Bridging dance, desire, death and demons, Gaspar Noe’s newest French horror film, “Climax,” takes audiences on a dance team’s descent into an LSD-induced hell. The dancers, coaxed into an old boarding school during a snowstorm, suddenly face a chilling, drug-induced nightmare sequence. Although the horror genre is often unoriginal and tedious, “Climax” does not mold itself to generic formulas. Instead, Noe makes deliberate, artistic choices while developing an intense storyline that circles numerous perturbing side plots. With thought-provoking cinematography, lighting choices and performances, “Climax” jars viewers in a way that surpasses most mainstream Hollywood blockbusters.
Following a striking opening dance sequence, the group’s choreographer, Selva (Sofia Boutella), invites the dancers to enjoy the festivities of the night and relish in their vices, including homemade sangria and cocaine. Soon after, the night is interrupted as members of the group begin to accuse each other of spiking the group’s sangria with LSD. As it becomes impossible to delay the drug’s effects, paranoia and mob mentality begin to distort the characters’ decisions. They embark on a violent witch hunt to find the culprits who spiked their drinks, specifically targeting Omar (Adrien Sissoko) and Lou (Souheila Yacoub), the two members who chose not to drink. As the night drags on and the dancers lose their inhibitions, Selva stumbles between the rooms of the school, witnessing numerous deaths and sexual encounters and learning countless secrets about the characters along the way.
Noe manifests his devilish landscape through intriguing cinematography and visual choices. A bird’s-eye view distances audiences from the characters, who sink into a deep purgatory. Namely, the opening scene depicts Lou covered in blood, stumbling through a snowy abyss. The scene foreshadows her death right before cutting back in time to show how the dancers reached that dark point. In addition to the camera angles, Noe often shoots scenes in one cut, like the opening dance sequence, rather than choosing the choppy editing techniques of big-budget films. This artistic decision makes the film more entrancing, eliminating distracting cuts and allowing viewers to feel like extras in the film. Its final scenes are shot upside down, solidifying the dance hall’s characterization as a tumultuously sinister and chaotic place. Ridden with sex, violence and visually-unsettling bodily contortions, the dance hall becomes a nightmarish world mimicking a true hell by the end of the night.
Noe’s use of different lighting effects in each room enhances the illusion of the rising of hell within the school. Red emergency lights flicker in the dance hall referencing themes and images such as danger, blood and death. As Selva stumbles out of the hall and into other rooms, the lights often change to brighter, calming colors depicting her escape from the hellish mayhem. When she later slips away from the dance with another dancer, Ivana (Sharleen Temple), the lighting gradually turns blue, mirroring her slow descent into safety as she flees the night’s dark pandemonium.
The actors’ strong, emotional performances throughout the film advance the encroaching feeling of dread. Boutella’s particularly paranoid experience, a result of being the leader of the troupe, bleeds from the screen. Using a combination of sexualized dance moves and passionate facials, Boutella showcases the numerous perils of a bad acid trip. Because Selva is the first to notice that something is amiss with their drinks, Boutella’s chilling portrayal of fear and uncertainty foreshadow the impending events, her facials serving as a reflection of the drastic changes surrounding her.
The film’s emphasis of contortion-centric dance and constant screaming strengthen its terrifying plot, facilitating the characters’ feeling of a lack of control in the compounding events of the night. Throughout the film, screaming intensifies in the background, emphasizing these feelings of uncontrolled calamity. Specifically, after an accident in the electrical room results in a power outage, the silence becomes deafening to the dancers, who, by that point, had grown accustomed to the screams. The background noise then alternates to a cacophony of tears, maniacal laughing and a new layer of screaming as the dancers return to their chaotic party in the poorly-lit dance hall with the red emergency lights eerily flashing.
Noe pulls you into “Climax” with his terrifying, stylistic choices before dragging you down to experience the film’s unending nightmare. The lighting, camera work and choreography introduce an enlightened perspective on the often dull, tedious horror genre which relies so heavily on the cliché of cheap jumpscares. Few horror movies ever disturb me as much as the cinematographic feat of “Climax,” and Noe’s hellscape will remain clearly etched in my mind.