Clouds Of Sils Maria

clouds of sils maria

dir. Olivier Assayas.

Assay’s latest, his fifteenth feature, would appear on the surface to be in the vein of the well shot, comfortable and assured work he has produced since leaving behind the “b-movie trash” of the new french extremes of “Boarding Gate” and “Demonlover” with his 2009 tale of middle class Parisians dealing with their mother’s death.  Continuing with “Carlos” and “Apres Mai” the former Cahiers du Cinema critic appeared to be taking a semi-nostalgic view of French life and recent history – specifically the decade that followed the tumult of 1968 and the revolution that almost happened in the summer of that year.  The notion of nostalgia is taken up in this film, embodied in the form of iconic actor Maria Enders, played by iconic actor Juliette Binoche, who is asked to return to “Maloja Snake”, the play that launched her career.  Maria was on her way to Zurich to collect an award on behalf of the play’s author Melchior, when she learns that he has died suddenly – suicide as his widow confides.  While dealing with this shock, she is approached by a popular young theatre director who wants to put on the play once more.

The play concerns the stormy love affair between 18 year old Sigrid and middle-aged Helena, who is eventually driven to suicide.  Previously Maria played Sigrid,  only this time she would play the older woman to the ingenue that she portrayed in her youth.  Sigrid, then, would be played by a young American actress (played by Chloë Grace Moritz) who seems to be a stand in for a Lindsay Lohan-esque character, a shimmering spiral of drink and parties and celebrity website gossip.  Alongside Binoche’s Maria throughout the film is her PA Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame.  Valentine is the first person we see on screen, juggling Maria’s life on two mobiles while the camera juggles with the train bouncing along the tracks.  Maria is never away from Valentine (barring one brief scene), and it is between these two that the majority of the film’s scenes take place.  Persuaded to take up the role of Helena, Maria is offered the use of Melchior’s villa in the eponymous region of Sils Maria in the Swiss Alps by his widow, to prepare.

Here the drama engages in the central conceit of duality and the meta-narrative of a play within a play (or in this case, film).  Valentine reads for Sigrid as Maria rehearses her part as Helena – Binoche trimming her hair to a lesbian-chic close crop for the part.  The dynamism and chemistry in these scenes are riveting, not just from the (melo-)drama of the play’s dialogue, but the clear on screen chemistry between the two.  Perhaps as might be expected from such a scenario, the question of wether the lines are coming from, and referring to, the characters they are playing in the play or in the film becomes an intriguing riddle.  Further, we as an audience cannot escape the on screen spectacle of arguably the pre-eminent actress of her time turned 50, opposite a young star recognisable to all of her generation.  That these two spar over dialogue that demonstrates the generational difference between both characters and actors brings out a tension that sparkles more than any tweenage vampire could.  There are some fantastic moments, particularly after they go to see the latest (3D) sci-fi superhero spectacular starring the 18 year old star that will take the role of Sigrid this time.  Over beers afterwards, Stewart’s Valentine tries to argue that there is depth in the, mainly ludicrous, spandex clad tale of evil enemies and space-spanning love.  Valentine is genuine and heartfelt, while Maria can only erupt into fits of laughter and spits of beer.

It is not without cause that I mentioned “Persona” earlier, as Bergman’s film of complex personal psychology bears some relation to this.  In both an actor’s sense of self and identity is questioned, a period of isolation accompanied only by another woman who balances between servitude and adoration.  In Persona, the dissolution of one personality into the other becomes the subject of the psychological crisis; in Assayas’s film it is Maria’s self that wavers around the characters of Sigrid, her own past, and Helena.

MAJOR SPOILER: And one instance toward the end of the film throws into question all that we have seen before.  While on one of their hikes through the Alps that their fiery relationship and repartee seems to turn into a genuine argument.  They are looking for the actual Maloja Snake – a weather phenomenon where a river of cloud, like a snake, pours down a valley into the lake; like Rohmer’s “Rayon Vert” this hard to see phenomena takes on a symbolic role, a “you have to believe” concept that, Valentine argues, the young and angry Maria, like the young snd angry Sigrid, would see.  And then, after crossing a hill, Maria thinks she sees it, or is it mist, or maybe  – and then she turns and Val is gone.  Maria screams for her, wide shots show she could not have ran away.  The camera lifts to the horizon, Pachabel’s Canon resumes as the Maloja Snake drifts with an eldritch majesty, unaffected and unwitnessed.  We fade to Epilogue, London, a few weeks later.  Maria is in another hotel room, skyping her agent, seemingly able to handle her professional and personal life.   Valentine is never mentioned again, Maria has a PA (with the same boyish short haircut Maria adopted for her role) but their relationship doesn’t have the spark that excited the air with Val.  Obviously, the question remains: did Val exist?  Is she as much a fiction as Helena and Sigrid?  The on-screen manifestation of 20 year old Maria, channeling Sigrid.

