Support, power and the natural turbulence of sisterhood shine through in Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen, a film about female friendship which rejects the sideshow baggage of toxicity and hatred. This sun-warmed coming-of-ager introduces Rachelle Vinberg as Camille, a lonely teen who just wants to skate. She struggles to forge a connection with her peers in the Long Island suburb she calls home, and so escapes to New York City to find an Instagram-famous female skate collective: The Skate Kitchen.
The film is based on Moselle’s 2016 short That One Day, which features much of the same cast. Real members of The Skate Kitchen play thinly disguised versions of themselves: they wear their own clothes (bejewelled with unique New York style); they skate on their home turf; and much of the film recreates their lived experience. The years of chemistry between the crew and their familiarity with skater slang adds authenticity to the film’s dialogue, coming to them as naturally as an ollie.
This relatability also extends to the simple plot, which is told in drags during afternoons at the skatepark and subway rides spent damning the patriarchy. Its measured pace feels true to life; Camille’s relationship with her protective mother ebbs and flows, and romances aren’t always what they seem. Friendship fallouts are revelatory life events for Camille to whom these girls become family. At points this lack of drama makes investment in the characters a little tough, in spite of their individual vibrancy.
Regardless, the plot plays second fiddle to an atmosphere of nostalgia. So essential to skating is the feeling, the freedom, the flying – all shared with your tube-socked, tie-dyed posse. Moselle reproduces this with mellow tones and ambient sounds. The slow motion shots of hedonistic parties and mesmerising skate sequences capture the idea that skating is a lifestyle for these characters – it doesn’t end when they step off a board.
The passing of time is perhaps the defining theme of Richard Linklater’s career. Think of the Before trilogy, which traced the development of the relationship between two lovers at nine-year intervals between 1995 and 2013. Or Boyhood, a coming-of-age drama in which the actor playing the protagonist literally ages from a young boy into a grown man before our eyes.
Dazed and Confused, the writer/director’s third feature, which is now 25 years old, is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of its time frame. Beginning with the unusually precise on-screen text indicating that this is the ‘Last Day of School | May 28, 1976 | 1:05pm’, it is a film suspended in the present, taking place over the course of just one day from a final afternoon in class to the twilight of a late-night party.
It’s easy to overlook the film as an enjoyable but ultimately frivolous high school comedy. It’s true the film is a rollicking watch with plenty of laughs and very low stakes, as characters across a range of cliques hang out, goof about and generally get up to no good. Yet Linklater depicts all this with his trademark humanity and warmth, imbuing his characters’ sometimes obnoxious behaviour (particularly initiation rites carried out by the seniors) with charm as he has done throughout his career (see: loudmouth jocks in Everybody Wants Some!!, self-absorbed lovers in the Before films, a showboating Jack Black in School of Rock, and even Coldplay’s music in Boyhood).
But for all its surface level charms, it’s the way Dazed and Confused subtly explores how time shapes its characters’ behaviour that gives it a depth which still resonates today. These high schoolers are all intent on living in the moment. All anyone is concerned about is what they are going to do that night: quarterback Randall (Jason Loudon) is reluctant to let the dilemma of whether or not to sign a pledge of purity for the football team get in the way of a planned booze- and drug-filled party; the freshmen are preoccupied by how to avoid the seniors and their initiation hazing; and just about everyone’s main desire is to get their hands on more booze or score another joint.
Their attitudes are best summarised by three more self-reflective seniors who are eager to get involved in the kind of revelling they usually pass up on. “Don’t you ever feel like everything we do and everything we’ve been taught is just to service the future?” asks Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi), who goes on to ponder, “What are we preparing ourselves for?” “Death”, is the droll reply offered by her friend Mike (Adam Goldberg), but she takes his answer at face value. “If we’re all going to die anyway shouldn’t we be enjoying ourselves now? I’d like to quit thinking of the present as some minor insignificant preamble to something else.”
The spectre of the future inevitably hangs over Linklater’s film, even as the characters do their best to avoid it. It is, after all, set at the end of a school year, an unavoidable marker of time passing as each student must contend with having grown one year older and advanced to the next step in their education.
