Wednesday, April 8, 2015

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA: Olivier Assayas' great film about women, celebrity, aging, performance

One of the strengths of filmmaker Olivier Assayas (shown below) is how he manages to make his movies so often seem off-the-cuff, almost improvised, while at the same time bringing home their themes gently but fluently. His new movie CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA manages this particularly well, as did Summer Hours and Something in the Air.

Occasionally he'll come a cropper (remember Boarding Gate), when his themes never coalesce into believability, or with Clean, in which his command of the English language was not nearly up to the level it appears to have reached in his latest endeavor. He'll also surprise/shock us now and again with something memorably crazy like Demonlover, where themes (the evils of globalization) are hammered home rather bluntly but the movie is such bizarre, devilish fun that we don't care. In Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas is working at or near his zenith, and the result is bravura.

This writer/director has long shown a special affinity for women, their needs and desires, along with how they "operate." I'd say he's done this better than most male directors. He also, as might be expected, understands quite a bit about international movie-making, celebrity and (as he just this year turned 60) aging.  His new film juggles all these themes with such wit, dexterity and expositional slight-of-hand that you can only sit back and marvel at his splendid dialog, lovely visuals and the wonderful performances he gets from his three women stars -- and everyone else in this terrific movie.

The three women here would seem to represent the ages of the late teens, 20s and 40s -- with Juliette Binoche (two photos above, who has worked with the writer and director several times before), as Maria, the oldest of the three (Ms Binoche just turned 50 last year); Kristen Stewart (above, and now 25 years old) as Valentine, Maria's smart, unusually truth-telling personal assistant; and Chloë Grace Moretz (below, who is currently at the end of her teen years) as a young actress named Jo-Ann, who has just risen to the realm of superstardom.

I give the actual age of these three performers not to be dishy but because the line between art and life in this film seems intentionally unclear, sometimes transparently so. In a scene or two in which Maria and Val have line rehearsals for a play in which Maria will star, you may initially imagine the pair are simply talking about their own lives, rather than reading dialog, so attuned to art mimicking life is M. Assayas.

That play is a sequel to an earlier play -- which became a hit film, thereby sending Maria's star into orbit some decades back -- involving a young girl and the older woman who becomes her mentor and lover. Having won initial acclaim playing the young girl, now the actress is set to perform the role of the older woman. That the younger woman will be played by the hugely successful Jo-Ann simply adds to the repressed trauma that our aging actress must face.

The men who inhabit, somewhat cursorily, these women's lives are written in brief, smart strokes and portrayed very well by a number of fine actors (including Lars Eidinger, above, right, as the play's hotshot director; Hanns Zischler as an old and much-loathed co-star; Johnny Flynn, below, left, as Jo-Ann's current wunderkind writer boyfriend; and Brady Corbet, who has a marvellous little penultimate scene with Binoche involving, yes, age and acting. The film's first "event," in fact, has to do with a man, the playwright in question, who gave Maria her start. Yet the guys are all satellites; it's the women who command and control the film.

They do this by questioning, arguing, insisting, relenting -- then rethinking the whole thing. It's a brilliant conception on Assayas' part, and the execution is sterling. Ms Binoche is so real (and often not so nice), alternately appealing and wise and then annoying and foolish. Her Maria is struggling, and she makes us a party to that struggle. Ms Moretz, one of our most interesting young actresses, is delightful here: as poised and gracious in person as her character is lewd and insulting during her forays with the media. (The movie's various prattle about "the industry" and how it works is generally hilarious.) Moretz represents youth in all its passion and eagerness, as well as its indiscretions and selfishness -- and she nails this state of mind and action beautifully.

Most surprising of all, however, is Ms Stewart, who has given a number of good performances in her career, but nothing that matches this one. She is so alert and on-point throughout, so "unglamorous" and real, full of surprise and spiked intelligence that she all but steals the movie. You can understand why the French were so floored that they gave her their Best Supporting Actress award -- the first time in history that an American has won a César.

What M. Assayas has done, finally, is to give us a look at performing in its many incarnations -- in theater, film, rehearsal, and life (that's right: we do indeed perform for friends, family and even strangers). Yet how thoughtful and egalitarian is this filmmaker, as he allows his characters to stop, start again, grow and finally change. One of the prize scenes comes near the end, as Maria and Jo-Ann face each other down regarding how to play a certain scene. The result is a kind of blessed few moments that allow the pivotal character (and us) to more deeply relate and understand.

Oh, yes-- what about those titular clouds? They are said to exist at early morning hours as air masses move around the mountain range of Sils Maria -- the gorgeous area of Switzerland in which much of the film takes place -- creating a kind of billowy "snake." The trek to see this phenomenon that Maria and Val make leads to one of the movie's several climaxes. It's a wonder, as is most of this amazing, mysterious movie.

From Sundance Selects/IFC Films and running a just-about-perfect 124 minutes, Clouds of Sils Maria opens this Friday, April 10, in New York City at IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, with openings in the top national markets throughout April and early May 

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