Review: Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

Director: Olivier Assayas

*****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Binoche. Stewart. Moretz. The posters for Clouds of Sils Maria blare these names. They seem unlikely bedfellows, but that’s exactly the point. Why shouldn’t Chloe Grace Moretz get to star alongside Juliette Binoche? So much baggage gets in the way. Moretz makes Kick-Ass 2 and Carrie, and Binoche worked with Kieslowski, Kiarostami and Haneke. We know this, and director Olivier Assayas knows we know this. There’s a lot of knowing here; the film is so arch it’s a wonder it doesn’t sprain an eyebrow. Films about filmmaking are summarily dismissed as self-important at best, masturbatory at worst (The same accusers tend to forget about Singin’ In The Rain, which almost single-handedly dismisses their arguments, but we digress). Clouds of Sils Maria is treading on familiar ground, but Assayas isn’t being flippant. We’ve seen the kind of work these women can do, so Assayas brings them together to compare and contrast.

Binoche plays Maria Enders, a 40-something actress being courted to star in a stage production of a play entitled Maloja Snake. She’s been asked to play the role of a businesswoman losing control because of her desire for a young manipulative intern. The intern role made Maria’s career two decades before, so the novelty of her playing the older role peaks interest, like the three names juxtaposed on the film poster. With Moretz’s rehab-ed ingenue Jo-Ann taking the intern role, the opportunities for conflict are set in place. We first meet Enders on a train to Switzerland, where she and her accompanying assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) are travelling to accept an award on behalf of Wilhelm Melchior, Maria’s mentor and writer of Maloja Snake. As Maria resolves to avoid projects with prolonged bouts of greenscreen work, and the pair bemoan the rumour mill (“I thought we agreed we hated the Internet.”), Assayas’ film never stops winking at its audience. Sharing with screen with Binoche, one of the greats of her generation, is perennial punchline Kristen Stewart. The girl is aiming high; she needs to if she’s going to escape her typecast rut. People forget that Twilight was a laughable phenomenon before being adapted for the screen, so her soppy Bella can’t be blamed on the actress alone. Clouds Of Sils Maria is proof that she can act; Valentine’s practicality is a stark contrast to Maria’s’ intensity and Jo-Ann’s aloofness, and it requires Stewart to walk a line between human anchor and ethereal guide. Is she conscious, or merely a conscience? There’s an ambiguity to Valentine’s role in Assayas’ script that may frustrate some viewers, with a second act turn-about that will divide opinion, but Stewart’s turn keeps us on side regardless.

Despite being shot in English, the film has been made far away from Hollywood influence. Glamour is in steady supply from co-financiers Chanel, but initial style segues into earthier domesticity as Maria and Valentine retreat to the Sils Maria in the Alps to rehearse Maloja Snake, as well as to watch the cloud formation from which the play gets its name. As rehearsals go on, tensions come to the fore. Valentine proves both a capable foil and companion to Maria, with hints of jealousy, desire and cabin fever creeping in. Thematic comparisons will be readily drawn to All About Eve or Mulholland Drive, but they do Sils Maria no favours. It’s too rich and warmly made to be readily lumped in with any one film. Besides, neither Valentine nor Jo-Ann are a threat to Maria; her issues stem from her own passing years. The perils for actresses over 40 slipping through the cracks were recently covered in The Congress (with only a modicum of success), but this film grasps a nettle with little to cloud the message. Nominally, the film is a golden ticket to the likes of Stewart and Moretz. The latter is another young actress suffering from over-exposure, albeit with plenty proof she can deliver. She pastiches her own image in a role which overrides her inherent squeaky-cleanliness, veering between harassed and hellcat. That said, the heart of the film is Binoche, who delivers another typically marvellous performance, by turns elegant, brittle and oddly pathetic. Her screams are piercing, her laughs infectious. The fact that 51-year-old Binoche is playing a role written for a 40-year-old suggests a hopefulness on Assayas’ part. Is 51 the new 40 for actresses? Is it getting easier for actresses for maintain their careers as the years go on? We can hope so. In any case, Clouds of Sils Maria is the most wonderfully self-reflexive piece of filmmaking in recent memory. Assayas’ typically bold and intelligent picture covers a lot of prevalent themes and manages to express them vividly. The message might be obvious, but we can’t really complain when Assayas hits his target right on the nose.

