Friday, June 13, 2014

Clouds of Sils Maria (in the presence of Olivier Assayas)

Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart
"At the peak of her international career, Maria Enders is asked to perform in a revival of the play that made her famous twenty years ago. But back then she played the role of Sigrid, an alluring young girl who disarms and eventually drives her boss Helena to suicide. Now she is being asked to step into the other role, that of the older Helena. She departs with her assistant to rehearse in Sils Maria; a remote region of the Alps. A young Hollywood starlet with a penchant for scandal is to take on the role of Sigrid, and Maria finds herself on the other side of the mirror, face to face with an ambiguously charming woman who is, in essence, an unsettling reflection of herself."
- Cannes Film Festival (2014)

Sils Maria [French title]. DE/FR/CH 2014
Directed by     Olivier Assayas
Produced by     Karl Baumgartner
Charles Gillibert
Thanassis Karathanos
Jean-Louis Porchet
Gérard Ruey
Written by     Olivier Assayas
Starring     Juliette Binoche
Kristen Stewart
Chloë Grace Moretz
Cinematography     Yorick Le Saux
Editing by     Marion Monnier
Studio     CG Cinéma
Release dates: May 23, 2014 (Cannes)
20 août 2014 (sortie nationale)
Running time     123 minutes
Country     Germany
Language     English
C:  Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders
    Kristen Stewart as Valentine
    Chloë Grace Moretz as Jo-Ann Ellis
    Johnny Flynn as Christopher Giles
    Lars Eidinger as Klaus Diesterweg
    Hanns Zischler as Henryk Wald
    Brady Corbet as Piers Roaldson
    Aljoscha Stadelmann as Urs Kobler
    Luise Berndt as Nelly
    Angela Winkler as Rosa Melchior
    Gilles Tschudi as Mayor of Zurich
    Claire Tran as Mei-Ling
    Frank M. Ahearn as Oz
    Jakob Kohn as Jo-Ann's manager
(credits from Wikipedia)
    The film within the film: Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja (Arnold Fanck, c.m., DE 1924). - Theme tune: Pachelbel's (1653-1706) Kanon in D-Dur.
    2K DCP from CG Cinéma, original in English, in the presence of Olivier Assayas, viewed at Cinema Lapinsuu, Sodankylä, Midnight Sun Film Festival, 13 June 2014

The first international screening after Cannes of the latest film by Olivier Assayas.

Assayas belongs to the directors whose oeuvre makes sense as a whole, the films being stages of a continuous evolution, in a story of constant growth, alternating genre films and unclassifiable ones, big films and small, French films and international productions, always spreading his wings to unexplored territory or returning to familiar territory with deeper insight and a wider perspective.

In the last four films I have sensed a special growth to a new level in Assayas's films. They are more assured, more dense, more resonant. The early films one can appreciate for their raw energy, fresh observations and poetic vitality. The recent films are more complex, their context is larger, the sense of society is fuller.

Clouds of Sils Maria has a more reduced character than Assayas's three previous films. It is mostly a tale of two women, although not in quite such a stark manner as in Ingmar Bergman's Persona. The central action is about the famous actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) rehearsing a major play together with her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart). The dialogue of the characters in the play within the play reflects constantly on Maria and Valentine, themselves.

Where Bergman took his two women to the rugged isle of Fårö, Assayas sets the main action to Sils Maria on the Swiss Alps.

A story of alienation, Clouds of Sils Maria also brings to mind Antonioni's L'avventura set on the volcanic Aeolian Islands, and Rossellini's Stromboli and Viaggio in Italia (Pompeii). One of the early masters of soulscape was Victor Sjöström. The mountain film Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru is part of this year's Midnight Sun Film Festival, as well as Viaggio in Italia.

The characters of this movie are strangers to themselves. They remain distant for us. They are in constant communication online with their cell phones and laptops. But their mutual face-to-face communication remains superficial.

Maria Enders realizes that she is the mature woman now, almost 50-something, belonging to the grandmother generation already. The contemporary 20-something women keep puzzling her. Actually she would like to quit the production but she is all tied up. Perhaps the next act after the end of this film could be like the first act of Persona.

More remarks:
    There is a play within the play, and a film within the film: Arnold Fanck's Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja (1924), an expression, together with the Alps themselves, of the sublime of nature. The film-within-the-film is a purely visual document of the unique "cloud snake" emerging in the Maloja pass.
    The nature is sublime, and the concerns of the characters seem trivial. This was always one of the senses of the mountain film. On the other hand, the grandeur of the mountains was a reflection of the heights of passion / devotion / spiritual endeavour. But here there is a sense of loss, nostalgia, and regret, as the grand master playwright-director is dead. There is a sense of emptiness.
    The main musical theme, Pachelbel's Kanon, also reinforces the dimension of the sublime, missing from the interpersonal story.
    The contemporary film scene is expressed in a delicious parody of lowbrow science fiction in 3D featuring the latest tabloid star Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz). "I could feel my brain cells vanishing", comments Maria.
    But surprisingly the real Jo-Ann - who is taking over the part which used to be Maria's breakthrough role -  proves to be an intelligent, talented and courteous person, as is her boyfriend. Maria is even more puzzled now, and she remarks to Valentine that Jo-Ann is "a lot more interesting than the person you described".
    When the mysterious cloud snake emerges, neither Valentine nor Maria are there to witness it. Valentine has disappeared on the Alps (qf. L'avventura, L'eclisse), never to be seen again by Maria.

It is admirable for Kristen Stewart, the most highly paid actress during the Twilight saga, to spread her wings in a distinguished film like this. Perhaps Assayas cast her in part due to her vampire image, her ability to project a cool and callous persona. In Bergman's Persona, the star was the one with a hard surface, and there was a vampiric suction from her to the sensitive aide. Here the star is the more sensitive person (especially vulnerable now, recovering from divorce, the sudden death of the playwright, and from the fact that she is playing the tragic victim in the play in which she had debuted as the predator), and the young women are the tough ones.

Shot on 35 mm film as Assayas always insists to do, the film has gone through the digital intermediate, with predictable results to the sense of the sublime of the nature.

After the screening Olivier Assayas told us that he had always wanted to do a film starring Juliette Binoche. In The Summer Hours Binoche got to play an important part, but Sils Maria is her first leading role in an Assayas film. Their collaboration goes back to Rendez-vous by André Téchiné. Its screenplay was Assayas's breakthrough, and the female lead was Binoche's big break. There are relevant connections between Rendez-vous and Sils Maria, both being films about demon directors and actors reflecting their own identities in the roles they play.

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