Us comes out this weekend and sure enough I’ll be there Thursday night to see it, but despite the fact that Jordan Peele is coming off of one great horror film and the early reviews are excellent, it has not been my most anticipated horror title. That spot belonged to a film from a director who I hadn’t even seen a film from in Gaspar Noé based largely on the trailer and premise (I’ve also been a fan of star Sofia Boutella for a while now). I’ve since seen probably his most acclaimed film in Enter the Void, but my excitement for this movie was maintained even as my experience with that one was underwhelming. It was visually impressive, but it was a mess in its plot, and it overextended itself with its thematic attempts.
Climax is based on events which happened in Paris in 1996, but only in the loosest possible sense and the film itself is highly improvised. The characters, all members of a dance troupe, are introduced via VHS introductions (from what appears to be audition tapes) where they open up about themselves. The introductions are framed by VHS tapes and books which are clear influences on the film itself and I haven’t seen a film be so bold about what films it is building off from since Death Proof. They lean in the direction of the arty and horror (especially arty horror movies) such as Suspiria, Possession, and Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. From Suspiria is gets the bold colors, dancers, nods to suspicious goings on, and wild conclusion, from Possession, it’s safe to say Noé watched the famous subway scene a few times, and from Salò it gets the descent into hell, novel like structure, and sexual depravity (it’s no Salò for those concerned about content).
Nothing about the film is normal structurally. The credits are at the beginning, the film is dominated by two long takes (12 and 42 minutes+ respectively), the chapters are decidedly uneven in length, and the edits are intentionally abrupt and noticeable when they do occur. The twelve minute opening long take is one long rehearsal dance that is a sight to be seen set to pulsing electronic music filled with voguing and krumping (okay, I’ll admit that I had to look the latter up to know that was what was going on). While I’m not exactly is into dance, there’s something that makes it oddly compelling when shot in the right way (such as A Dancer’s World and so easy to slip into horror considering the way the bodies move about in impressive almost unnatural ways (Black Swan, either Suspiria).
The rest of the film follows a party afterwards with that initial oner leading to a sequence cutting between a bunch of conversations of two to three people frequently discussing sex and relationships. It’s a necessary point of the film even if it’s a bit redundant with the intro videos in the way it establishes the relationships and desires of all the characters, but it feels like something pulled from the ’90s itself, specifically feeling like a scene something straight out of Kids and in a movie like this that pulses with energy, it’s the one area that grinds it to a halt and causes it to sag.
What starts as lots of harmless dancing and drinking from a bowl of sangria becomes something far darker when it is revealed that the sangria has been spiked with LSD. Things quickly descend into paranoia with accusations flowing as they start to act out their base impulses while often continuing to dance as if they were compelled to by some force. It becomes hard to tell how much of this is to blame of the drugs or how much is just an indictment of human behavior.
I’ve said before that one shots aren’t inherently impressive anymore, but Noé uses them effectively to craft a sense of building tension with its slow sweeping shots of wild dancing and effective atmosphere from both a visual and aural perspective (all those reds are no accident). The angles that the film takes to film the dancing and the rest walk that thin line of pretentiousness, but they always feel deliberate and even in the greatest depths of madness that the film sinks to, the mostly steady camerawork conveys a pretty good sense of what the hell is going on. The electronic music (I don’t think there’s a more perfect movie for “Windowlicker” to make an appearance in) forms perfect diegetic soundtrack for the film, having that rare quality of reaching out and grabbing me so that I felt my body itself being in tune with the movie. It does all this without resorting to the typical drugs tropes of going into the perspective of the various people and shooting it from the outside looking in.
The film announces itself as a proudly French film, but most importantly it’s a boldly distinctive one. It’s a descent into hell visually and narratively that feels uncompromising. Like Mother!, another bold authorial film that I loved with long builds of tension, Climax creates a real sense of place from its setting. The actors here (aside from Boutella) are clearly here for their dancing ability, but they mostly acquit themselves well enough and the film is at its best when it doesn’t ask them to do much more than physical acting work. An older gentleman (who along with his wife were the only other people in the theater) came up to me after the movie and asked, “what the hell was that?” and all I could do at the time was to laugh and say “I can’t really explain it, but it was very much what I was expecting”. It was uneven at times and I could probably pick apart more elements if I wanted to, but as an experience, it’s exactly the kind of horror title I get excited for and the kind that I can imagine alienating a significant portion of the audience (horror and non-horror fan alike).