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Review: Climax

The camera captures every freak-out, recrimination, stolen kiss, and betrayal in what is a miracle of synchronicity.

3.0

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Climax
Photo: A24

Gaspar Noé’s Climax begins with an intimation of a bygone horror, at once blissful and uneasy. A girl we later come to know as Lou (Souheila Yacoub) marches through snow, flailing her arms before hugging her bloodied midsection, the camera trailing her from a God’s-eye view until she falls into the sea of white. The scene is almost baptismal, as the earth would appear to receive her as a dedication, and in repose she brings to mind a child in utero. It’s an impression that’s difficult to avoid, then easily forgotten, only to be summoned anew when, not long into this film that delights in twinning states of ecstasy and agony, it’s understood that the girl died while miscarrying.

Unless Lou was never pregnant. But whether or not she actually was is of less consequence to Noé than the spectacle of performance, whether of the body or the mind, as when Lou desperately proclaims her innocence after it’s discovered that a member of her dance troupe spiked the communal sangria with LSD. Inside a cavernous building in the middle of an abstract nowhere, this racially and sexually diverse crew of krumpers, voguers, contortionists, and others gather to rehearse a routine that attests to the possibility of a new social order. And, indeed, the choreography of their first rehearsal so euphorically reflects the structure of the music, a remix of Cerrone’s “Supernature,” that it’s almost impossible to imagine these dancers apart.

“My worst nightmare? To find myself alone,” says one girl in a direct-to-camera address transmitted from a television set that’s flanked on one side by books and on the other by films in VHS cases. And those cases are just about the only thing that roots the events of Climax, according to the opening end scroll, in France in the winter of 1996. Which is to say, a time when it’s a little easier to imagine black dancers abroad dreaming of an America that’s “heaven on Earth.” And right out of the gate, Noé parallels his desires with that of his characters, asking us to contemplate his own worst nightmare—a world without Possession, without Harakiri, without Suspiria—before then dazzling us with the means by which he staves off that nightmare: his will to create.

The self-absorption writ large of Noé’s Love—all those movie posters that exist only to proclaim Noé’s favorite things—is put to purposeful and irreverent use here. Not for nothing is Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Analou nestled in between Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom on the left side of the TV set from which Climax’s characters broadcast their dreams. Chaos, of course, will reign in Noé’s film, which takes place in a kind of purgatorial space not unlike the one at the center of Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, where a privileged group is unable—or, more likely, unwilling—to leave a drawing room that comes to reflect a world’s ills. But when the dust settles in this film—or, rather, the drugs wear off—who will claim responsibility for the performance of its chaos?

There’s humor, too, in our first glimpse of young Tito (Vince Galliot Cumant) taking a sip of the LSD-spiked sangria. This is Noé winking a philosophical thought experiment into being: “If a little boy appears in a Gaspar Noé film in act one, will he make it past act three?” And while anyone who’s ever seen one of Noé films, including Irréversible and Enter the Void, probably knows and fears the answer to that question, the collective response to Tito’s fate is less cruel than you might imagine because, like every other feat in the film, it projects itself as a kind of hallucination. It’s the ultimate gag—so much so that you almost expect the voguers in the room to death drop on cue.

But Climax is less comedy than it is musical, and the film arrives at a rather profound message about how all incivility isn’t equal—how bias, like blight or beauty, is in eye of the beholder—more successfully through the sheer force of dance than through the words exchanged between characters. (None of these dancers are particularly deep, though some of their chatter is quite funny, like one discussion about the “occupational hazard” of rimming.) As these young men and women increasingly lose themselves to the effects of LSD—walking, pushing, worming, writhing, and sometimes sprinting through the building’s rooms and hallways as if in suspended animation—Noé’s camera anchors itself to them in rhythmic lockstep, capturing every freak-out, recrimination, stolen kiss, and betrayal in what is a miracle of synchronicity.

Throughout Climax, the camera itself feels as if it’s increasingly experiencing the effects of a mind-altering drug. Early on, Noé is only too happy to cede the stage to his characters, shooting them from above as they take turns plying their signature moves before then capping the spectacle with a montage of the names of the film’s actors and the musicians featured on the soundtrack. And then the camera becomes increasingly one with the dancers and the music, as in the film’s most extraordinary sequence, which locks on to the group’s de facto leader, Selva (Sofia Boutella), as if in a trance, following her as she submits to the throes of a Possession-inspired freak-out, and all the way to her collecting herself and walking past Taylor (Taylor Kastle) as he unbelievably contorts his body into what seems like an optical illusion. The ultimate gag—no, masterstroke—of Noé’s career may be this perfect communion between his art and that of these bodies: a thrilling expression of the fear that to stop moving is to undo the social fabric of the world.

