What did the best party you’ve ever gone to look like? Was there buzz and glamour? Did the people seem to be merging, colliding and breaking apart as if obeying a secret, inner choreography? Did the air glow with a certain colour? Did the music beat and beat with an irresistible compulsion? The opening dance scene of Gaspar Noé’s Climax (2018) refines the hedonistic vitality of a perfect party down into a pure intoxicating syrup, and pumps it into a visually intense five minutes of vogue and attitude.
The scene is filmed in a single shot. Most of Climax is filmed in long shots – one famously more than 40 minutes long – which renders its audience woozily immersed, but also thickens the sense that something real is taking place on screen. Climax’s shots mimic the way a bystander might film a brilliant impromptu street performance, or a horrible accident. The camera swoops, dives and hovers, a frantic eye that can barely contain its excitement, setting us up for a dizzying thrill-ride. The light is soaked blood-red, a visual prefiguring of the violence to come.
The camera pans down on Sofia Boutella smoking a cigarette, before following her strut across the dance floor, bringing the sightline face on. ‘Supernature’ by Cerrone pulses like a heartbeat, dominating the audio. Dancers are stretching, head-bopping and milling with a coiled-spring energy until Taylor Kastle takes the centre stage and begins to windmill his arms with joint-splitting speed. The spinning motion appears to work like a gear, setting the process of the dance into motion. The women begin a catwalk stride, intersecting effortlessly. Kendall Mugler spins past, vogueing like a champ. The story has begun.
In interviews, choreographer Nina McNeely has mentioned that most of these dancers were unused to choreographed routines, as they primarily came from street dance backgrounds, which focuses on solos. Instead of trying to force a ‘super-clean’ performance, McNeely’s choreography has an organic energy that celebrates rather than smothers each dancer’s individual style and personality.
The play-out of this celebratory ball is both a clue to the film’s progress and a distillation of its exquisitely harnessed chaos. Noé shot Climax over 14 days, with no script and only two performers with previous acting experience (Boutella and Souheila Yacoub); the dancers were asked to improvise dialogue and give input into the storylines of their characters. This scene, with its myriad duos, groups and solos, its simultaneous happenings and its deft manipulation of focus, speaks to that collaborative pandemonium.
The focus suggests which characters the film might centre. The first notable performance is Romain Guillermic, the fulcrum of a box formation of street dancers in a corner. Their thrusting, aggressive progress brings Guillermic directly in front of the camera, where a spidery sequence sees Guillermic moving like a puppet in their grip. He seems bolshy and in control, but there’s restriction, unnerving physical intimacy and manipulation in the choreography, hinting at the way his storyline might unfold. Will he be able to control that macho force when it overtakes him?
After a deliciously flashy vogueing sequence, Kiddy Smile leaves the DJ booth to cut a line through the dancers. Guillermic’s elastic flexing solo speaks again of strange, outlandish manipulation and the extraordinary altered states of the body. There is shock value in such dramatic contortions. Something alarming, destructive and violent is coming.
The scene shifts to a loose, improvised bop before coalescing into a rehearsed ensemble piece. The camera rises, circles and dips, seeking its next point of focus, and it lands on Thea Carla Schott’s sudden strip. Revealed by a curtain of trembling hands, Schott stalks into the foreground, rippling and popping. The jerking arcs of her arms, the pumps of her torso announce: I am taking up space. Schott is someone to keep an eye on – what part will she play in a spiral into darkness?
The last really notable solo is Boutella’s, a pure bravura thing, all splits and high kicks, that sets her up as the visual centre and, insofar as Climax has a main character, our protagonist.
There is so much to take in. There is so much to hear, to sense, to see. It’s thrilling, gorgeous – and anxiety-inducing. These things are exactly as they should be. This party won’t play out peacefully – something is going to happen to make nerves fray, bodies writhe, voices howl. Noé, from the very beginning, is promising us one hell of a trip. ●