The foremost reminder of their not-too-distant futures is the character of David (Matthew McConaughey), a smooth but sleazy party lover who graduated a few years earlier but continues to hang around with the juniors. He’s someone who refuses to move on from the heady days of high school, as expressed in the film’s most famous line: “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age”. But with each passing year his presence becomes less and less appropriate – a stark warning of what will become of these teenagers if they refuse to acknowledge the need to eventually grow up.
For us watching, too, it’s impossible not to be aware of the passing of time. As a period piece made in 1993 and set in 1976, every unruly haircut, every retro car, every outlandish fashion statement and every classic rock song played on a tape deck is a marker of how much things change. Watching the film back now, the experience is even more stark – looking at the young, fresh faces of McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich and Parker Posey, and knowing what became of their careers post Dazed and Confused, adds yet another layer of retrospectivity.
Still, though thoughts of the future loom in the background, the thrill of Dazed and Confused is watching its youthful characters enjoy the raucous high of living in the moment. The closing shot of an open highway from the point of view a car and its young passengers is an obvious metaphor for the way time marches inexorably forward, but crucially Linklater allows his characters the luxury of not having a future.
Unlike so many other coming-of-age classics, from American Graffiti to Animal House, he opts against a ‘where are they now’ style sign off informing us what fate ultimately had in store for the characters. Rather, Dazed and Confused survives as a sealed-off time capsule, where everyone, for the most part, remains joyously rooted in a specific moment in time.
“I don’t mind telling you, Mrs Wadsworth, that I made a special effort to get this assignment,” Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer) near the beginning of The Baby. “It was impossible not to be interested.”
Rubbernecking viewers who have sought out this film are likely to agree. Directed by Ted Post in the same year that he made the hyper-masculine Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force, The Baby sidelines all its male characters and foregrounds its women as the power players in a bizarre battle of wits.
This is the tale of two matriarchal families fighting for custody and control of a baby – except that “Baby” (David Mooney) is an infantilised 21-year-old manchild, still crying and crawling and crapping his outsized nappy as though he were an early toddler. The formidable Mrs Wadsworth (Ruth Roman) lives with her adult daughters Germaine (Marianna Hill) and Alba (Suzanne Zenor), and while Mrs Wadsworth’s son might have given the film its title, his lack of agency or even character makes him like all the men in this film, dominated as they are by the strong, self-willed women around them.
The Wadsworths are “a pretty strange family”, living off Baby’s disability cheques, deliberately restricting his development, cruelly discipling him when he shows any signs of improvement and even abusing him sexually. But they do not count on the determination of Ann, a social worker newly assigned to Baby who recognises that his condition is in part a product of neglect and negative reinforcement. Where Ann’s predecessors only checked in on Baby twice a year – or in one case disappeared without trace – Ann herself is constantly visiting, and getting closer to the boy.
Meanwhile at home, Ann mourns the loss of her architect husband Roger in an accident, and shares her grief with live-in mother-in-law Judith (Beatrice Manley Blau). As we learn more about Ann’s own peculiar domestic set-up, the social worker’s motives regarding Baby start seeming less than entirely professional – although just what they are will not become clear till the very end.
“Can you think of anything more horrible than being buried alive?” Ann asks a doctor (Tod Andrews). “Well that’s what’s happened to this client.” Suffocating home situations and live burials are key themes in The Baby, as all these women try to make the best of the cards that fate – and the men once in their lives – have dealt them. Ann and Mrs Wadsworth may spar over Baby, their class differences accentuating the gulf between them, but really they are very much alike in their ruthless capacity both to use and to discard others to their own ends.
Accordingly The Baby, though marketed as horror, plays out as a deranged women’s picture, its melodrama modulated to the rhythms of errant maternity. It’s impossible not to be interested.
The Baby is released by Arrow Video on High Definition Blu-ray in both 1.85:1 and 1.37:1 versions on 24 September.
David Cronenberg’s films often probe the porous qualities of identity. Whether through parasitism and infection, as in Shivers and Rabid, or through the collapsing boundaries surrounding the body, as in Scanners and Videodrome, the relationship between the physical and mental self have long been at the forefront of the director’s cinema.
Towards the late ’80s there was a shift in Cronenberg’s work where these connections were addressed in a far more grounded psychological way, a norm he has increasingly leaned towards ever since. This arguably came about in one of his most effective and intellectually rigorous films, 1988’s Dead Ringers, which saw Cronenberg move slowly away from pulp genres and towards something more purely psychosexual and even more in line with the erotic thriller.
