Spoilers below for Climax.
French filmmaker Gaspar Noé subscribes to the belief that a person can be defined by what they’re into. He shoves his influences right in his viewer’s face as a shorthand for his outlook on the world and his artistic playbook, providing a quick yet indirect route to learning who he is and what he’s about. In his 2015 feature Love, posters for Taxi Driver and Fritz Lang’s M wallpaper the bedroom of protagonist Murphy to telegraph his sick-puppy sleazeball persona — a characterization not too far from the public perception of Noé, after five features testing audiences’ threshold for suffering and taboo-busting provocation.
To peruse his stacks of VHS tapes is to know him, a principle he puts into practice within the first few minutes of his latest effort, Climax. The alternately gruesome and hilarious account of a dance company’s after-hours rave gone wrong begins with taped interviews playing on a vintage TV set flanked by piles of Noé’s faves: experimental mind-blower Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, the insatiably erotic Querelle, avant-garde milestone Un Chien Andalou. And as proud as he is of this (fake) video collection, Noé’s just as eager to show off the mixtape he’s made for you.
The spinal column of Climax is its soundtrack, 96 minutes of all-killer no-filler handpicked by the director to reinforce the structure of this descent into insanity. He includes two credit sequences, front-loading the first so that the audience can take a good look at the onslaught of bangers awaiting them. The track list doubles as a road map to a singularly bad trip, its peaks and valleys corresponding to the euphoric rise and grim fall of energy in the abandoned, seemingly inescapable school that sets the scene for their party. To describe Climax as a series of music videos would be a slight disservice; it’s something closer to hysterical, deranged EDM opera.
The medley of Euro hard-house deep cuts and their American cousins from Detroit and Chicago can go toe to tapping toe with cinema’s finest soundtracks. Moreover, close inspection can broaden and sharpen our understanding of the wicked game Noé’s playing. Vulture has compiled a comprehensive breakdown of the DJ set from hell, grouped into movements befitting the ambitions of its mad orchestrator. If there was any doubt about the reach of his impact, feel free to click any of the embedded YouTube links. Each and every one has a Climax acolyte in the comments, searching for other members of a growing cult fan base.
Noé begins and ends with his only non-diegetic selections, songs emanating from thin air rather than blasting from a sound system or boom box. Since they haven’t been selected by the party’s house turntablist DJ Daddy, they’re outside of the dance-music traditions that dominate the lion’s share of his set. Though English musician Gary Numan pioneered the synth techniques that would eventually spawn mainstream electronica as we know it today, his rendition of a composition from 19th-century pianist Erik Satie lopes along with a sedate, legato tranquility. A low beats-per-minute count and the lack of a driving four-on-the-floor time signature ease the audience into the film, even as Noé throws them into the deep end by confronting them with a bloodied body dragging itself through snow, which will later close the film in an ouroboric loop.
The Chris Carter track unobtrusively hums in the background during the recorded interviews with the individual members of the dance company, a touch more gauzy and ambient than what’s to come. The soundtrack continues to eschew the pounding bass hits coursing through the film’s four movements, resisting until the first proper number can drop to maximum effect. Like Numan, Carter broke barriers in the integration of synthesized elements to popular music; his work with wife Cosey Fanni Tutti (see below) in the group Throbbing Gristle brought the term industrial into the critical lexicon. Call him a sadist, call him an enfant terrible, but Gaspar Noé has certainly done his homework.
The overarching trajectory of Climax is in a downward motion, lurching deeper and deeper into animosity, depravity, and finally violence with each new needle-drop. That means it must start at the top, and for Noé, there’s no higher plane than the French disco floor. Marc Cerrone reigned as king of the discotheque during the ’70s and ’80s, and this ten-minute slab of decadent twinkling invites everyone to come together in movement. Distributor A24 scoring the trailer with this song reinforces its placement as an opening theme, an announcement of the work’s central idea: the dance company as a restless, lusty, collective organism. At first, it’s in harmony with itself, as the group moves in perfect unison to frame one another and generally gas each other up. (Note how spirit-fingering hands form a makeshift curtain to give dancer Psyché a big reveal when she unveils her bikini-and-footwear look.)
