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Review: Michael Covino’s 'The Climb

By Caspar Salmon | Film | May 20, 2019 |

By Caspar Salmon | Film | May 20, 2019 |


How much you appreciate Michael Covino’s The Climb, if you are (as is to be hoped) a bleeding-heart liberal person, may depend on whether you believe it’s a deceptive satire of male toxicity or unwittingly replicates that very toxicity. For this reviewer, The Climb’s story of the friendship between two men as one of them is on the verge of marrying his girlfriend, betrays distractingly dismissive views towards its central female character, and the men are viewed with an insufficiently critical eye.

The film begins as Mike (Covino), who has been asked by Kyle (Kyle Marvin, on co-writing duties) to be the best man at his forthcoming wedding, reveals to his friend that he has been sleeping with his fiancee. In a startling opening scene filmed in a single take as the friends cycle up a mountain in France together, the pair argue about this revelation, which the movie treats in a surprisingly upbeat, comical mode. Kyle becomes breathless trying to catch up with his treacherous best friend, and the scene ends with Mike getting beaten up by an irate French driver. The movie is already pleasantly vinegary at this stage, and establishes the bonds between these two men with ease, conveying well the camaraderie and honesty in the friendship, as well as the vein of poison in their relationship. With fairly shocking swiftness, Mike is soon shown declaring his love to Ava (Judith Godreche), whom he marries instead, prompting a cooling off between the two men, which endures even after Ava has died. (These aren’t spoilers, since the funeral takes place in scene 3)

The bulk of the film, then, takes place as Kyle finds himself engaged once more, to Marissa, and the central question of the movie becomes whether Kyle will be so twisted — or so noble — as to try to break up this apparently foolish union as well. Marissa (played with terrific vigour and resourcefulness by Gayle Rankin, making the most of a contradictory role) is seen by Mike and Kyle’s family as domineering and shrewish, and the film consciously leaves open the question of whether or not she is a good match for Kyle. The writing is patchy here: you get the sense that Covino and Marvin are trying to write Marissa as ambiguous, a potentially likable girl who is misunderstood, but they don’t have the means to conceive her in two ways. This means that she merely passes for a bossy, difficult woman who gets two fun scenes. Contrast this with the film’s more nuanced portrait of Mike, who is afforded opportunities to show vulnerability and given monologues to express his feelings, even though he keeps fucking up: this shows you that the film is more forgiving of his errors, and ultimately sides with the complicated but soothing bonds of male friendship over the more demanding ties of heterosexual relations.

These questions are a pity, because Covino has directorial ideas galore, presumably drawn from a life of watching French movies: the film owes a debt to French cinema, which is referenced on multiple occasions, and which gives the film a tart and inventive format. The movie is divided into chapters, and permanently takes risks, such as throwing in live music (the undertakers perform an a cappella rendition of “We Shall Not Be Moved”) or jumping into the screen at a cinema. Extended long takes that go backwards and forwards, switching perspective from one character to another, give a measure of Covino’s daring. In one scene, the seasons change from summer to winter during one shot, in which Mike is also seen to down half a bottle of whisky: there’s something exhilarating about the show on display here, and the enjoyment that Covino and his pals take in telling this story. At the same time, there may be just a little too much fizz here, and it would perhaps not harm this narrative to tone down some of the pyrotechnics.

Covino displays tremendous promise with this first film, which sits like an oddity in the landscape of current American cinema, and this flawed movie is a worthy calling card for a clearly searching mind.

The Climb premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival in Un Certain Regard. I

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