The film follows identical twins Elliot and Beverly Mantel (Jeremy Irons), charting their rise from precocious undergraduates to the most sought after pair of private gynaecologists in Toronto. These siblings, however, are not identical in every way. Elliot is a suave, smooth-talking yuppie who enjoys the more facile and vacuous rewards for his work; Beverly is a shy and gentle recluse more interested in his own private research.
This split means that Beverly is also less successful with women, although the pair have developed a system in which they are able to switch roles so that the brothers can share some of his sexual conquests. When Beverly falls in love with Claire (Geneviève Bujold), a famous actress seeking treatment for her incurable infertility, the carefully meticulous life of the twins spirals out of control. The brothers slowly descend into a mixture of prescription drug addiction, bizarre misconceptions surrounding the body and identity crisis.
Cronenberg builds an interesting binary throughout between inside and outside of the body.
The same divide is eventually crossed in Scanners, with the inside no longer requiring an outer shell. This is thematically significant for Dead Ringers too, as the drama hinges on two identical bodies evolving from housing very different personalities to being eventually shackled with a shared psychic character too. For Beverly this is especially important as he is clearly envious of his brother’s confidence. But the binary is also important in the general makeup of the film’s visual style – the general aesthetic may be antiseptic due to its narrative but it is not merely a clichéd medicinal setting.
Cronenberg imagines the outside world in a wash of muted greys, be it the endless shutters blocking the light of the windows, the blank walls and suits or the horrific “mutant” gynaecological instruments that Beverley has made out of steel when in the depths of his breakdown. It is a new, dead world, the end point of several years of Reganism’s self-reliance. Cold, moneyed and isolated.
But this grey is almost always in contrast with a vibrant red which comes to express some notion of the bodily inside. Aside from the obvious, gory set-pieces, this is seen in everything from an occasional book to the vivid red surgical garments that are worn and even the film’s medieval-infused title sequence. By creating this binary, Cronenberg emphasises the problem that the twins face, that their game of identity swapping for shallow, sexual ends is joining them further together inside and out. It’s such a strong bond that they dream of being joined physically with only Claire left to (literally) bite through the fleshy bonds metastasised to them.
With this binary in place, the brothers naturally revert back to where they started at the beginning of the film as children. This is in part due to their growing addictions, a prominent theme that aids the subsequent breakdowns. But there’s also something more psychoanalytical at play, especially in the context of Jacques Lacan’s conception of the ‘Mirror Stage’. Lacan believed that an infant developed a sense of the self from when first seeing its reflection in a mirror. What was once just another abstract part of the whole environment, now becomes distanced from it in the journey towards some sense of self and identity.
There is, however, a growing disparity between the physical and psychic self as an attempt is made to fit our authentic, inner character into what we now perceive as our outer character. In the case of Dead Ringers, this attempt is made with something even less stable than a mirror’s reflection: another, singular human being. The results are deadly as the twins slowly share the instabilities within, failing to preserve the authentic self of either. It is only through Beverly’s psychotic operation upon the imagined bond with Elliot that finishes them both. Even in death, they are still ultimately joined with both personalities lost.
“I’ve often thought,” suggests Elliot, “that there should be beauty contests for inside the body.” It’s an unusual statement, with the character going on to list possible options for potential winning candidates and categories. But in the context of Cronenberg’s twisted horror, it makes absolute sense. If only the difference of the inside could have been seen from the outside, the games of character swapping wouldn’t have been necessary or even possible. Instead, there is a final sharing of everything, from addiction to downfall, where the inner and the outer become one and the pair of authentic selves is left with only one option: oblivion.
Richard Burton once claimed that Where Eagles Dare was conceived at the request of Elizabeth Taylor’s two sons, who wanted to see their stepfather in the sort of rollicking adventure film he would normally shun. It seems fitting, then, that Brian G Hutton’s World War Two actioner has earned notoriety as the quintessential “boys’ own adventure”. Or, less charitably, the ultimate “dad movie”.