En route to a dinner meeting with the director he tells her that a friend of Jo-Ann had made a suicide attempt and was in the hospital.  The director is devastated as is Jo-Ann, he relates..  Maria makes one of her frequent turns to Google (something Valentine always told her to do when short of knowledge about current pop culture) and can already find a paparazzi photo of the young woman being taken into hospital.  Over their dinner the director Klaus and Maria discuss the play and the writer as to what he may mean, and how to interpret their new performance.  Jo-Ann and Kris and Klaus engage in a feverish drama of phone calls, texts and fear of the paparazzi that Maria can only watch, bemused and faintly horrified.

By movie’s end Maria is reading lines in a hotel room with her (new?) PA.  She appears willing to take a role in just the sort of effects-laden show that she laughed at with Val.  In final dress rehearsal, Maria offers a suggestion to Jo-Ann about how to play Sigrid, based on how she played her.  Jo-Ann replies that Helena is washed up, a wreck – “the character, not you”; Jo-Ann doesn’t take her advice and this stuns Maria somewhat – she says she is “lost in old habits; I guess I’ll just have to break them”.  In her dressing room she meets the director of the blockbuster she is considering.  They discuss the character’s age, her modernity, with Maria suggesting a younger, more modern, actress – Jo-Ann but, to her surprise, he dismisses her and the era they both inhabit as one of Jo-Ann Ellis and viral internet scandals.  He says he wants someone outside of time, a concept Maria says is “too abstract”.  And yet as the camera cranes through the glass offices set on opening night we rest on a mid-shot of Maria, her gaze distant and her visage of dignity in resignation – or is it acceptance?  An amalgamation of youth and age, of Sigrid and Helena.

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IDA

Ida_(2013_film)

dir. Paweł Pawlikowski

Ida is one of the most exquisitely shot films to come out this year.  With its moody, monochrome cinematography and the unusual 4:3 format, Polish born director Pawel Pawlikowski has made this film as something of a hark back not just to his Polish roots (having spent most of his career in Britain) but to the past of the 1960s of the film’s setting.  “Ida” is a relatively simple story of Anna, an 18 year old orphan raised in a nunnery about to take her vows, when she is told by her mother superior she has a surviving relative, and to go and see her.  The woman Anna meets is an aunt called Wanda, a stern faced woman who we first see dismissing a younger man from her bed.  She is a magistrate who drinks and smokes relentlessly, who issues forth that she has sent many enemies of the party to death with a cold distance that might seem at odds with her solitary, pained, drinking .

Wanda’s revelation, with customary acidic amusement, that Anna is Jewish and her name is actually Ida, prompts a road trip to find out what happened to her parents and where their remains, if any, are.  While the set up of a journey to uncover a lost past, with two figures of contrasting backgrounds, morals and outlooks, might sound like any number of road movies (particularly Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries”) there is an economy of writing and direction and a startling power of composition that makes Pawlikowski’s succinct 80 minutes something uniquely precious.

Atmosphere and mood are things much talked about in cinema, but rarely are they understood and conveyed so well with cinematography; Antonioni’s “La Notte” came to mind, which was shot at the same time as this film was set.  Characters (particularly Ida) are positioned low in the frame, leaving the space above their heads to dominate the screen, be it the grey of crumbling 1960s Polish interiors or a haze of fog or cigarette smoke that drifts above.  Frames are composed with brightness in the distance, off screen or in the far corner, with perspective lines of trees, roads or telegraph wires leading into, or away from, this distant hazy light.  There is more than a hint of Dutch painter Vemeer to the compositions which, combined with the almost universally static camera, gives  a stony sobriety to the proceedings.

