrate with an after-party in the remote lodge where they rehearse. It is 1996. It is snowing heavily. The bass is heavy. And the sangria has been spiked with LSD.
The LSD starts to hit almost every one of them halfway through the film, thus splitting the narrative into two pieces: the heavenly pre-LSD jubilation and the hellish post-LSD inferno. The end credits play at the film’s beginning, the production logo cards appear 15 minutes in, and the opening credits split the middle. It sounds pretentious, but it’s very exciting.
An opening aerial of a bloody woman crawling through deep snow (cue end credits), ten minutes of audition tapes, and we dive into the production company logos (from Wild Bunch to Vice Films). A loud siren suddenly blares, as does the beginning of “Supernature” by Cerrone, and I am immediately smiling ear-to-ear. We land on a disco-spangled French flag, tilt down to Ms. Boutella putting out her cigarette, and witness an elaborate group dance number in one intoxicating long take. They krump, they vogue, they leap, they fall- swaying and gyrating in a crimson turbulent Busby Berkeley paradise.
...That is, until the LSD kicks in.
The strange thing is, that’s when I started feeling sick too. By this point, the Nitehawk iced coffee and veggie burger startled to bubble in my stomach. So you might call it the symptoms of a slight hangover, but at the time I called it an acid flashforward.
I was for some reason expecting an amount of witchcraft and spiritual horrors, like Suspiria or Neon Demon kinds of scares. But the reason this film frightened me more than both of those films was because its execution made it feel so eerily plausible, like a documentary shot by Hades himself. The lack of kosher narrative structure builds an anxious fear of the unknown. The takes get longer, the lights get dimmer, the camera floats upside down & leftside right, and the DJ never ceases.
What blows me away is how quickly this production was put together. Gaspar Noé conceived the premise at the end of 2017 after a night in a vogue ballroom. Pre-Production and casting were accomplished in January 2018. Production in an abandoned Parisian school was completed after 15 vigorous days in February. And by May 13, 2018, it had won the Art Cinema Award at Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight, the top prize. Now it’s April 2019, five weeks after its US theatrical release. If you’re near New York City, you can still find screenings of it at Village Cinema East.
To be clear, this film is not for everyone, and that was to be expected from Mr. Noé. When about six or seven audience members walked out of his film at Cannes, Noé reacted: “Aw man, no, no, no! I usually have 25% of the audience walking out.” He has a long history of making provocative and alienating films that disturb in both content and imagery, which you can find in Love (2015), Enter the Void (2009), and Irréversible (2002). “I must be doing something wrong,” Mr. Noé continued. “I have to take a long holiday and rethink my career.”
When I left the theater, I said immediately that it was one of the greatest movies I’ll never see again. But since that day, I have watched the opening dance number over twenty times and don’t go a day without listening to “Supernature” (at least thrice). I have nothing to compare Climax to. The experience is singular and spectacular. If you’ve got the stomach for it, sip the sangria. The trip may be wonderful.