Despite its uncool reputation, Where Eagles Dare still endures 50 years after its initial release – Steven Spielberg once named it as his all-time favourite war movie, while the code phrase “Broadsword calling Danny Boy”, as uttered by Richard Burton several times in the film, still surfaces in the unlikeliest of places, from Doctor Who to Rebekah Brooks’ trial during the News of the World hacking scandal. The simple explanation for this widespread affinity is that Where Eagles Dare is a far more subversive and important work than it is often given credit for. Drawing inspiration from the New Hollywood American filmmakers of the late 1960s, it employs a radical approach to violence, gender politics and history which was perfectly pitched for the counter-culture generation.
By 1968, action-adventure films in a similar mould to Where Eagles Dare had been popular for decades, arguably beginning with pulpy wartime propaganda pictures like John Farrow’s Commandos Strike at Dawn. Author and screenwriter Alistair MacClean was a prolific figure in the genre, and as such his script for Where Eagles Dare is an admittedly rote affair.
Ice-cold intelligence operative Major Smith (Burton) leads a team of slightly aged British agents and a token American, Lieutenant Schaffer (Clint Eastwood), into Bavaria to rescue a captured allied General from a mountaintop Nazi fortress. From there, the story becomes almost laughably convoluted as a procession of traitors and double agents are uncovered during the second act, followed by a full hour of non-stop action. On the page there isn’t much to distinguish Where Eagles Dare from its innumerable peers, but its execution if both thrilling and genuinely subversive.
The first action sequence occurs at the 59-minute mark, and it’s from this point that the film’s portrayal of violence begins to bend the expectations of the genre. Classic war adventures like The Guns of Navarone and the cynically sadistic The Dirty Dozen had been typically bloodless affairs; Nazis are riddled with bullets and blown to pieces without any obvious physical damage. In contrast, Where Eagles Dare takes its cue from the iconic violent finale to Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, where every bullet wound explodes gratuitously with blood.
The film’s callous approach to violence echoes the spaghetti westerns which catapulted Eastwood to stardom in the mid-’60s. As Lieutenant Schaffer, he dispatches regiments of Wehrmacht infantry with a clinical, super-human deftness, reminiscent of The Man With No Name dealing with bandits in the Wild West. Notably, the immensity of violence is at odds with Alistair MacClean’s original novel, in which the protagonists take care to avoid any loss of life, even to the extent of rescuing an unconscious Nazi from a burning building. Evidently, such clemency was not considered appealing to cinemagoers in 1968 – the film has a body count of over 100, with Eastwood himself killing more people than in any of his other films.
It’s not only the violence that reflects the era in which the film was made. The two female leads, played by Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt (herself a real-life Holocaust survivor) are both very much products of the late ’60s. They are written as quick-witted and independently minded agents, and at least as adept with a machine gun as Eastwood. Nevertheless, they repeatedly find themselves subject to uncomfortable ogles and leering remarks from their male co-stars, both heroes and villains. This conflict between strength and objectification is an embarrassing paradox, but commonly found in films of the era (1968 also saw the release of Jane Fonda sexploitation classic Barbarella).
These flourishes of ’60s counter-culture give Where Eagles Dare a subversive edge which helps to explain its lasting appeal and influence. When Eastwood turns his submachine gun on a horde of unsuspecting Nazis, it’s difficult not to cast your mind forward 40 years to the bloody climax of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Indeed, Where Eagles Dare even takes a similarly loose approach to historical authenticity, from Eastwood’s bouffant hairstyle to the inexplicable appearance of post-war Bell 47 helicopter. It’s a fantastical and stylised vision of World War Two which was quite radical for its time.
Where Eagles Dare serves as a bridge between two eras of American action cinema – the bloodless fun of The Guns of Narvarone and the unflinching brutality of Dirty Harry. With this in mind, it feels apt that the film brought together Hollywood veteran Richard Burton and relative newcomer Clint Eastwood. While Eastwood would soon become one of Hollywood’s hottest properties, Burton was never again to star in a major box office hit. Let’s hope his stepsons were happy.
E[.dropcap]li Roth has made his name making puerile films for adults – the sick Evil Dead riffing of his debut Cabin Fever, the touristic torture porn of Hostel and its sequel, the cannibalising of Italian anthropological schlock in The Green Inferno, the iffy remakes Knock Knock and Death Wish. With his latest, Roth reverses time, not just going back to the 1950s, but essaying adult genre for kids.
