Music, Memory, and Madness at Cannes, Part One: Gaspar Noé and the Death of Community


I was already noting just how many of the films in the first half of Cannes this year seemed to foreground music and tales of social transformation — and then I saw Gaspar Noé’s Climax, essentially a series of increasingly disturbing dance sequences depicting the initial glory and eventual destruction of an inclusive, exuberant community that may or may not represent the dream of a vibrant, multicultural France.

Noé’s work is filled with infernal parties and throbbing clubs and electro-shamanic reveries, but this is the first of his films that could legitimately be called a musical. Indeed, without all the dancing, there wouldn’t be much left. The story, such as it is, unfolds over one night. (A brief title at the start — the movie begins with the end-credits scroll, a gag Noé has used before — informs us that the events are loosely based on something that actually occurred in 1996.) A dance troupe — made up of an ethnically, sexually diverse cross section of voguers, krumpers, waackers, contortionists, and others — puts the finishing touches on an absolutely blistering performance, which we see in full early in the film. This initial dance, performed in front of a gigantic French flag, tells the story of the world they’re trying to build: It’s a barrage of styles, of posing and strutting and encouragement, moving between controlled chaos and perfect unison — democracy and power expressed as a rhythmic, sensuous experience.

“Now, let’s party!” yells choreographer Selva (Sofia Boutella) once the rehearsal wraps, and the camera whip-pans to the bowl of sangria that will soon become the group’s undoing. But first, while everybody’s relaxing and decompressing, Noé shows us, in extended two shots, a series of revealing, lengthy conversations in which the performers talk about one another, about who likes who, who hates who, and who wants to screw who. The next dance scene, this time with everybody forming a spontaneous jam circle, is thus a bit more fraught: Now that we know who the dancers are, what they desire and what they feel, each person’s moves gain a kind of emotional, even moral valence. We can sense in their gestures and postures an expression of who they’re courting, who they’re confronting, who they’re judging. Throughout, Noé’s camera circles and stalks and drifts and glides and rises, as the film unspools in lengthy, uninterrupted shots. He often shoots the big dance sequences from above, so that the movements achieve a kind of abstract grace. But soon, the dancers all start to feel a little sick, and things go haywire.

The French-Argentine auteur has scandalized Cannes more than once in the past, and this latest is being promoted as yet another sure-to-be-much-debated provocation. But this time, there’s a more pronounced political angle to the film. The realization that the sangria has been spiked with some unknown drug leads to recriminations and retaliations, as buried secrets and desires and resentments rise to the surface. A Muslim dancer — the one person who didn’t drink the sangria — is initially blamed and cast off into the snowy night. The trip goes from bad to worse, and you can sense tribalism and lust and violence taking over. The debauched musical becomes a horror exploitation movie, but still never quite stops being a musical. (There’s also a hint, in the very final shot, that we’ve been watching an epidemic thriller all along.)

As the drama mounts, Climax could have potentially gone off the rails. Noé isn’t the world’s strongest director of actors, to put it mildly, but he wisely doesn’t aim for anything resembling realism, opting instead to lean into a surreal physicality. He has said that he didn’t write down any dialogue for the actors, that all their words are improvised. But it seems he’s gone further than that. This is a cast made up of dancers, so Noé lets them dance their psychic disintegration: Now, what was once a constellation of individuated movements working together fractures into wayward particles of gyrations and gestures. Each person, it seems, malfunctions in his or her own way. Some continue to gesticulate on the dance floor, erratically and wildly. Others run crying and staggering to distant rooms, though they too never quite stop dancing. (Needless to say, the music never stops either, even as the screaming intensifies.)

Though it’s actually playing in Directors’ Fortnight (which is, technically, a separate festival from the Cannes Official Selection, run by a different organization and with its own juries, awards, and programmers), Climax fits right in with a number of the other titles — both musicals and near-musicals — in the higher-profile Cannes competition slate, in the way it uses music to articulate the tension between the individual and the collective, or society. Within the disintegration of this group, Noé finds a broader, metaphorical sorrow, turning his lens into both a participant and a godlike observer. As a result, the film feels like a formal paradox: both wildly spontaneous and yet impeccably controlled. At times, it feels as if the cameraman is also having a bad trip — one sequence is shot entirely upside down — but amid the unholy delirium, an overwhelming sense of regret also emerges. Climax isn’t so much about the inevitability of chaos, but about the sadness of watching something beautiful fall apart. And it is never less than electrifying.


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