It’s 2019, and calling the films of Gaspar Noé “controversial” or “provocative” feels like airless critique; in the 20 years since the release of his feature debut, “I Stand Alone,” his very name has become synonymous with these words, as well as others, but his craft has grown if not in rigor then in daring. In his latest film, “Climax,” best described as the story of one dance troupe’s LSD-enabled descent into a self-revealing Hell, Noé’s camera functions as a participant in the dance as much as it functions as a lens. Cinematographer Benoît Debie joins the push and pull between Noé’s dancers, capturing their unbridled madness like a torpedo hellbent on annihilating anyone caught in its path.
Loosely speaking, “Climax” finds its basis in real events, but consider the film first and foremost a Noé picture: Long takes designed to tap into the energy of his cast, and the images, however gorgeous or awful, flashing before the viewer’s eyes on screen, chaos mixed with order and beauty blended with revulsion. It’s a figurative trip bent around a literal trip, a new addition to the small but prestigious dance horror niche, right alongside “Suspiria,” a film directly referenced in “Climax’”s opening sequence, as well as “The Red Shoes” and “Black Swan.” But Noé doesn’t strictly consider “Climax” a horror movie, per se, and the personal horror references he brought to the film might come as a shock, too. Horror or no, “Climax” is absolutely horrifying.
Speaking with RogerEbert.com recently, Noé talked about the history “Climax” adapts, the film’s accidental allegories, how filmmakers always make movies of their time even when making a movie set in the past, and what kind of movie he might make if he ever decides to actually make a horror movie.
So my understanding is that you based this story on a real life incident that occurred in 1996. Is that correct?
Yeah, but it’s an open adaptation of the story. When you portray the true story, especially a story that hasn’t been solved, you cannot really get into all the details. So, I remember this story from when I was young, and also my line producer was obsessed with it. The first time I went to a voguing ballroom, in December 2017, he said, “Why don’t we do this story with the dancers?” But I had already worked on other projects based on true stories, and there’re so many legal issues that I just did an open adaptation. And then we rewrote a lot of things according to who was cutting the movie, and what they wanted to play or not play—for example, at the end of the movie, the last should, which shouldn’t be spoiled, makes you understand what happened during the whole movie.
I guess this is, to me, such a specifically French story that I feel very much like an outsider in it. At the same time, it seems like your intention was to take this thing that happened so many years ago, and then use it as a way of talking about what’s happening or what’s going on with France today?
If it seems that the movie was allegory, it wasn’t meant to be. I didn’t have any preconception of the presence of the genders on screen; initially I expected there would be more girls. But then when I started trying to get the best dancers, I said, “Let’s make a movie out of energy, and the best dancers, the most charismatic ones. Those are the ones I want.” So because the movie deals with dancers that are mostly suburban dancers in the center of Paris, people who come from a middle class and upper class, who do contemporary downs or classical dance, the final cast appeared naturally. I didn’t care about origins, or sexual preferences, or gender. I wanted the most charismatic dancers that I could find.
You make a movie out of your time. Even if you use music from the nineties of France, every country in the world is changing, and even the mood in the movie is more the mood of the present times than the mood of the eighties or nineties.
That’s what’s so interesting to me. I can’t help but notice that the first casualty of the movie is the Muslim man being thrown out of the dance hall. So there is something, to me, that suggests . . .
Yeah, but the reason why they throw him away or why the other girl is beaten up is not because one is Muslim or because the other is pregnant. It’s just because they were the first two persons suspected because they didn’t drink. It wasn’t a political issue or a racial issue, or religious, or whatever. It just that if you’re at a party and someone has spiked a drink, who do you think has done it? The one who didn’t drink. But yeah, there are some similarities between the team made the movie and the team that won the [World Cup] in Russia. It’s probably not representative of the national percentage, but I’m not doing a story about the times, I’m doing a movie about dancers. In the original story, I don’t know the exact percentage of boys and girls and their origins in the real story, but it’s a re-adaptation made with the best people.
But then also, because we were trying to find which fabric we would put behind the set, we were given a blue one, a red one, and a gray one. So, the day before shooting, we were deciding which of the three fabrics to put behind as a curtain. They put all three of them, but the gray was on the right side. I said, “Hey, what happens if you reverse the fabric center, what if we put this as blue, gray, red.” And then we had the French flag! It was a very last moment idea. When we put it up, everybody goes, “Oh, let’s keep it like that.” I’m sure it sounds funny, but it was not intentional, but at the end it seems very intentional.
Those accidents are always the best kind of accidents, because they kind of give the movie layers of meaning.
Yeah. But I also, the whole movie was done in a very distinctive way and you’re part of the present time you’re living in. So probably it was an unconscious reason, but, it wasn’t a calculated, predetermined reason.