Adapted from John Bellairs’ 1973 novel by screenwriter Eric Kripke, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is both a comic coming-of-age fantasy and an effects-heavy, Harry Potter-fied version of horror, including a haunted house, graveyard necromancy, creepy dolls, monstrous topiary, an ancient demon, aggressive jack-o’-lanterns and even the use of axes and chainsaws. In other words, this may be a children’s film, but it is also, like Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad, Gil Kenan’s Monster House and Joe Dante’s The Hole, a gateway to harder stuff.
After his parents are killed in a car accident, 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) moves into the gothic old house of his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in New Zebedee, Michigan. Dressed in a kimono, playing the sax and permissive to a fault, Jonathan is a man out of step with his times – hip in a decade where almost everyone was a square. Likewise, his neighbour and best friend Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) is an eccentric – educated, independent, and sharing not just her free spirit but her surname with Bob Dylan (né Zimmerman).
Meanwhile, with his goggles, his disinterest in sport and his love of words, Lewis is ‘weird’ himself – a nerd of the kind ostracised in the ’50s, but entirely normalised in today’s Age of Geek. These three misfits, who have all lost their traditional families, form a new unconventional family together – and their outsider status is marked by their practice of magic, with Lewis playing sorcerer’s apprentice to Jonathon’s warlock and Florence’s witch.
If these three seem ahead of their times, their adversaries – the late owner of the house Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) and his wife Selena (Renée Elise Goldsberry) – want to turn the clocks back, using an infernal timepiece concealed within the house to reset the world to an era before there were any humans. Their wicked plot is a kind of retroactive abortion: an extreme measure to go back to the innocent, Edenic state when no bad things have happened yet, but which also involves the apocalyptic end of everyone.
Of course, Lewis and Florence too want to return to the loved ones that they have lost. But the film, though set in a carefully reconstructed mid-20th century and also featuring flashbacks to World War Two and earlier, places careful limits on its own nostalgic urges, and finds ways for Jonathan, Florence and Lewis in the end to “say goodbye” to their past and move on to construct a new shared future. Along the way, there are plenty of pooh jokes to remind us that childhood never quite vanishes – and Black and Blanchett make for magical sparring partners.
At times it is hard to distinguish whether a big flashy show that relies on mind-boggling story lines and sheer weirdness is mysterious and puzzling for the pure sake of being puzzling, or whether there really is a profound message beneath convoluted episodes and unsolved riddles. Our current age of TV fandom has bred a new generation of fanatics eager to chase answers to questions that may or may not have been posed, as it offers them a form of escapism from a society that can no longer be explained.
Based on the first three episodes of Cary Fukunaga’s latest Netflix venture, Maniac, it would have been easy to assume that it falls into the category of shows that gets lost in its own confusion. Once you push past the story’s set-up, however, Maniac opens its audience up to a multi-layered viewing experience that skips back and forth between genres – from pure sci-fi to drama to black comedy and fantasy – without losing track of what truly drives this manic storyline: its characters.
The show follows Annie (Emma Stone) and Owen (Jonah Hill), two strangers desperately trying to come to terms with past traumas that have left them both in vulnerable mental states. Initially, Fukunaga and writer Patrick Sommerville allow us to explore the perimeters of the protagonists’ respective headspaces, without overloading us with the information they are feverishly seeking. What’s up with the purple koala playing chess in a seemingly normal New York park? And did the peculiar, inexplicably cute dog-poop-eating machine accidentally eat the chihuahua Annie is searching for? Are Owen’s “popcorn problems” real or a figment of his imagination? So many questions. And they don’t all need answers.
Much like Warren Ellis did in his cult comic, ‘Transmetropolitan’, Fukunaga throws his audience into a world that is a culture shock in and of itself. Neon billboards advertising ambiguous companies make up the city’s skyline, robots in all shapes and sizes – and, perhaps, even koala form – house the consciousness of humans who no longer want to participate in this society, and a questionable pharmaceutical company seems stuck in the past, with its staff sporting hairstyles and fashion we haven’t seen since the early eighties. It is at this company, Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech, that Annie and Owen meet for the first time.
Annie and Owen have signed up for a three-day drug trial, the results of which are meant to permanently eradicate any form of mental illness and heartache experienced by the test subjects. The trial consists of three pills – A, B and C – that lead participants through three pivotal stages in a dreamlike state.