Cast: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull, Giselle Palmer, Taylor Kastle, Thea Carla Schott, Sharleen Temple, Lea Vlamos, Alaia Alsafir, Kendall Mugler, Lakdhar Dridi, Adrien Sissoko, Mamadou Bathily, Alou Sidibe, Ashley Biscette, Vince Galliot Cumant Director: Gaspar Noé Screenwriter: Gaspar Noé Distributor: A24 Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Film

Review: The Changeover Enjoyably Pinballs Between Disparate Fantasy Styles

If, in the end, the film’s narrative fails to cohere, the journey getting there is at least enjoyably swift-paced.

2.5

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The Changeover
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie’s The Changeover is an unusual and mostly enjoyable hybrid of disparate fantasy styles. Based on the 1984 young adult novel by Margaret Mahy, the film suggests a superhero origin story, developing a convoluted internal mythology involving a coven of benevolent witches, an evil vampiric “larva” who sucks the youthful vitality out of young children, and a “sensitive” schoolgirl, Laura (Erana James), who receives psychic premonitions of future harm. When the larva, Carmody (Timothy Spall), picks Laura’s kid brother (Benji Purchase) as his next victim, it’s up to her to save him.

It can be a little difficult to keep the story’s mythos straight, particularly when, in its final third, the film launches into a lengthy Inception-style action sequence that takes place entirely in a dream realm. By the time the credits roll, it’s not entirely clear what just happened, and exactly why. McKenzie’s script has to resort to voiceover narration—present only in the very beginning and end of the film—to fill in some of the gaps, and even then, not every piece of the puzzle seems to fit together. This makes for an ultimately somewhat confusing and unsatisfying viewing experience, at least for anyone who’s never read Mahy’s supernatural teen romance. But sometimes it’s better to feel a little lost than to know too much: The film confidently powers ahead without feeling the need, as so many fantasy stories do, to halt the momentum every reel or two to offer a dull exposition dump.

As directors, Harcourt and McKenzie eschew the soporific melancholia of teen fantasy films like Twilight in favor of a lithe, angular visual approach—including impressionistic close-ups and skittering, almost Michael Mann-ish handheld shots—that grounds the story’s supernatural goings-on in a sense of reality without draining them of their fantastical charm. Spall strikes a similarly appealing balance between plausibility and outright camp, digging into his villainous role with teeth-gnashing glee. Pitched somewhere between a deranged hobo and Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes, his performance provides a fun yet menacing foil to James’s haunted, obsessive turn as Laura.

Even when the specific details of the film’s plot may seem silly or confused, Laura remains credible and compelling. It’s this carefully managed equilibrium between the inherent preposterousness of its mystical milieu and the convincing emotional reality of Laura’s journey that ultimately makes The Changeover, for all its muddled mythos, a lively and engaging excursion into an unusually naturalistic world of magic.

Cast: Timothy Spall, Melanie Lynskey, Lucy Lawless, Nicholas Galitzine, Erana James, Kate Harcourt, Benji Purchase, Ella Edward, Thomasin McKenzie, Claire Van Beek Director: Miranda Harcourt, Stuart McKenzie Screenwriter: Stuart McKenzie Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 95 min Buy: Book

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Film

Review: 1900 Obliterates the Barriers Between Story and History

Bernardo Bertolucci’s film is a living, fluid organism that spans the distances between several poles of extremity.

3.5

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1900
Photo: Paramount Pictures

A handful of iconic films are inseparable from a single, equally iconic review. Whether it was a pan, a rave, or somewhere in the middle, is immaterial: The piece of writing and the film are, by chance rather than design, now joined at the hip in the minds of every well-read viewer that encounters the film from that day forward. There’s John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie, which inspired Graham Greene to write a provocative contemplation of wee Shirley Temple’s “adult” appeal. (A consequent lawsuit by 20th Century Fox further inspired Greene to flee to Mexico.) 1900 was Italian maestro Bernardo Bertolucci’s first film after Last Tango in Paris, the runaway international success of which can at least partly be attributed to a goalpost-shifting, all-stops-out rave by New Yorker critic Pauline Kael.

1900 didn’t necessarily send Kael into comparable flights of exaltation, but her review is almost as much a landmark as the one for Last Tango in Paris, in its way. Before getting to the business of weighing and measuring the qualities and liabilities of Bertolucci’s epic, a multi-generational mural that seeks to envelop the whole of the century up to that point, Kael circled the pool before swimming, meditating on the very idea of the director’s—any director’s—grandest gesture, the epic that danced on the knife edge between brilliant and insane, noble and foolish. It wasn’t a “think piece,” in today’s parlance, not the way Kael transmitted levies and decrees from her high judicial seat. Rather, it sought to address as directly as possible the tendency for auteurs of a certain stripe to render unto mortal audiences a monument of—and to—the cinema, a true gesamtkunstwerk in motion-picture form.

