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Hallucinogenic Horror: Gaspar Noé's "Climax"

Andrea is a film scholar who obtained his Masters in Research of Film (Mres) at Edge Hill University by analysing the music biopic genre.


From one of the more provocative filmmakers in modern cinema, Gaspar Noé’s Climax (2018) provides a unique horror film experience. Although the film is supposedly based on real events, the film is truly a remarkably horrifying piece of surreal art house cinema. The film is rich with obscuring cinematic techniques and a blurring soundtrack filled with heavy-hitting techno that truly drives the pace of the film. This article will analyse how Gaspar Noé produced a hallucinogenic horror experience in one of the craziest horror films of the last decade.


Gaspar the Provocateur

There are very clear and set expectations for watching a Gaspar Noé film. You will be heavily provoked and at times uncomfortable viewing the images on screen. At the same time, you can expect to be immersed in a highly visualised style of film-making. Climax is no exception to those expectations, as it's arguably one of the better films within the director's discography. Noé essentially materialises these expectations within an early scene of the film. We are subjected to a TV screen within the screen in which we're viewing the film. This stylistic choice already meta-physically pinpoints our subjectivity as the spectators of the film. The TV screen portrays talking head interviews with the young dancers at the centre of this narrative. At the side of the interviews, external from the TV screen, we see a DVD collection of provocative horror films. The collection includes Dario Argento’s giallo horror classic Suspiria (1977), and Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) to name a few. Noé has not placed these films without reason. We are directly being told to expect something truly horrifying.


Is This The End?

In his review of the film, Mark Kermode states that he found himself “waiting for the film to end”. Although that statement sounds like a negative review... it’s not. Kermode was expressing how horrifying the film is as it “slowly descends into hell”. It does seem that Noé subverts the notion of narrative as there are several moments in the film where you can expect the film to conclude, even within the first third of the film’s narrative.

The film is unsettling from the very first scene. It’s clear that the narrative is fragmented as what occurs on screen is clearly the end of the horrific event. We are subjected to an aerial shot of a woman struggling through the snow, bleeding, and essentially dying slowly. The screams of help from the woman are juxtaposed to quite an ambient synth-based soundtrack. As the music begins to divulge in portamento shifts, the credits in red font begin to roll on screen. The credits provide the same discomforting colour contrast of the red blood on white snow. Before the usual end credits appear on screen, which is bizarre itself as this is the start of the film, there is a line that states the event that is about to unfold truly happened in 1991. The alienation of the viewer begins from this very first scene.

We are being told the story is about to start, but being shown how it ends.

This exact technique is replicated after the first few scenes, during one of the “sober” dance sequences. We are once again subjected to the same aerial camera angle used in the opening scene. This time it’s over all the dancers dancing in a circle. Credits are thrown on screen at the end of the dance sequence in an attempt to alienate the viewer into thinking... is this the end? To which the answer is no… it’s only just begun. Before the spiking of the sangria is acknowledged, the narrative of the film is purposely obscure. It begins as a horror, rolls credits, then becomes a dance performance that is credited in a different fashion. The names of the actors and music artists are displayed over the performance in anchorage. The neon colours of the anchorage match the conventional iconography of acid house/club/drug culture. This change in the font’s style signifies the end of the group's sober state of mind, as the drug effect is beginning to take its toll on the group.

Dancing Into Hell

Noé provokes a grand sense of isolation and claustrophobia in Climax. The camera often provides tracking shots of characters walking through a minimal amount of areas of the set. Each area within the building provides moments of hallucinogenic horrors. The truly most horrific area, however, is without question the dance hall. When viewing the dance performances within this area separately and linearly, you truly grasp the “descent into Hell” in which Mark Kermode references in his review. The first “sober” performance is a choreographed competition piece. The dance track is a pumping disco beat, nothing outlandish at all in its composition. Although the dancing can appear quite animalistic and essentially strange, there is definitely an element of control, an expertise behind every movement.

Daft Punk - Rollin' & Scratchin'

Contrast over to a later scene depicted in the dance hall and things have definitely taken a turn for the worst. The mental state of the dancers have completely succumbed to the effects of the spiking, and this is externalised within the mise-en-scene. The lighting is significantly darker with deep tones of red and green. The dancer’s appear in a zombified state. Their dance movements have become erratic and violent, essentially no longer within the control of choreography. As well as this they begin to turn on each other. The sense of unity as a dance troop has dissolved. The use of the track for this scene is not only fantastic but pinnacle in portraying this stark contrast to the “sober” dance performance. The track revolves around a distorted shriek that comes in and out of the mixing. This a sound that is technically achieved from Daft Punk experimenting with the audio jack. The slight release and touch of metal to metal creates a horrendous feedback screech that parallels the horrors on display.

Should You Watch "Climax"?

Short answer… absolutely. However, be patient and open minded. Gaspar Noé is a very visual filmmaker, and if you were unaware of his work before reading this article, be very prepared to be provoked. Expect some usual horror tropes, codes and conventions. On the other hand, expect to be subjected to something new. It’s difficult to pinpoint a true genre or style and that is to Gaspar Noe’s credit as one of the most provocative filmmakers in cinema history. At its core, it’s a horrific tale of a complete loss of control. Whether it’s a true story or not, it’s bound to provoke a cinematic experience that you will struggle to forget.

© 2021 Andrea Sciambarella