Gaspar Noé’s latest film, Climax, opens with a blood-soaked woman dragging herself across a pure white frame, isolated in an endless field of snow. Piercing screams ring out as she tries to pull herself forward before collapsing in a heap, blood melting the snow around her. Such a dramatic opening is followed by the credits in full, allowing audiences to catch their breath while eagle-eyed viewers are given a chance to sneak a peek at the song titles that will eventually follow, including Aphex Twin, Daft Punk and more.
Finally, we are placed in front of an old television surrounded by VHS tapes — including Dario Argento’s Suspiria, where we are briefly introduced to the film’s diverse cast. Each is asked a variety of questions about their fears, past drug experiences, and most poignantly, “What would you do for dance?” The answer: “Anything.” Those familiar with Noé’s oeuvre know what to expect from the “artist of scandal,” but within minutes, first-time viewers have a better sense of what they are in for.
After we learn a bit about each of the dancers and their personal histories through their casting tapes, the film really takes off. A five-minute single take shot set to Cerrone’s “Supernature” showcases high energy, erotic dancing as the troupe is constantly marching in and out of frame, rhythmically coming together as a group and dispersing to give each dancer their own moment in the spotlight. The cast of real-life street dancers is electric together, refusing to indicate many of them had never danced with a group before filming began. As the dance concludes, prideful celebration commences with choreographer Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull) offering sangria that, unbeknownst to all but one of the dancers, is spiked with LSD.
One by one, the dancers begin to feel the drugs kick in. At first, it’s exciting and exhilarating, but paranoia soon begins to seep in. The music becomes bass heavy and the camera begins to move more dramatically around the dancers, forcing the audience to feel the anxiety building with them. Throughout the film, there are feeble attempts to determine who drugged the drinks, but ultimately, it matters to neither the dancers nor the viewers; all that matters is making it through the night. Rather than coat the film in visual effects to explicitly show the hallucinations the dancers are inevitably seeing, the camera acts as a proxy for the drug, its predatory snaking movements through the winding hallways of the abandoned school always a paranoid step behind the tripping dancers. Try as they might to escape it, everyone keeps ending up in the main dance hall, drawn to the incessant flashing lights and techno music.
Even in the film’s most disturbing moments where dance and violence become indeterminate, Noé is able to hold the audience completely captivated. In a particularly mesmerizing shot, Sofia Boutella alternates between running and dancing down a hallway. Her screams are both joyous and terrified at the same time as she sensually writhes on the floor and against the walls. Elsewhere, men are dancing so fervently that their shoulders and arms are breaking. As the acid takes over, they lose themselves to dance and to the drug while Noé blurs the line between ecstasy and agony. When the violence comes out through these expressions of dance, it’s easier for audiences to stomach and feels more artistic than either aspect on its own.
Climax is not the first, nor will it be the last film to explore the connections between dance and horror. The referenced 1977 original version of Suspiria takes place at a dance studio in Berlin that serves as a front for a coven of witches, but Luca Guadagnino’s recent remake features dance itself as a far more integral aspect of the film. Dance is a tool for self-expression on its own, but in both Climax and Suspiria, it is the combination of this expression and external forces (whether it be acid or the mysterious power of witches) that results in the most compelling and horrific scenes.
In the 2018 version of Suspiria, protagonist Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) feels an inexplicable connection to the Markos Dance Company after seeing a visiting performance at a young age. Years later, when she is finally given the opportunity to dance under the instruction of the elusive Madam Blanc, it’s clear she was always destined for Markos. Visible energy surges through her as she dances “Volk” and the witches take note of this, deeming her worthy to be their next sacrifice. Susie, however, grows stronger and stronger as she continues to dance with the company, proving herself to be more valuable than any sacrifice.
One of the most shocking scenes in this film pairs Susie passionately dancing while a fellow dancer is being tossed around a mirrored paneled dance studio next door, appearing to react directly to Susie’s contorting. Guadagnino’s skillful juxtaposing of the intricately choreographed routine allows for moments of reprieve amongst the scene of extreme body horror but more importantly forces audiences to look away from the beauty of the dance if they want to look away from the horror. The dance is so captivating that the brutal sequence is impossible to keep your eyes off, as much as you may want to.
Both Climax and Suspiria succeed in making horror films that audiences haven’t been able to look away from by pairing their most grisly moments with extreme beauty and vulnerability in dance. Dance is an outlet for self-expression that has proven time after time to be conducive to horror and will likely continue to be an important facet of the ever-changing genre.