Tag Archives: Dance

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CLIMAX (2018)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: About two dozen dancers, all of approximately equal importance

PLOT: A modern dance troupe goes crazy when someone spikes their rehearsal party sangria with a heavy dose of LSD.

Still from Climax (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Literal LSD trip movies don’t come along that often. Ones made with this much skill and care are even rarer. Climax is messy and flawed, but impossible (for us) to overlook. And Gaspar Noé is probably the only master of world cinema who regularly contributes trip reports to Erowid.

COMMENTS: Near the beginning of Climax, we watch interviews, presumably from the audition process, playing on a TV screen. Attractive young people are asked about their philosophy of life, their drug use, their greatest fear. We get to know them a little, but what might be more important are the names of the books and VHS tape boxes flanking the TV screen: Possession, “Un Chien Andalou,” Salo, Suspiria, “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome”, Zombie. While none of these (except perhaps Suspiria) have much real thematic relationship to Climax, Gaspar Noé’s roll call of influences at least puts the well-traveled weirdophile on notice that they’ve bought the right ticket.

The movie is not one long, unrelieved freakout; it does build to a, well, Climax. After those preliminary interviews and some preliminary structural foolishness (the end titles play first, and the opening credits are delivered in the middle of the film), we start with a long, energetic, contortionist techno dance number, a real wower for fans of intricate choreography. (It must have been quite a challenge for the casting director to find top-notch professional dancers who were also capable of overacting to Noé’s demanding specifications). After they’re done rehearsing, the troupe choose to unwind by… dancing, but now lubricated by a punchbowl of sangria. At this point several of the dancers break off into pairs and we watch a series of conversations that further introduce us to the sprawling cast of characters. While everyone is bisexual and can think of few topics of conversation besides who wants to screw whom, it’s remarkable how efficiently this dialogue establishes a recognizable look and narrative hook for each of the dancers so that we seldom accidentally confuse them when the trip proper begins. It’s character differentiation more than character development, but it works very precisely in this context. Next up is another long dance scene, this one shot from above, as the dancers form a circle and each takes his or her turn freestyling in the center of the mob. After this diversion the party breaks apart and people start to notice that they’re feeling weird, leading them to wonder just what was in the sangria. When one dazed dancer suddenly starts urinating on the floor, they realize they’ve definitely been dosed, and paranoia starts to rise as the mob throw accusations at first one suspect, then another.

After the LSD kicks in the film adopts a Slacker strategy, with the camera following a single dancer around, watching the mini-drama as he or she copes with the situation, then peeling off to follow another. Sexual jealousies and suppressed perversions are, naturally, the main demons that the tripping hoofers battle, but there are also violent beatings, suicidal impulses, and a child wandering around the premises to be dealt with. Some simply succumb to the terror of being on an unknown, but high, dose of an intense psychotropic drug with no preparation. Each dancer gets a chance to freak out, with some spotlight solos. At the movie’s peak—which perhaps goes on uncomfortably long—everything is light in a hellish red with upside down and spinning cameras, as the party dissolves into an indistinct orgy of sex and violence. The denouement is grim, but we do actually find out who was responsible for all the carnage.

What does it all mean? The author offers us a couple of pretentious epigrams. “Love is a collective impossibility.” “Death is an extraordinary experience.” Not really helpful. More than anything, the drug trip is a convenient excuse for Noé to indulge in melodramatics that would otherwise be implausible. His characters howl, writhe, and piss themselves in animalistic degradation. It’s equally an excuse for him to indulge his melodramatic style. Is Climax a satire? Perhaps, since everyone is ultimately so unlikable, but if so it is a very dry and unfunny one. Is it a metaphor for our chaotic, backbiting modern times? Maybe. France is described as hell (specifically by the minority members of the troupe), and yet the titles announce (ironically?) that Climax is “a French film and proud of it.” I don’t think Noé commits himself to any particular interpretation; he’s simply interested in choreographing as much misanthropic excess as possible. With Climax, I’m more convinced than ever that Gaspar Noé has no idea what he wants to say with his art—but is nevertheless supremely confident about how he wants to say it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… the nuttiest, trippiest dance party you’ll ever attend.”–Brian Truitt, USA Today (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SUSPIRIA (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Luca Guadagnino

FEATURING: Dakota Johnson, ,

PLOT: A coven of witches in Berlin in 1977 run a modern dance troupe.

Still from Suspiria (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s only room for one Suspiria on the List. That doesn’t mean you want to pass on this very different, and slightly weird, remake, however, if for no other reason than to see the classic story reimagined in a dramatically different style.

COMMENTS: Suspiria (2018) keeps the title, the notion of a coven of dancing witches, and some of the character names from ‘s Expressionist giallo classic—and really, that’s about it. Director Luca Guadagnino decided to spend his capital from the Oscar-nominated gay romance Call Me By Your Name on an unlikely remake of a 1970s cult Italian horror film. That was a strange enough choice, but then he promised to give us a Suspiria as it might have been made by German New-Wave director Rainer Fassbinder. (This odd choice prompted Owen Gliberman to snidely, but hilariously, wonder what’s next: “a remake of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ done in the style of ?”)

