Monday, May 11, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria

A French update on the metaphysics of 
acting, aging, female friendship, and time

     I’ve wanted to see Clouds of Sils Maria, directed by Olivier Assayas, because it stars Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz, three of the more intriguing actresses working in film today. It also sounds like a re-take on other films about actresses (All About Eve) and power-play
games in intimate female relationships (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant or Mulholland Drive).  It’s less over-the-top than Eve, lighter than Petra von Kant and clearer than Mulholland.  It’s easier to watch than write about because, as Neil said, “they made something complicated about something that was pretty simple.”

     To keep it simple, a French actress in her forties is offered the part of the older woman in a play that made her famous at eighteen as the younger woman.  A wild child American 
Chloë Grace Moretz
actress has been offered the younger part.  The French actress has a complex friendship with her American personal assistant, who encourages her to take and develop the older female part.  There are a number of interesting elements about the film that are taken on faith and not really explored and yet there’s no reason for this lack of insight:  supposedly, the actress became famous at eighteen, twenty years earlier, in this play, but it makes more sense for it to be thirty years earlier because of Binoche’s actual age; when we see the play at the end, it looks like some awful German work from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s that yaks on portentously about relationships, rather than showing them.  Neil saw Glenda Jackson in Great and Small (1983) by Botho Strauss and he’s made fun of it for years because he was pretty convinced no one in the audience knew what was going on.  He said that the set of the play within the movie looked a lot like the Jackson vehicle.  
     In the play, the two lead characters are lesbians, but the movie actress explicitly states that she and her assistant are not.  That relates to period:  nowadays, a movie can feature two women in a relationship that is not sexual; even a major writer of the ‘70s such as the fictional one in the movie or director Rainer Werner Fassbinder would have found that not compelling enough and so created the characters as lesbians.  There’s more than a hint of lesbianism in subtext of All About Eve and Mulholland Drive

     What has been talked about is the art reflecting life and vice versa nature of the movie. The American assistant and the French actress speak about the play they’re working on both as professionals, but also as highly intelligent readers.  Neil thought the assistant said she was an actress at the beginning of the movie.  I was hoping she wasn’t since she seemed like the character with the most common sense.  In some ways, she came across as a director.  There are a couple of instances when the women are rehearsing where they seem to go in and out of the play and back to the movie characters.  The younger American performer doesn’t strip for a outdoor bathing scene whereas the older French performer does so with abandon.  The most upsetting element is when a major character disappears about three quarters of the way into the movie and is never mentioned again.  However, it makes sense for the final stage performance to be able to be realized at the end.

Stewart and Binoche
     None of this would be possible without the unfussy yet vulnerable nature of Binoche’s acting style and the liquid, completely natural performance by Stewart.  Both were nominated for César Awards – Stewart was the first American actress to win one.  Moretz channels a number of young Hollywood starlets with promising talent that go wrong and are over-publicized in the media.  Many of the scenes between Binoche and Stewart feel as if they’ve been thought through, but not rehearsed so that they occur casually, while the emotional resonances ricochet later.  Everything is laid out in the first three minutes about what’s going on with the actress, but it’s only after the movie is over that a viewer may be able to piece together what may be going on with the assistant.  There are many suggestions both in the script and in Stewart’s performance, but nothing is underlined.  That’s a simultaneously frustrating yet masterful stroke.

    Like the geological phenomenon to which the title refers, the physical landscape both reflects and overpowers the intellectual and artistic posturing of the characters.  It’s also a slow-moving event that can then vanish in moments.  The movie feels like that as well.  It feels long, though it is always interesting.  The only downside was the dreary classical music that figures in a number of scenes.

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