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Review: Girlhood (Bande de filles) (2014)

Director: Céline Sciamma

****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

The teenage protagonists of Girlhood are full of energy, have plenty to say and are constantly forced to lash out against the complacency surrounding them. The same can be said of Céline Sciamma’s film, a supremely confident take on well-covered ground. But where Boyhood gave us brief glimpses into an ever-evolving life, Girlhood puts us at the heart of teenage turmoil, exacerbated by social divides and vicious circles. Linklater aimed for art; Sciamma aims for truth.

Putting the ‘girl’ in Girlhood is Marieme (Karidja Touré), a young inhabitant of one of Paris’ less well-off banlieues. Marieme is a shy wallflower, hemmed in by a life of few prospects and a domineering brother (Cyril Mendy). It must be noted that Sciamma’s film is not particularly interested in the social issues that surround Marieme. It shows the tough, deprived neighbourhood she inhabits and the realities of life therein, but this is not a message movie. That said, its setting and focus on a young black woman seeking her place in a less-than-welcoming world sets its apart from most other coming-of-age teen movies. Marieme is confronted by less-than-peachy reality constantly. Her little-seen mother works a menial job as a hotel cleaner, and the school programmes she embarks on offer her little prospects beyond a similar career path. Sciamma offers a new view on what are constant struggles for many people. A film doesn’t need the grit of La Haine to show that la vie in the outskirts of Paris is far from en rose. It’s a necessary acknowledgement of reality in the most romanticised city in the world; Amélie Poulain lives on another planet.

The dispiriting realities of her daily life drive Marieme to a group of classmates more outgoing than she. Lady (Assa Sylla), Fily (Marietou Touré) and Adiatou (Lindsay Karamou) seem to be possessed of a confidence Marieme can only hope for. They accept her into the group, and thus begins a transition. With newly-straightened hair, leather jacket and burgeoning attitude, the quiet, reserved Marieme becomes the newly-monikered ‘Vic’. She and her new-found group hassle other groups of girls, loiter, shoplift and share girlish laughs. Most importantly they watch out for each other. Sciamma frames a potentially-clichéd set of relationships within a social framework that makes their friendship necessary. Vic has little reason to speak or smile before meeting this group, and for all their underhand behaviour, they bring out the best in Vic. All concerned deliver fine performances, but Touré is a revelation in the lead role. Her Marieme keeps her head down and demeanour hesitant until the group are together, when their free-spiritedness finally allows her to display a radiant smile. One of the most joyous scenes in any film this year sees our central quartet dance and mime to RIhanna’s ‘Diamonds’. It’s just them in a hotel, dressed to the (stolen) nines and away from the milieu that made them the tough cookies they are. Their joy escalates to the point that miming turns to full-blown singing, without a care who hears. Their attitudes suggest malice aforethought, but their laughter speaks of simple joys; camaraderie, dependence, fraternity. They’re teenagers acting their age, and their portrayal here is crucially sympathetic. Too many films forget that being a teenager is fraught with emotions and peril; its characters may sometimes be shrill, but Girlhood never is.

Sciamma’s refusal to make Girlhood an issue film allows the universal truths of friendship and womanhood to shine through.  As with her previous efforts, Water Lilies and Tomboy, Sciamma presents determined young minds trying to overcome the expectations laid down for them. . As time goes on, Sciamma’s confidence in the characters slips a little, and some Loach-ian realist tendencies begin to bleed in as Vic’s story outgrows the group. By the time this happens, however, the character of Marieme/Vic has been etched in the mind. Girlhood is a character piece first and foremost, and not the overarching portrait of time suggested by the title (The original French title, Bande de Filles (Gang of Girls), is at least a little closer to the immediate narrative). Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not a film about relatable experiences. Despite the harsh environs, the immediate concerns of female companionship and empowerment shine through, much like Marieme’s smile. Out of a concrete jungle grows a flower determined to bloom.