So, where the first film was an Expressionist fairy tale, Guadagnino makes the update into a realistic (if supernatural), character-driven drama. The innocent young ballet students of the original are now professional adult dancers. The main characters now have elaborate backstories: chief sacrificial victim Susie is a refugee from a repressive Mennonite upbringing, while the psychiatrist, the minor-est of characters in the original, is now is the secondary protagonist, an old man now haunted by his country’s Nazi past. The witches themselves are more detailed, with Tilda Swinton’s ghostly Madame Blanc a major presence, and the script even delves into internal coven politics. The story is now set in “a divided Berlin” in 1977 (the year of Suspiria‘s release), with the Cold War and the German Autumn terror playing in the background. And the implicitly feminist script even makes a shout out to the #metoo movement when the witches chastise the psychiatrist for “not believing” women.

If the original was a largely plotless, irrational spook show, then there is, if anything, too much plot and too much psychology at play in the remake. It’s not entirely clear how all of the themes, both personal and political, are intended to connect, but puzzling them out is one of the film’s pleasures. The many subplots make for a horror film that’s overlong at two-and-a-half hours, but when it’s at its best, it has moments of witchy intensity that match Argento. An early cringer sees a dancer mutilated in a mirrored room as she’s jerked about telekinetically like a marionette. The witches send genuinely spooky nightmares full of worms, organs and levitation to plague Susie. The performance of Madame Blanc’s postmodern “Volk,” with the dancers draped in blood-red ropes and a pentagram nonchalantly taped to the floor in plain view, captures your eyeballs. And the climax, when we finally see the ritual the witches have been building to all along, is full of spouting blood, nude contortionists, and diabolical betrayals, and is well worth the wait. This version likely won’t displace Argento’s masterpiece in horror fans’ hearts, but at least this arty take on Suspiria shows the proper way to do a remake—take general themes from the original and refashion them into something stylistically new.

I believe that this gynocentric film is one of those rare movies to meet the reverse-Bechdel test: there is no moment where two men have a conversation that is not about a woman.

The  cameo you assumed would be here is indeed here. Dakota Johnson, previously best known as the Shades of Grey chick, proves here that she can be a serious actress. Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton deserves some Best Supporting Actress chatter for her performance, but will not receive it. On a related note, Best Makeup seems like a better shot for a nom.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a spectacularly strange affair, thrumming with wild blood and weird powers. It’s easily the classiest horror movie made in years, maybe ever…”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE FITS (2016)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Anna Rose Holmer

FEATURING: Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett

PLOT: A preteen tomboy finds herself drawn into the dance classes at her local recreation center, but soon after she joins the group the older girls begin suffering mysterious seizures.

The Fits (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While definitely of interest to aficionados of weirdness, and a highly recommended film overall, it just doesn’t reach the levels of  bizarre we aim for with the List.

COMMENTS: Toni (Royalty Hightower) is a quiet, athletic 11-year-old girl who spends her afternoons at the local rec center with her older brother, training in the boxing gym with a group of teen boys. She finds herself compelled to join the dance drill team that rehearses down the hall, feeling shy around the girls but determined to show off her moves. Though she doesn’t appear to be naturally gifted at dance, she sticks with it and befriends some of the other new recruits, observing the older girls who lead the troupe with the curiosity of a child and the growing understanding of a young adult. When the seizures start, Toni and her friends are more intrigued than scared, and they watch from afar as more and more of the older girls are affected by this unexplained malady. Toni begins to suspect that it’s intentional, that they want it, and it becomes a kind of calling card for a cool inner circle.

Based on plot alone, The Fits sounds like a fairly standard coming-of-age drama, and in some ways it is: a shy and intelligent girl finds community within a larger group, learns about new adult realities, maintains her independence, etc. The parallels between the girls’s seizures and female puberty are obvious, as Toni feels the kind of ostracization and curiosity that preteen girls might experience as their friends start getting (and discussing) their periods. Along with fear of the unknown there is a pride attached to the phenomenon, a feeling of special knowledge and maturity. Throughout the film, we see our tomboy protagonist slowly acquiring visual markers coded as “girly,” including glitter nail polish and pierced ears, which help her fit in with her friends. But she slowly sheds them all, retaining her sense of difference. Eventually, Toni (and the audience) senses that there is a kind of freedom attached to the seizures—the precise, fluid movements of the drill team are liberally flung out the window in the sudden and erratic fits the girls exhibit. There is a beauty to letting go, to giving in to being a girl, to finding acceptance in her changing, awkward preteen body.

With a keen observational eye and resourceful use of a single location (the town recreational center), first-time director Anna Rose Holmer fully engages with the perspective of her central character. We see everything through Toni’s eyes, and the subtle, powerful performance of Royalty Hightower communicates a world of experience with little expository dialogue. But the most intriguing stylistic element of The Fits is its sound. While one might realistically expect a soundtrack of dance music, specifically pop or hip hop, to go with the performances of the drill team, the music rarely matches the action onscreen. Instead we are treated to bizarre, somewhat abstract soundscapes that create a sense of intrinsic eeriness, hinting that something must be wrong here. The surreal music serves to pick apart the weirdness of adolescence, and to heighten the anxiety and uncertainty Toni feels every day behind her stony exterior as she maneuvers the muddy waters between childhood and adulthood. Without it, the events of the film would be dramatic, but not necessarily extraordinary. With it, we are left with a distinct but ambiguous sense of strangeness, an itch we can’t quite scratch, a mystery never to be solved. And yet, thanks to an exuberant final dance number, there’s a contentment that goes along with it, suggesting the power of sisterhood.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a beautiful, hauntingly precarious coming of age film that uses mystery and an at times dream-like atmosphere to create a mesmerizing tale.”–Rob Hunter, Film School Rejects (contemporaneous)