It’s one of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies (performed by Gary Numan, natch) that plays over the opening moments of Gaspar Noé’s Climax, but it was Satie’s contemporary Igor Stravinsky whose Rite of Spring immortalized the concept of a dance unto death.
Climax is really a rite of winter, with snow falling across a vast and anonymous landscape somewhere in France as a dozen-odd young adult dancers gather in a sort of cursed school auditorium to rehearse a piece they plan to tour to the States, so as to bless our benighted dance scene with the genius of European movement.
If you weren’t aware this is a horror film, you’ll certainly get the hint after an opening shot that has a dancer crawling through the snow with bare, bloody arms, dropping in despair to carve a particularly macabre angel.
On the heels of last year’s Suspiria reboot, those who were waiting for another chance to watch incredible dancers suffer incredible anguish in a long, imposing European training complex have really hit the jackpot.
The aesthetic here, though, is less Black Swan than A Chorus Line. The dancers — diverse in race, gender, sexual orientation, and anxiety source but completely homogeneous in anxiety level (very high) — draw from a wide range of contemporary dance styles that somehow all involve humping the floor on the fours and the eights, and dislocating their arms when the beat drops.
Much of the movie’s first half is a thrilling dance montage that begins with a performance of the piece they’re all rehearsing under the direction of a chipper but god-fearing choreographer (Sofia Boutella, previously seen as the mummy in The Mummy). After the rehearsal, the party starts, and since Noé lavishes more attention on the bowl of sangria than James Cameron spent on the North Atlantic in Titanic, it’s pretty quickly clear how things are going to go wrong.
Noé shocks in part by not trying too hard to explain anything. The characters are sober long enough for us to learn about their quirks and their crushes, and then they begin to realize that they’re under the influence of more than just alcohol and endorphins.
Like any unforgettable party, this one leads to some really bad decisions. You see enough that you may be tempted to throw your hands over your eyes, but Noé gives you just enough plot to leave you curious about how the specific characters’ stories are going to play out.
The heroic DJ (Kiddy Smile) keeps the platters spinning for an impressive length of time, and it becomes almost a running gag that no matter how fucked-up things get, there’s always someone rocking the dance floor. In a final sequence that gets a little too abstract and goes on for a little too long with way more inverted camera angles than any movie ever needs, Noé takes us onto what might be the exclusive club of Hieronymus Bosch.
The final product feels overwrought and undercooked, but Noé’s refusal to overthink this material largely works in its favor. Most crucially, he cast a remarkably absorbing ensemble cast of extraordinary dancers, and the shots of carnality and carnage are ultimately much more fleeting than the shots of their bodies in liberated motion.
Like Black Swan and Suspiria, Climax extends the physical intensity of dance into metaphysically horrific realms, but it works as well as it does because it never takes movement as a means to an end. Here, dance is the end itself. Everything else is just the afterparty.