Owen, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, is convinced that Annie was sent to him by a brother he’s not sure exists and that, together, they are meant to uncover the pattern of the universe. Annie, on the other hand, has been using pill A to relive the experience of her sister’s traumatic death over and over again, addicted to the momentary illusion of being in her presence. Determined to take it to the next step, she manipulates a Neberdine receptionist through the “Buddy Service” – a modern day lonely hearts set up – to gain approval for the trial.
The trial is led by the neurotic Dr James Mantleray (Justin Theroux) and his chain-smoking assistant, Dr Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno). Having designed the massive computer that reads and analyses the data provided by the subjects’ brainwaves, and that is based on the consciousness of his own mother, renowned pop culture psychologist Dr Greta (Sally Field), he feels even more pressure for the trial to succeed. Unfortunately, the computer system now has its own emotional issues to work through and, given the nature of James’ complex relationship to Greta, the computer goes on revenge mode halfway through the final stages of the trial.
Exploring Black Mirror-esque realities and unique retro-futuristic visuals through the eyes of its main characters, Maniac manages to succeed where other shows fail miserably – finding the right balance between humour, drama and the absurdity of dreams. Stone and Hill shine in their roles, but the characters that ultimately set the tone of the series are Dr James Mantleray and Dr Fujita. Theroux, who thrives in mysterious settings such as those posed in HBO’s The Leftovers, brings his toupee-wearing, paraphiliac doctor with severe mommy issues to life with the type of crippling anxiety and man-child body language that is as unsettling as it is comical. Paired with Sonoya’s calm but equally eccentric Dr Fujita, they make for a nightmarish dream team, one we hope to see a lot more of in the future.
We’re big fans of Barry Jenkins’ hotly-anticipated third feature, based on James Baldwin’s 1974 book of the same name. Arriving two years after the American director scooped his first Oscar for the heartrending coming-of-ager Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk follows a black couple living in Harlem, New York, in the early ’70s.
At first glance, the story of Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) is an intimate portrait of a burgeoning romance – but this being a faithful Baldwin adaptation, Jenkins’ film is so much more than that. It’s about parental responsibility and devotion, hope, faith and community, and love persisting in the face of entrenched racial oppression.
The two central characters, brilliantly brought to life by Layne and James, symbolise the struggle of African-American people then and now, with Jenkins emphasising the systematic injustice which Baldwin so astutely critiqued throughout his career.
As such, Beale Street is another timely and urgent new work from one of the most powerful emerging voices in contemporary American cinema. Expect to hear a lot more from us on Beale Street in the not too distant future. Before then, check out the brand new trailer below ahead of the film’s theatrical release on 19 January 2019.
A glittering Tricolore hangs on the back wall of a grungy community hall where a professional dance ensemble are gathered for what is to be their final rehearsal. As a thumping house track blares out from a PA system, the dancers launch into an exhilarating five-minute routine, the camera capturing their every bump, grind and twist in a single, swirling take.
They break only for the party atmosphere to immediately be cranked up several notches. The camera keeps rolling, roving freely around the open-plan space to capture snippets of conversation by turns idle and intimate. The dancers laugh and chat and drink and dance some more. Then someone spikes the punch and the celebratory setting is suddenly transformed into a hedonistic hellscape.
Welcome to the latest Very Bad Trip from lovable rogue Gaspar Noé, director of such eye-watering works as Irréversible, Enter the Void and Love. Depicting humanity’s worst excesses is Noé’s forte, of course, and the controversy courting Argentine clearly relishes putting his cast of twerking twentysomethings through the wringer.
Among the performers in this Dantean disco are a bickering lesbian couple, a single mother and her young son, an overprotective brother with incestuous inclinations and a pair of adidas-clad bros who casually brag about having “dry” anal sex with the women in their company. And then there’s star-on-the-rise Sofia Boutella, who gives a performance that can only be described as fully committed.
It’s a pity Noé spends so much time choreographing the immersive long takes which make up the mercifully lean runtime (when the cuts aren’t neatly concealed they’re marked by frame-filling, pseudo philosophical title cards such as “Birth is a Unique Opportunity”) instead of fleshing out his characters. Watching the cast go completely nuts is a lot of fun, but ultimately it’s hard to actually care about the grisly fate that befalls them.