The pair pick up Lis, a handsome young saxophonist, who is playing in a band playing at the hotel they are staying at.  Immediately there is a palpable sexual tension between the younger pair, something Wanda notices (much to her amusement) but Ida does not at first.  This does not last, however, and Ida soon has to deal with emotions and feelings that she has never dealt with before.  This is dealt with in a manner so understated, it characterises the entire film.  Outside the bar, in a cold winter’s night, Ida leans on a railing.  Lis joins her, leaning close enough that their forearms touch ever so slightly.  But neither react, and nor does the camera.  It simply exists there, and then is gone.

The journey takes Ida and Wanda into a greyness that is not just a cinematographic device – there is a palpable unease at their enquiries as to the eventual fate of Ida’s family, which is the same fate as many other Polish Jews during the 1940s.  Notions of guilt and redemption hang over this beautiful drama like the grey clouds or smoke hanging over the characters, framed in sharp focussed monochrome.  The last reel provide a few surprise twists that, likewise, are played out with reserve and yet not detachment – you are never not involved in the undercurrents of these characters and the era of the country they inhabit.

WINTER SLEEP

WinterSleep

dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Winter Sleep is that bizarre seeming contradiction – an epic of deeply intimate proportions.  Ceylan’s love of Tarkovsky is worn on his sleeve throughout his oeuvre, and the painterly shot composition and glacial pace of the Russian master are both present here.  But in his new film, the Turkish auteur has constructed his most verbose and literate screenplay that quotes and recalls Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare and Voltaire, but also more cinematically, Bergman’s intimate and claustrophobic personal dramas.

The over-riding metaphor here is one of hibernation, another meaning of the Turkish title.  The grizzled, bearded old bear Aydin is a retired actor who owns various properties, including the Hotel Othello (an obvious reference to his cultured, thespian, past), built into caves in the Anatolian Steppes.  He pads around his domain, hunched against the encroaching winter, guests leaving the hotel to the members of his close family and the conflicts within that spark and flicker to life when the winter sets in, like a Chekhovian Overlook Hotel.

When an angry young boy, the son of an indebted tenant, breaks the window of his land rover we are taken into a cold world of class, privilege, anger, pride and shame.  This gulf between the struggling, impoverished family’s raw emotions and their direct contact with the harshness of life and the elements, and the privileged, entitled pontifications of Aydin and his wealthy family in their heated hotel, are at the heart of this drama.  Aydin spends his days ensconced in his dimly lit, cavernous, study writing extraneous articles extolling his bohemian values and aesthetics for a small local paper that, as his captious and clearly bored divorcee sister Necla points out, no-one really reads. It is from Necla that the first of several lengthy dialogue scenes comes.  She questions if evil would exist, or be so strong, if those who represented good did not rise to oppose it; her logic being that by not resisting, it gives the evil doer the chance to feel shame and to stop.  Aydin dismisses this in a manner that becomes familiar as the film progresses: he is arrogant, controlling, pompous, dismissive.  But this is not portrayed in the manner of soap operas that Aydin proudly proclaims he did not once lower himself to during his 25 year career.  “Winter Sleep” is a film of long looks, pauses, minute gestures and unhurried movements.

Aydin’s other main relationship is with his younger, beautiful, wife Nihla.  Nihla plays as a kind of damsel in distress, her every material need provided for by the wealthy husband, but their marriage is clearly dying in the remote wintry steppes.  Her only joy in life is organising fundraisers for local charitable causes with other wealthy elites.  However even this her husband cannot allow her, his desire to control and his arrogance intrudes and tries to take over her little venture, a move he cannot see as anything but right and what his superior experience must do, even if it means destroying the last of their marriage.  Her last act of defiance brings her into the home of the poor tenant family who’s young son hurled a rock at Aydin’s vehicle in anger at his father’s shame. Here we see the poverty stricken aesthetic Aydin wrote about so disparagingly in his ivory tower article.  Here Nihla sees both a simple, homely pride and a fierce pride in a shocking scene of such brilliantly conceived tension that it could almost serve as the climax of the film. But this is a film of Aydin’s inner turmoil, about the slow autumn of love becoming winter until both participants are frozen, trapped in place, without the momentum to leave or change.