Review: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting On Existence (2014)

Director: Roy Andersson

****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Even if a new Roy Andersson film wasn’t catnip to a film critic, a title like A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence is determined to call attention to itself. But calling attention to themselves isn’t something Andersson’s films actively do. APSOABROE can’t help it; having won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival is bound to up your visibility. That said, the film is very much of a piece with its trilogy precedents, Songs From The Second Floor and You, The Living. Anyone expecting (or hoping for) a change from the Swedish director had better turn back. Andersson’s up to his old tricks, whether you like it or not.

The film opens in a natural history museum, with a typically-beleaguered Andersson-ian onlooker gawping at a stuffed pigeon. Yep, good old-fashioned self-reflexivity and introspection are firmly bolted in place. After the title card come three mini-vignettes depicting various experiences with death. Even more than his previous two films, Andersson’s latest boasts a Bergman-esque fascination with death. The grey walls feel ever greyer; the deep focus shots seem deeper. Characters are pulled this way and that by forces they cannot seem to control. A participant in a dance class is repeatedly groped by his randy dance teacher, and all he can do is push her away, only for her to try it again. Each time he stops her we think we’re done, but back she comes, and with her a wave of laughter. Despite the insistent misery heaped on so many of its characters, a repeated punchline is the cheery sign-off, “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.” Andersson’s bitter irony brings an R.E.M. song about Armaggeddon to mind (i.e. no bad thing).

Andersson’s grey worlds are populated by grey souls, perhaps not people but something approximate. His caricatures are once again put through the emotional wringer in one vignette after another. Carrying us through these travails are Jonathan (Holger Andersson) and Sam (Nils Westblom), a pair of travelling salesmen hawking novelty gags like masks and vampire teeth, albeit without much success. For comedies, Andersson’s films succeed primarily in showing the inherent sadness in the human condition. They’re giddy, elevated burlesque pieces, but the futility at the heart of these character’s exploits is universally recognisable. The dance teacher can’t seduce her pupil, Jonathan and Sam can’t make a sale and everyone else is doing fine, until they’re not. Every line and droopy gesture is borne with clarity; Andersson is nothing if not deliberate. Each vignette can take up to a month to shoot, such is his precision. As technical exercises, this trilogy’s dearth and daring merit great admiration.

Of the trilogy, APSOABROE is the most ambitious, with Andersson blending settings and timespans within sketches. A modern pub suddenly finds itself playing host to a Napoleonic army, whilst a waitress recalls her WWII days spent taking payment for beer in aggressive kisses. It’s all very odd, but is it funny? Well, to a point. Much of Andersson’s humour is best filed under ‘WTF.’ He effortlessly merges the banal and the barmy, and the effect can’t but cause a reaction, mostly involving the three letters just mentioned. However, as time goes on, and certain gags and characters raise their heads again, repetition begins to set in, and the joke isn’t going to be as funny the second time around. Perhaps Andersson knows this, and thus decides to throw in some real curveballs. Scenes involving a laboratory monkey and African slaves flirt with controversy. But then we revisit an old gag that one might have assumed was put to bed. The pub-invading soldiers were preparing for battle, so now we have to see them return from the front bloodied, limping and occasionally dead. It gets to a stage where the necessity of it all comes into question. We’ve had the laugh, and we get the subtext (provided there’s a subtext to be got), just leave well enough alone!

APSOABROE is less than ten minutes longer than the previous installments in Andersson’s trilogy, but it feels more drawn out. This feeling is mercifully balanced by a concurrent increase in scope, and some uproarious scenes that can only be described as Andersson-ian. If the laughter were being undermined by that makeup-caked sadness that defines the Swede’s work, it’d be a different story, if not a different film. This is simply a case of a writer-director not knowing when to say when. But it’s good to hear he’s doing fine.