In 1927, a book designer named Paul Renner created a typeface that travelled in time and space, from humble German beginnings, through rocket-fuelled adventures and now to punctuating dance beats in Gaspar Noé’s latest film, Climax.
Caught between a taught religious upbringing and the birth of the Bauhaus, Renner’s faith in fonts lay between beauty and function. When he released his defining work in the early 20th century, it was a modernist triumph that printed the world in sharp lines and mesmeric circles. It was banned and then championed by the Nazis; it defined political races for both Nixon and JFK (in the same year); it sold you trainers from Nike; it changed the word ‘lemon’ forever when Volkswagen used it.
And it didn’t just traverse the galaxy by advertising 2001: A Space Odyssey – it actually went there, used by NASA on the Apollo 11 lunar plaque that still adorns the moon surface today. It drove graphic design work throughout the 20th century, and still remains the designer’s sharpest tool for typing the cutting edge. On release, the Bauer type foundry called it “the type of today and tomorrow”, 90 years later and it’s still both. Then, and now, it’s Futura.
Futura was to be a revolt against the condensed types of signmaking – economically designed fonts that were built for advertising – Renner’s was for the reader, who could unknowingly revel in its calming forwardness. Three years after Futura’s publication, Futura Extra Bold Condensed – a punchy, dense and narrower alternate – was released. In contrast to Renner’s original vision, it was a font that would become a tattoo of signage and advertisement, and the go-to type of arthouse provocateur Noé.
Any Wes Anderson film will tell you that the man loves Futura. In The Royal Tenenbaums, not only is it the film’s title card, but a bold variant of it is the font of the Tenenbaum’s entire universe. In Wes’ world, book covers, school buses and recovery rooms are all adorned with it. These erudite fantasias, perfectly symmetrical, harmoniously photographed and designed – they’re built to envelop you in a new world, but they are so extensively planned, every frame also reveals the craft behind its creation. Beauty and function.
Noé’s worlds however, are not so inviting. Although the craft on show may be as immaculately planned, they are not places one may have been yearning for an invitation to, but curiosity makes it tough to ignore the RSVP. Relentless, brash but so often technically astounding, from his first notes to the final script, a Noé film feels written in capital letters – and for him, fast reading, extra bold ones are best.
Futura Extra Bold Condensed might shout you down, but it doesn’t completely escape the curves and lines of its lineage – underneath the loud voice are tones of pioneering assurance. It’s that tone that led Extra Bold Condensed to its most recognisable champion, Nike. Celebrating its 30th year this year, the ‘Just Do It’ campaign emanates that message, to the point that any phrase in the font could be placed next to a swoosh logo and it will read ‘Just Do It’ without even having to say the words.
It’s this same feeling of power mixed with progression that suits Extra Bold Condensed to awareness movements and topics, from Stonewall’s ‘Get Over It’ campaign to the cover of Reni Eddo-Lodge ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’. It’s this stand-up-and-take-note feeling that no doubt attracts Noé to it. You’ll find it on posters for I Stand Alone, in the psychotropic type foundry titles of Enter the Void and you’ll also find it in Climax.
Set during a chaotic LSD spiked after-party for a dance troupe, Noé almost seems to acknowledge the commercialisation of his favourite type. Slogans like “A French Movie and Proud of It” and “Death is a Unique Opportunity” are punched across the screen, but combined with a corkscrewing camera, some hypnotic dancers and a house music soundtrack, intentionally or not – and with high style stakes and low narrative ones – they read more like slogans in search of a product.
In 1992, ‘Just Do It’ was four years old and Absolut Vodka had been spending just over a decade trying to break into America with its alternate pop-art takes to its Extra Bold Condensed bottle. Noé hadn’t completely hypnotised the arthouse world just yet – his first film, Carne, had only just been released – but some art directors in America knew that there was another high-profile user of their least favourite font on the horizon.
They’d had enough of this particular Futura variant, and released an advert calling for the boycott of Futura Extra Bold Condensed. They called for the destruction of “the Great Satan of cliches and the Little Satan of naked convenience”. In the 26 years since, though, Futura Extra Bold Condensed has proven that it’s not going anywhere – and whether Great or Little, Noé is probably happy being a Satan too.