sofia boutella says gaspar noé’s ‘climax’ will make you feel something
The French-Algerian actress shares what it was like making the LSD-laced dance-horror with one of film’s most divisive directors.
“Nobody has ever seen a movie like this,” says Sofia Boutella of Gaspar Noé’s latest film, Climax. Of course, this won’t come as a surprise if you’ve seen any of Noé’s other films. The French director is a master of provocation, known for his violent, erotic, drug-fueled explorations of our base desires. His previous film, Love, was shot in 3D, and features a very memorable climax of its own, in which bodily fluids appear to spray out of the screen and onto the viewer.
Climax continues Noé’s tradition of shock and awe, but its unique marriage of horror and dance feels more like a multisensory meditation on life and death than a traditional film. Based on the true story of a dance troupe enjoying one final blowout after rehearsing in an abandoned school, it depicts their gradual descent into madness after their sangria is spiked with copious amounts of LSD. Things start out fairly lighthearted, but the flirty atmosphere soon turns seedy. As verbal spars become physical fights and taunts turn into all-out torture, we see how the drug brings out the characters’ primal instincts and begin to wonder who, if anyone, will make it out of there alive.
“It was one of the most peaceful, collaborative and loving sets I’ve ever been on!” Boutella, who plays lead character Selva, says with a laugh. She knows that a film that opens with an aerial shot of a blood-soaked woman writhing in the snow doesn’t seem like it’d be serene to work on, but she insists “there was never ever one tension on set.”
She credits both the set’s enjoyable atmosphere and the film’s haunting hyperrealism to Noé’s unique process. The director approached Boutella via Instagram and the two met up in Paris to discuss his idea for the film. She was already a fan of his and trusted his vision, but says that by the time it came to shoot he still had no script, only a five-page treatment. It was a distinctly different experience from the big-budget films she’d previously worked on (Star Trek Beyond, The Mummy, and Atomic Blonde), but one that she wholeheartedly embraced.
“I felt a lot of pressure, but that was only because we didn’t have a script, and I tend to overprepare and have so many notes and ideas. But I realized that sometimes it’s a blessing to not know. You just have to go on board and entirely trust him. That’s what I had to do.” Boutella says that Noé's decision to leave things up to interpretation created an atmosphere of freedom that allowed the film to bloom. “So much magic happened on that set because we didn’t know what would happen. He kept it alive by not constricting it too much.”
The film’s extreme subject matter and experimental approach weren’t the only challenges Boutella faced. Formerly a professional dancer (like her character Selva), she basically hadn’t danced in five years. Until Noé slid into her DMs and cast her in Climax, the last time she had danced was in Madonna’s 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, after which she moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. That’s not counting an event organized by Sean Penn, where she danced in one of Madonna’s old costumes to auction it off for charity. “But that was a small two-minute show,” she says. "Really, before that I didn’t dance for five years!” Watching her strut and spin and do the splits in the film, you’d never know, even if she “wasn’t sure how it was going to go.”
The dance scenes, choreographed by Nina McNeely, are the film’s highlights, providing heady rushes of euphoria amidst the crushing paranoia. Noé cast the film with professional dancers he found at vogue balls throughout Paris (and a couple of contortionists from the Congo that he found online), and they enrich the film with the subculture’s bold, expressive moves. One scene is shot looking directly down onto the dance floor, and limbs appear to pop out in 3D as the dancers spin, dip, duck walk, and death drop.
Though in recent years these moves have been shared with wider audiences via RuPaul’s Drag Race, they’re still by no means mainstream. Boutella says their inclusion in Climax reflects the inquisitive nature of its 55-year-old director, who sought to capture this unique intensity on-screen. “That’s why I admire Gaspar and I love him,” Boutella says, “because before he sent me that message on Instagram, he had been to vogue balls and dance competitions and visited all these dancers in their element. He didn’t call people into a room to have them dance and see which one would be the best; he went and saw them in their element and spent time with them. He didn’t pick these people because they were successful dancers at the time; he picked personalities, people who had character in their dancing and in their person.”
The dance sequences temper the dialog-driven scenes, which can get so intense that some viewers straight-up laugh in knee-jerk reactions to the stress. Boutella says she has observed this unexpected reaction before, and thinks it’s a coping mechanism. “People need relief, because there’s so much tension built up in their bodies at that point.”
The intensity is heightened by a soundtrack of throbbing industrial dance music and ‘70s disco, sickly green lighting that soaks into every surface, and immersive camerawork that at one point literally turns everything upside down.
The film is shocking for multiple reasons, so you’re likely to find yourself laughing, crying, screaming or expressing some other emotion. “Gaspar is really truly able to make his audiences feel something,” Boutella says with conviction. “Whether or not you like his work, you cannot deny that he’s making you feel something.” You have been warned.
Climax is in select theaters now