Well, that’s fascinating to me. But then I guess I’d want to know what made you want to return to this incident from 1996 in the first place?
I’m fascinated with old stories that you can read in newspapers that seem like catastrophe movies. One day, if I had to do a horror movie, it will be a very realistic war movie. For me, war is horror. And I was working also on two different stories based on real events and, yeah, I’m attracted by movies for their energy, but I also am attracted by dramas, because a good melodrama or drama is so full of emotions. It’s all about life, death, reproduction. Some of them are just waiting to receive screenplays written by other people. Usually when I see something that interests me, I just cut the page from the newspaper; I have plenty of boxes with articles from newspapers, and one day it just could be a good story. And then you have like one thousand potential the stories, and when you re-open the boxes, you know that there’s one or two still in your mind after 13 years, because they’re very representative of things to you.
You mentioned horror, and dance feels like a very specific way of kind of attacking or interrogating horror as a genre, because there’s a whole, you know, sub-niche of horror movies that are about dance. Did you feel attached to that?
The only movie that I know that deals with dance and horror, too, is mainly the old “Suspiria” by Dario Argento, which I really like, and then I’m obsessed by “Peeping Tom” by Michael Powell, with Moira Shearer dancing in the middle of the movie. If you’re talking about the new version of “Suspiria,” I haven’t seen it, so I cannot talk about that. This movie, on the other hand, really reminds me of catastrophe movies, like “The Towering Inferno,” but also there’s “Shivers,” the first horror film by David Cronenberg, or “Dawn of the Dead” by [George] Romero, which were taking place in a closed space in which everybody was turning into a zombie, or a building in which everybody was turning psychotic.
That’s fascinating. I wouldn’t have made that connection. That makes a lot of sense when you put it that way.
I remember “The Towering Inferno” when it came out, I was probably 10 years old, but I could watch it seven consecutive days in the week. I would go and watch it over and over and over. But yeah, in those big American movies, it was always the nice people who would survive at the end, besides one, and the cruel people who would die at the end.
And then in this no one really comes out unscathed. You start out with this very beautiful dance that becomes progressively more hideous throughout the movie. Is that always where you wanted to go? To take the beauty of the dance form, the human form, then use body horror to break it down?
Oh, but I didn’t conceive it as a horror movie or consider it a catastrophe movie. But it’s true that I like watching acrobats on TV better than watching TV movies with the actors saying words that have been pre-written, and you go for one close up, another close up. I get very, very bored by TV series or TV movies. But when you see great acrobats on TV, my eyes stick to the screen. I can watch them forever.
Is that something you’d want to revisit then? Because that’s the great draw of the movie, too, seeing these people in their element, whether they’re in the paradise phase of the movie or the hell phase, it’s mesmerizing. Is that something you’d want to explore again?
Yeah. The movie’s all about construction and destruction. The whole movie’s climactic. There’s a constructed climate that is creating this choreography altogether, and being ready to show it in France or elsewhere. But then the second part is a destructive climate, because people, when they’re drunk, or over drunk, and the next day they say, “I had a blackout,” at the same time when they’re being cruel, they’re creating that destructive climate.
How much of an impact did that destruction have on the cast? What kind of a psychic toll did that take on the cast while this was being shot?
The whole thing was extremely friendly! I didn’t see anybody fighting or arguing with anybody. It’s the first time that it’s ever happened to me that there were no tensions in pre-production, during the production, or in post-production. They were all small dancers, so they’re all very healthy. They barely drink because when they drink, they’re not used to it, so they can’t dance. They were very happy to be in a feature film, and to be able to be proposed to act. The whole shoot was very, very clean and uh, and also they were all extremely happy with the movie, and they were all happy that movie went to Cannes. Even the little young kid, who we had for three days, of course he cannot see the movie, but he’s now he’s saying that when he grows up, he’s going to become a film director, and a dancer.
That’s funny because that reflects the wishes and ambitions of the dancers that we see at the start of the movie. Beautiful.
Yep. That opening scene, like, the fake casting session, was suggested to me by my line producer, one night he said, “What a pity that we don’t see them more on screen talking, because they have such strong personalities. Why don’t we just try this, tomorrow let’s put a camera in one of the rooms and let’s interview them.”
Of course they’re playing a character, they’re not playing themselves. But because they’re improvising, they’re being very funny, and sometimes they’re being truthful. Besides the German girl in the movie, who I asked to say something in particular that makes sense for the rest of the story, I was just interviewing them with my assistant director like it was a real casting. But I said, “Remember, you’re playing your characters and it’s 1995,” and then they enjoyed the game and just kept it to small sentences. But when they say that “dancing’s all there is for me,” their response creates the character. There’s one girl, I asked her, “What’s your mantra in life?” And she says, “Anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Does she really believe that?