The morality plays of this masterful film play out like pages from an epic novel – a fact some may find daunting.  But the honesty and intensity of the lead performances take you and hold you through their troubles and strife.  From the towering centre of Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) to pained and trapped Nihla (Melisa Sözen), cat-like sister Necla (Demet Akbag) and the ever smiling imam Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç) who is the only person who actually tries to like Aydin, the cast are uniformly superb.  These are characters, deftly painted, not two dimensional mouthpieces of a single, unchangeable, viewpoint.  In one scene Aydin is criticised by his sister for never grieving over their parents.  In the next scene, we see him sat by (what we must assume are) their graves, alone on a mist shrouded hillside.  Permanently smiling imam Hamdi tries to broker peace between his fiery brother and Aydin and his assistant, but then on one occasion we catch him curse about Aydin under his breath as he turns away.  As a political tract, a view of modern Turkey, we see the issues and matters that Aydin and his family pontificate over in their wealthy, more European and secular bohemian lives are met in cold hard reality by the suffering, poor, religious, family that endure what Aydin convinces himself is his benevolent authority.  The ever-present matter of pride and shame, of resisting evil or letting it act to recognise its own flaws, runs through the very blood of every scene, manifesting between the dying love of a marriage, the bored intellect of a divorced woman, the struggle to survive of a poor family and ultimately if dignity has a price, a cost, or is only the province of the wealthy.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

grand-budapest-hotel-poster-2_article

dir. Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson has become a staple, a mark of artistry and independence in American cinema.  His creation of a completely self contained world that seems to expand with each new release, yet still abide by these self sustained rules, brings to mind other American auteurs like David Lynch or Tarantino.  Yet none, I think, have ben so meticulous and persistent with their construction.  A Wes Anderson film is instantly recognisable, perhaps quicker than any other director’s work today.  Be it the framing, editing, the colour scheme, the fetishistic attention to a sickly sweet wealth of details to set, clothing and property, Anderson’s world is expressed without restraint onto the screen.

In his latest outing, Anderson tells the story of Gustave H, played with delicate finery by Ralph Fiennes, the former concierge of the eponymous establishment  during the 1930s, as told through a (somewhat needlessly multi-layered) plot device of flash-back via ageing owner Zero, played by F Murray Abraham in a recollection to Jude Law in the late 1960s.  Zero, in the flashback, is a hapless bellboy and sidekick to Gustave H.  When one of Gustave’s favourite guests (one of the many elderly blonde women he was intimate to in their twilight years) dies and leaves a priceless painting to him in her will, her suspicious and angry son (Adrien Brody) cries murder to the solicitor (Jeff Goldblum) and the authorities (Ed Norton).  There then begins a hair-brained chase across the snowy landscapes and streets of the fictional Eastern European Republic of Zubrowka that involves incarceration and subsequent escape (thanks to a gang of prisoners led by Harvey Keitel) and a chase through an empty winter olympics course by blood thirsty henchman (Willem Defoe).

If it seems like there is a stellar cast filling all manner of roles, it is because the cast are used like the endless details in the set and props and costume department: they are pretty and amusing details that are there, however momentarily, to catch the viewers eye and give the impression that the screen is crammed with detail, information and substance necessary to the plot.  Unfortunately, much like many of his other affectations, I found it to be a case of too much and yet not enough.  Let me explain.

Anderson shoots his films, it seems, with only one lens and one filter – a wide angle lens that, when combined with the director’s penchant for framing all of his shots so completely central and symmetrical, give everything a Point Of View, curved distortion and forced perspective effect.  Similarly, use of filters to give everything his much beloved yellow hue while vignetting round the edges of the frame means that every shot has a familiar feeling.  Camera moves, too, are taken from a very limited playbook which consists of horizontal whip-pans, dollies (to maintain the perfectly centred framing, usually) and meticulously measured zooms and little else.  As such, and youtube users have proven this, anyone could take these simple instructions and recreate the Wes Anderson look for themselves.

What, then, would raise the director above the sum of his parts?  Perhaps script and performance?  Unfortunately, the script exists as a collection of scenes and shots that serve as demonstrations of the director’s personal foibles and obsessions, and very little else.  All performances are the same – a monotonous deadpan with actors as statuesque clothes horses of their quirky wardrobe with barely a recognition, acknowledgment or eye contact with anyone else in the scene.  Dialogue consists of rapid fire delivery in the same monotone full of quirk and kook and detail that flies out to try and substitute for substance (and fails).  Scenes are whizzed past in an eagerness to reach the next prettily decorated set and star cameo which, while in other circumstances could be understood as screwball comedy but here feels hurried and aloof.

There are things to like in this film that has garnered critical praise seemingly across the board, but unfortunately for me they were in isolation and did not work as a coherent film.  For most of the film I felt I was watching a flicker book of heavily filtered instagram photos for a deeply hip publication.