They start off positive, friendly, and unified. A dolly shot follows a single cigarette through the maze of bodies, passing from mouth to hand to mouth to hand as freely as kiss-spit. As Sofia Boutella’s Selva congratulates her peers on a rehearsal well done, she’s backed by a pair of one-hit wonders with outsize influence. After landing a surprise No. 1 hit, Patrick Hernandez spent the rest of his career trying in vain to recapture his earlier success; M|A|R|R|S was an ill-conceived supergroup whose members didn’t particularly like one another and disbanded after taking the world by storm. Both by including these obscurities and juxtaposing them against one another, Noé compactly communicates the glorious togetherness of the rave concept, a happening where all people and music join in step.
It’s not for nothing that things start to take a turn for the worse the second DJ Daddy switches the style up from purebred European genres to their hybridized Stateside offshoots of deep house and footwork; the splintering factionalism hits right on cue. The second movement plants the early seedlings of dissent and ratchets up the anxious energy of the music to match. A good DJ possesses the superpower to take control of the dancer’s heart rate, and with the subtle increase from 115 to 130 BPM in the transition from “Pump Up the Volume” to “French Kiss,” a viewer may not even realize they’re breathing a little heavier. Chicago legend Lil Louis filled the offbeats with semiautomatic drum-machine clatter that sounds a bit like gunfire as the characters sour on one another.
A protective brother won’t let his younger sister live her life, a virgin stresses over losin’ it, a couple of girlfriends bicker over which of them is being “fake.” The air of conflict hangs thick in the room, but it’s not until Noé lingers on a pair of muscular black men boasting about their peerless sexual prowess that the backing track’s casual malevolence really stands out. In a textbook illustration of performative masculinity, they detail their plans to “fuck two blondes” and widen various holes to the slightly menacing strains of a song that just so happens to be titled “Superior Race.” It wouldn’t be fair to say Noé takes any one demographic’s side in this contentious environment — nobody comes off looking particularly good here. (Though of course the lone dancer of Middle Eastern heritage gets the rawest deal at the hands of an enraged white mob.) He’d rather luxuriate in fractiousness for its own sake, concentrating on the discord itself rather than its how or why.
Climax is, in many ways, When the Kush Hits: The Movie. That moment arrives at last in the third passage, as everyone realizes the sangria they’ve been sipping contains trace amounts of LSD and summarily loses their shit. When the lyrics haven’t been stripped from the instrumental, Kiddy Smile’s “Dickmatized” is a hilarious paean to the male organ, but Noé ditches the vocal to cast the song as a darker, more desperate counterpart to the earlier “Supernature.” Both cuts soundtrack a large group dance, shot from above to get the Z-axis view of all the writhing bodies. The latter sequence sets itself apart with its hectic, fragmented vibe, as the dancers take turns soloing where they formerly moved as one.
As the collected dramatis personae come to grips with their melting brains, Noé announces that all bets are off by hauling out the big guns. He’s collaborated with Thomas Bangalter (better known as the silver-headed android from Daft Punk) on multiple occasions, having previously tapped the electro giant for the gonzo credit sequence from Enter the Void. The first and more relatively dialed-back composition of the two creeps through the audio mix while pupils dilate and one dancer relaxes her bladder all over the floor. The second goes markedly harder, hard enough to once again provide a pummeling counterpoint for the hyperstylized credits that Noé waits an hour to spring on his captive audience. The clattering percussion breakbeats align the track with the U.K. subgenres of jungle and hard-core, known for their furiously fast-paced breakbeats and the aggressive borderline-slam-dancing common at concerts. No one is safe.
