Gaspar Noé’s 'Climax' Is Every Raver’s Worst Nightmare
The director opens up about the film's stellar soundtrack—featuring cathartic cuts from Aphex Twin and Daft Punk—and the ways a beautiful night out can turn really dark.
I stumbled out of Gaspar Noé’s new film Climax wanting to throw up. A crazed yet cautionary tale of a party gone wrong, the film is supposedly “based on real events that happened in France in winter 1996,” per the film’s title card. One night after rehearsal, a troupe of French dancers preparing to tour America unwind with a celebratory after-party; little do they know, but that the sangria has been spiked with LSD. What ensues is a horrifying night of blood-soaked violence, sexual assault, and painful death that taps into every partygoers’ worst fears. Leaving the theater, I actually felt dosed—and that was fucking terrifying.
And though it’s a scenario that seems extreme on paper, Climax derives its power from an unsettling realism. Images of stumbling through dark, disorienting hallways, the constant bass reverberating into the party’s “chill zones,” and echoes of the inevitable shit-talking that happens during the lulls will ring familiar to any frequent rave-goer. There’s a lengthy, immersive dance intro that draws you into the world of the party itself. Thanks in great part to Noé’s harrowing camerawork, it’s an experience that swallows you whole, even if you know it’s a fantasy.
Climax—which was co-produced by VICE Studios—was shot in the span of 15 days and finished mere weeks before its Cannes debut. The frenetic energy that permeated its production is evident in the final product, and it’s coupled with a carefully curated soundtrack that would send shivers down any Resident Advisor writer’s spine. In the film, it plays pretty much throughout, mixed by a DJ character played by French ballroom mainstay Kiddy Smile, offering cathartic cuts from the catalogs of Aphex Twin, Daft Punk, Chris Carter, and Dopplereffekt among others. In a conversation with Noisey, Noé says the process of cobbling together this who’s who of a rave soundtrack was one of the most difficult aspects of the film—especially because of all the rights negotiations. But as a party-centric thriller, it should come as no surprise that the sound design—helped in part by none other than Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter—is bar-none. It’s almost as if the subwoofer is its own character.
Without giving too much more away, I’ll just say that you’ll never look at the hypnotism of a four-on-the-floor beat in the same way again. Simply put, Climax can really only be described as a party promoter’s dream film. Though don’t be surprised if you never want to trip at a rave ever again. Read our Q&A with Noé about creating the party of our nightmares, below.
NOISEY: Climax treats both the party and its soundtrack like characters in the story. You could have easily gone down the road of treating the festivities and music as an afterthought to all the drug-induced psychosis, though. Why did decide to do this?
Gaspar Noé: Before shooting the movie, I had a list of, like, three hours of different tracks that we could probably afford. I didn’t want to be denied for financial or legal reasons. In the 80s, many types of dance music used excerpts of previous music, so the record labels cannot license the tracks anymore, because they didn’t pay for the excerpts. In many cases, I knew I wanted to [include] disco tracks from [Giorgio] Moroder, from Cerrone. I also knew [we] would love to [include], like, “Rollin’ & Scratchin’” by Daft Punk and “Windowlicker” by Aphex Twin, and we needed to negotiate all those music rights before shooting. Because once you use people dancing to one track, it’s very hard to replace in post-production, because the dance is hard to synchronize. So as soon as I started pre-producing the movie, we started negotiating the rights.
But once you’re on-set, you see what music excites the dancers, and you also notice [what music could match] for the scenes that you do without music. It’s a surprise. It’s not the one you have in mind that’s works best; it’s another one.
One week before shooting, I was in the car trying to decide locations for the movie, and they were playing [The Rolling Stones’] “Angie” on the radio. Just the melody almost made me cry, and I said, “Wow, this is the music I want for the movie, so melancholic. But we have to find an instrumental version, which does not exist.” At the very last moment, two weeks before Cannes, we managed to get the rights to use the melody. We had to re-record it to put it in the movie.
Also, the record label helped me a lot. The musicians on the record labels liked my previous movies. Also because they knew it was a low-budget movie made in France, they don’t ask for the same amount they’d ask for a big American action movie.
How’d Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter get on board?
I contacted him both for his own music and for the music he did with Daft Punk. I knew that if I put a track by Daft Punk, it had to be from before 96, so it meant the first record, and my favorite track off that was “Rollin’ & Scratchin.’” He also did [the] soundtrack for [my previous film Irreversible, [and] a lot of sound for Enter the Void. He also gave me music for Love. In this case, he created some music for [ Climax, and he found some] old tracks that were never released, like one called “Sangria.” It was an old track he remixed after I asked him for [help with the movie]. The good thing about Thomas is he is not only [a] master of music, but also a great photographer-director. He liked the whole process of shooting, and he came to set. He’s an excellent partner-in-crime. Also, his music is incredible, whether with Daft Punk or by himself.
For example, to start the second part of the movie, I tried other music, but by far the very best track for that scene—the most anguishing one—was the one he did for the movie, and that was “Sangria.”
Speaking of “Sangria,” I’ve never seen a film capture the essence of being on drugs at a rave so well. What went into the process of creating this feeling via sound design?
I’ve been in situations and parties that turned wicked. Sometimes, it’s due to substances...but just people who are very drunk can turn totally crazy. In the case of this movie, I didn’t want to reproduce the reality as seen by someone who was in an altered state-of-consciousness, but I wanted to show it from the outside—with the rave, the sound, the subwoofers, and some camera movements that put you in that state of mind. The result is very anguishing. But I did not want to do an ultra-hip version of Enter the Void, though that was full of psychotic visual effects and sound effects.
Honestly, I definitely thought I was high for part of it.
On the set, none of the dancers were on drugs or alcohol! Just pretending to be. It’s very hard to deal with people who are wasted in front of the camera. I never want anyone to be on drugs and alcohol while I’m shooting.
Was your interest in writing this story also partially influenced by your own experiences?
I’ve never been in such a dramatic situation. [But] it is always painful when you see a couple getting drunk or doing coke, and they start talking to each other [and saying] they want to kill each other. [You can] have people at the bar who are best friends and everything is good, and then some heavy guy comes in and chokes your friend because your friend is drunk, and smash[es] your friend on the face with a bottle, and there’s blood all over the place, and then it turns into a nightmare, and then the whole night gets worse and worse.
Okay. You’ve spoken about drugs being a part of your process before, so I’m curious: Why approach it in a more cautionary, skeptical way with Climax ?
I never promoted drugs. I never was pro-drugs or anti-drugs. You have to be very careful when it comes to drugs, alcohol...We all need to see ourselves from a different perspective; otherwise life is boring. But when you decide to get out of your mind to [a different] perspective and lose control...You can have one or two glasses of wine and it makes you happier and funnier, but the same person after two bottles of wine—and if you had rum or vodka—they turn into monsters.