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An unlikely pair in a meta-drama

The Windsor Film Festival began yesterday on the other side of the river from Detroit. I was pleased to be in the audience for one of the first films screened, and hope to go back to see at least 1 – 2 more before the festival concludes a week from today.

Clouds of Sils Maria introduces us to Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), an aging French actress who is invited to perform in a revival of a play she became well – known for earlier in her career. This time, Maria is slotted in to the older woman role, with a younger ingenue (Chloe Grace Moretz) taking over her lead performance. Many complications come with Maria’s agreement to perform the part: the playwright has recently died, she has to confront the memories of her previous work and the actors associated with it, and she has to re-learn the script, from a different character’s point of view, with the help of her loyal younger assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart).

I just outlined the plot, but the plot really isn’t the point of this film. It’s structured into a three act motif, with title cards delineating each section.

The film’s first third could be seen as unnecessary in retrospect, but captivates the viewer with an emphasis on dark, moody European location photography and characters moving in and out of the crowded frame. The initial sequence of Binoche and Stewart traveling on a (presumably real) European train is a masterclass on how to film in a constrained environment. Director Olivier Assayas and associates put us right there in the tight confines of the train, moving in and out of tunnels and heightening the tension as Stewart’s managerial efforts are laid out.

At least two-thirds of the film (the middle section) zeroes in on just Binoche and Stewart, residing at a remote Swiss mountain house, learning the lines for the play but also blurring the lines between reality and fantasy and the actresses’ individual careers. In a manner similar to Binoche’s earlier film Certified Copy, the film begins to surprise and delight as the viewer doesn’t know what’s “real” and what is not for the characters, or where they are going with the story.

The two actresses rise to the challenge of working together and carrying the film almost completely on their shoulders. Binoche, accustomed to the lead role both in fiction and real life, commands with an increasingly dislocated sense of reality and heightened awareness of the passage of time for someone in the acting industry. The French actress performs primarily in English for the part, but is allowed a few scenes in French with a markedly different vocal pacing and physicality.

The film deserves to be seen as a return to form or start of a new chapter for Stewart. Shedding the notorious vapidity of her Twilight role, the actress instantly commits to a serious yet relatable and believable character. In her increasing power play with Binoche over the course of the film, Stewart holds her own with integrity and surprising grace. Recalling (her personal mentor) Jodie Foster at points with her character’s level of commitment and natural relatability, Stewart is the soul of the film.

Moretz is talked about throughout the movie and finally appears late in the game. The much-in-demand actress channels some of her more TMZ-focused contemporaries in her role. Her few scenes are conveyed with unexpected ease, showing wide potential for more dramatic roles in her future.

This is easily one of the most unique films I have seen this year. Director Assayas embraces his actresses but loses focus towards the end of the film, with several overly ponderous nods to the titular clouds and a starkness that doesn’t register. The changes don’t diminish the film’s broad effect, though.

IMDB says the film isn’t slated to hit US screens until next March. Needless to say, it’s definitely worth a look. The trailer is embedded at the end of this post.

(For another and more in – depth take on Stewart’s current career, check out this piece.)

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European Film Expeditions

This week I have caught up on some recently released and filmed in Europe films, making me stoked to go back to The Continent during spring break next March.

Two FacesFirst up was the new thriller The Two Faces of January, adapted from Patricia Highsmith and from the writer of Drive. Hossein Amini retained his costar in the earlier film, Oscar Isaac, and added Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst into the mix as a central trio caught up in a deceitful web within 1962 Greece. All three actors find several elements to highlight of their roles, with Mortensen nailing the disheveled intrigue of a shady businessman, longtime cinema veteran Dunst offering a mature portrayal of a young woman caught between several worlds, and Isaac continuing to come up the ladder, cinematically, filling in the role of a man who has his hands in several parts of Athens life.

The actors are aided by carefully chosen photography and film work, emphasizing the colorful contrasts of Greece, and a reminder of an era when locations felt more far away (presumably) than they do in the present day, with real effort needed to get a specific plane ticket, to make your next travel connection, or make sure you still have everything you need for your out of the country identification and security.

The film might suffer from what I assume is a flimsy source material. Highsmith’s interest in shady characters, same-gender relationships and European locales is all there, but at a 90 minute running time, there isn’t much depth aside from the inciting event and what happens after that experience. A more seasoned director might have gotten deeper performances from the leads, though Amini’s experience with narrative tension comes in well late in the film with a series of “will they or won’t they succeed in _______ activity” sequences.

The second film of the week, My Old Lady, is a cinematic interpretation of a play originally seen at my “other” hometown theatre, Gloucester Stage Company, in 1996 and 2005. (I remember hearing of both productions but did not see either of them performed.) The film also marks the belated cinema directorial debut of Israel Horovitz, former artistic director of GSC and well – known in the theatre world. Throughout the film, its stage origins are clear, with some positive and some negative results.

my old ladyThe film also seems to be an excuse for its central trio – Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas – to flex their acting muscles in a new project. Scott Thomas has been seen onscreen before with both Kline and Smith, but not in the same film. IMDB says her role was originally scheduled to be played by Jane Birkin, which might have made more sense in the story.

As it is, the start of the film introduces Matthias (Kline), a down on his luck New Yorker who has recently traveled to Paris to inspect an apartment his recently deceased father has left him. He quickly learns that the apartment has been inhabited for many years by Mathilde (Smith), a woman now in her 90’s, and her daughter (Scott Thomas), neither of whom is receptive to his intention to sell the house for income purposes. The focus alternates between the three central characters as Matthias debates whether or not he wants to go through with the sale, while through a series of circumstances, Mathilde reveals that she knows more than she lets on about her family history and how the two younger people are connected to her and each other.

The script’s stage origins are clearly visible throughout the film, with several long monologues still in place and a few scenes clearly added to “open up” the plot and take advantage of the perennially picturesque Parisian locations. Most of the story settles in the central location of the Marais apartment, which seems to be quite large and endless, complete with an attached garden.

Kline seems to be enjoying the demands of the part, showing awkward alcohol – induced stodginess in several scenes, but then following it up with hints of long emotional neglect. Smith also goes beyond her current Downton Abbey stereotype of twinkling eyes and cutting comments, not hesitating to be forceful in several scenes while also showing genuine heart. Scott Thomas falls somewhere in between with a difficult part that seems to be in the middle of the two-character seesaw solely for reaction – based purposes. I can’t say that the film fully convinced me as a drama, but if its taken as an acting class from veterans and perhaps isolated out with just a few of the character monologues and moments, then the best parts come to light.

It was cool to see the full Art Deco experience of the Main Art Theater in action last night.

Main Art