Voices — NEON
The World’s — Suburban Knights
Rollin’ and Scratchin’ — Daft Punk
Windowlicker — Aphex Twin
Electron — Wild Planet
Tainted Love / Where Did Our Love Go? — Soft Cell
Utopia Me Giorgio — Giorgio Moroder
The final movement contains the greatest volume of songs (meaning both taking-up-space volume and decibel volume), only because Noé starts cycling through them more quickly and erratically. Daft Punk has divulged in interviews that “Rollin’ and Scratchin’” is their favorite tune to perform live, no doubt due to the climactic MDMA-peak of synth scratching that sounds like a person’s dying scream if you’re high enough. Which, at this point, everyone is and then some. The song crests at its 6:08 mark, when the pulsating synth pattern that had chilled out suddenly climbs back to a fever pitch; Noé, a master of the interplay between effect and response, knows to save this “drop” for the moment that a pregnant woman obliges the attackers bellowing for her to slash herself with a knife.
The dancers break off from the group in the main chamber and wander through the network of hallways to confront individual horrors, and while the music will sometimes dim to a barely perceptible murmur, it never ceases. As reality itself starts to break down in the face of their psycho-narcotic hysteria, the songs stray from the musical criteria of house music, most notably the alienating, genre-busting “Windowlicker.” Noé waits until the home stretch to start playing the hits, dropping Aphex Twin’s most well-known track to lend an alien quality to Selva’s dazed saunter down the corridor. The lurching, droning, computerized instrumentation sounds like a far cry from the warm vinyl-sampling of the earlier disco selections. The walls are closing in.
The relentless grind of “Wild Planet” proves potent enough to short out DJ Daddy’s setup, though maybe that’s just the child locked in a roach-infested electrical closet. Either way, the group must switch to a conveniently located “ghetto blaster” for the home stretch, and accept a shift from Daddy’s curated record collection to whichever tapes may be on hand. That results in one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, an homage to Isabelle Adjani’s paroxysms of mania in Possession that takes on an ironic counterpoint via the Soft Cell’s slices of New Wave cheese. As she succumbs to lunacy, mashing her pelvis against the wall as if her life depended on it, anyone who recognizes the song’s double synth hit and admonition to “run away!” may have a gallows chuckle.
The night’s festivities end at the only just ending point, with Giorgio Moroder. Tiger Woods is to aughts golf as Giorgio (“Everyone just calls me Giorgio,” he taught us on the relevant Random Access Memories track) is to ’70s and ’80s dance music, an unqualified, unquestionable king reigning supreme. Winding up their brutal soirée with his signature song is Noé’s version of a grand finale, the best saved for last. As the camera sails over the remaining characters, bathed in red light and rutting on the floor in a crude orgy, Giorgio plays the pied piper fueling their trance with his melodies. They began the film joined as a well-oiled machine operating at maximum capacity and end it paired off, wrapped up in their own pleasure. They’re lost, both in their own brains and in the music.
No better way to announce that the shindig’s over than with a — gasp — acoustic selection. When the authorities bust open the door to let the cold light of day illuminate the degradation and dead bodies, so too does the Stones’ mid-tempo country-inflected playing flush out the electronica. Civility and decency will slowly return to the characters after their hedonistic high wears off, too late to repair the irrevocable damage done. Every rave has to end with a harsh, sobering moment like the one we see in the superlative film Eden, when a dancer must face the day and return to the real world beyond the insular dance hall.
But wait. Noé’s not too mature for a “THE END …?”–style send-off, and he gets his by revealing the culprit behind the acid-spiking. The calm fingerpicking of “Angie” hovers over aerial shots of the characters in their final poses, some beatifically curled up in the arms of a lover, others racked with pain. The final shots peer in on the perpetrator as they squeeze a couple drops of fresh acid into their eyeball, escaping to cause havoc again elsewhere. The spirit of unease, of hunger, of wantonness has not and cannot be fully extinguished. The glitchy clicks that creep onto the soundtrack warn us that nowhere is truly safe from the destabilization that’s torn this troupe apart. The French flag billowing over the main chamber’s wall like a tapestry turns into a bitterly ironic symbol. There’s no fraternité here. The only common ground the characters can find is on the dance floor.