The gesamtkunstwerk, generally attributed (not exclusively) to Richard Wagner, has a special resonance with the cinema. While in the 19th century a “total art work” would combine or hybridize elements of several different media, the movies seemed to be one-stop shopping for visionaries with similar dreams of amalgamation and “total”-ness, pitched at the grandest scale, and encompassing the largest themes. Directors like D.W. Griffith and Abel Gance, as well as Hollywood moguls like David O. Selznick, attempted such Herculean exertions, but a film like 1900 is unimaginable during earlier decades. It requires the picture-window magnitude of widescreen cinema (without the lateral restrictions of the Cinemascope frame). It requires the new open-mindedness of art-house moviegoers in a post-Midnight Cowboy, post-Last Tango in Paris era, given the graphic nature of some scenes—some of which, without getting too specific, you’ll never, ever, be able to un-see. There’s the relentlessly mobile camera, requiring the most up-to-date production technology, and which seems to prowl and sweep at the same time. And there’s the melting pot of American and European stars, emblematic of an international cinema scene preordained by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa and Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town.

Similar barriers between story and history are obliterated. 1900, of course, doesn’t draw lines around the world’s 20th century so much as limit the breadth and depth of the whole world to the story of modern Italy, from the death of Verdi in 1901 to the innumerable planes of struggle following WWII. This isn’t the kind of film that adheres to any tradition of screenwriting discipline; resolutely episodic, even its episodes (which are countless) are often amorphous, flowing and breathing into what happened before, and what comes after.

The heads of the principal characters are drunk on tempestuous cocktails of primal urges, political convictions, and sexual impulses. No corner of Italian society seems to escape Bertolucci’s attention, but, if anything, it’s most frequently concerned with class warfare, setting up Robert De Niro’s Alfredo Berlinghieri and Gérard Depardieu’s Olmo Dalco as respective totems of the landowner and peasant class, locked in eternal conflict, right to the end of the line—and to the present moment. Bertolucci’s concept of the epic is to fashion a living, fluid organism that spans the distances between several poles of extremity: ancient and modern, agony and ecstasy, life and theater, rich and poor. Foremost, perhaps, is Bertolucci’s trademark ability to weave intimate spaces into infinitely larger tapestries. If it fails, as some critics have noted—beginning with Kael—to live up to its ambition to stand as the greatest of all films, it is perhaps only because the century is itself profoundly, humanly disappointing.

Cast: Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Burt Lancaster, Dominique Sanda, Sterling Hayden, Donald Sutherland, Francesca Bertini, Laura Betti, Werner Bruhns, Stefania Casini, Anna Henkel, Ellen Schwiers, Alida Valli, Romolo Valli, Bianca Magliacca, Giacomo Rizzo, Pippo Campanini Director: Bernardo Bertolucci Screenwriter: Franco Arcalli, Giuseppe Bertolucci, Bernardo Bertolucci Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 317 min Rating: NR Year: 1976 Buy: Video

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actress

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress.

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Glenn Close
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress for having given a performance that, while not your, um, favourite nominated one, is still deserving of an Oscar victory lap. Now, if only others felt the same. Very early on in the awards season, there was already a sense that this award could become a career-achievement coronation for the six-time losing Glenn Close—and that people were going to have a problem squaring that with the fact that her Oscar would be tied to a film perceived to be a piffle. That’s not an inaccurate perception, but it’s difficult to remember a time when critics have used that as an excuse to not do their homework.

In short, have you seen The Wife? Indeed, until the awards-media system’s attention shifted full time into covering AMPAS’s A Series of Unfortunate Oscar Decisions, it seemed as if every day brought us a new article by some pundit about the Oscar race in which it strangely sounded as if the The Wife was still a blind spot for the writer. Which is shame, because Close gives good face throughout the film. Certainly, few Oscar-nominated films this year are as absurd as The Wife, but I’ll do battle with anyone who thinks Close is getting by on her legend alone. Close’s triumph is recognizing The Wife’s inherent ludicrousness and elevating it, and without condescension, with a kabuki-like verve that seeks to speak to the experiences of all women who’ve been oppressed by their men. It’s a turn worthy of Norma Desmond.

Today, the most reliable Oscar narrative is the overdue performer. And if you take stock in that narrative, then you’ll understand why I texted Eric, my fellow Oscar guru, the following on the morning of November 29: “I think Close is going to Still Alice at the Oscars.” After that morning, when the New York Film Critics Circle officially kick-started the Oscar season (and gave their award for best actress to Regina Hall in Support the Girls), no actress ran the table with the critics and guilds, but most of the cards that matter did fall into place for Close, and much as they did for Julianne Moore ahead of her winning the Oscar for Still Alice.

This was a done deal when Close won the Golden Globe, received a standing ovation, and gave the night’s most impassioned speech, immediately after which Eric conceded that my instincts had been right. Of course, that was no doubt easy for him to admit given that, by that point, the oxygen had already seeped out of A Star Is Born’s awards campaign, leaving only Olivia Colman in Close’s way. Colman has worked the campaign trail in spectacular ways, giving speeches that have been every bit as droll as this, but in the end, she doesn’t have the SAG, and as bold and subversive as her performance certainly is, it isn’t sufficiently big enough to convince enough AMPAS members that Close should continue waiting for Oscar.

Will Win: Glenn Close, The Wife

Could Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Should Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

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