There’s a hair-raising sight in Climax when a pregnant woman gets kicked in the belly and another when someone’s hair actually gets set on fire, but Sofia Boutella’s freak-out is a special effect all of its own. Less confrontational than some other Gaspar Noé films, in that it only lingers in the memory like a kick in the knee, Climax’s claustrophobia eats painfully away at the freedom of the dancers in the story, whose physical exuberance makes them seem as free as the wind. They’re not; the allegory of violence and prejudice and modern France that Noé’s cooking up won’t let them off the hook. If you buy into the film’s purpose then it’s a political dance film—much rarer than its cousin the political musical, but potentially more humane.
The camera prowls in long tracking shots around the studio where this group of dancers is enduring a collective bad acid trip, which requires some silent mummery on cue from cast members glimpsed in the background. But for the sequence following Boutella as she dances through her own LSD-driven mental meltdown in an infernal red gloom, you’re not going to be looking anywhere else. Like all dancers who act, Boutella can walk across the carpet in ways that make her co-stars look like their shoelaces have come untied—and do it under prosthetics—but her crack-up of screaming and tumbling and flailing and at one point doing the straddle splits face-first against a wall with her legs in perfectly opposite directions is a sudden leveraging of modern dance in the service of something like a horror film moment, two artistic bare wires touching. (Ever the wag, Noé begins the film with a prominently displayed VHS of Possession, the arthouse-horror where Isabelle Adjani does some fine flailing of her own.) Whether or not dancers really express psychedelic trauma through the medium of dance might be a question to ask them; but this one does, making it an act of character too. Climax is full of character, so much so that you can still detect it even while the film pummels you.
More lovely movers in Fighting with My Family, the loose biography of wrestler Saraya “Paige” Bevis which defies all known statistics by being a British comedy-drama and entertaining and leftist. Stephen Merchant has clearly now been in or around Hollywood long enough to absorb the local knack of being sincere and breezy at the same time; but the stuff that looks easy never is. Dexter Fletcher, lovely bloke in the same line of work, has been around the US scene longer and played several Americans, and when he made his UK working class sports comedy Eddie the Eagle it felt like he was holding the script upside-down. Merchant also lucked into Florence Pugh on the way to wherever her career is heading—when she appeared in The Falling I wrote Who’s That in the notebook and it was only four years ago—and the sight of her busking with Dwayne Johnson is a team-up so eccentric you wouldn’t even have written it on a whiteboard. The cameraman has to lie in a trench to get them both in the frame. But Pugh has a knack of her own, the one about appearing to be actively high on life.
The film has activism of another kind too, a quiet left-of-centre politics that buoys the film up like a kite. British cinema’s faith that working class stories should deploy council estate aggro and miserabilism has been a dead end for years, one side-effect of Lottery funding that should have been foreseen before it started. And Fighting with My Family has no truck with it. Quite apart from being droll, Paige has no intention of transcending her origins; her path through showbiz is to celebrate her own abilities and her family, who are pulled right along behind. Her talent is explicitly framed as a skill with a use in collective endeavour; when she forms a new collective among the other female wrestlers, it doesn’t supplant the original one bit, and they move forwards together. Working class life is deftly celebrated (allowing for the moment when Merchant and Julia Davis play more aspirational twits, but even they are allies); the family strife between Paige and her brother always floats over shared roots of history and blood that aren’t going anywhere. And this is wrestling, a sport in which the human body is both sold and revered, which Marx somehow wasn’t talking about in that phrase about the physical body being a commodity made up of material provided by nature and labour expended to create it. The film is progressive and feminist and funny, which is more than you can convincingly say about Captain Marvel.