cg_theatrical_ellyYou probably have not seen a mystery movie quite like About Elly. Much more than a whodunit, it’s an experience that involves the audience in a way few will expect. Screenwriter/director Asghar Farhadi plays with tone and perspective in a very subtle way. This is the movie that put the Iranian filmmaker on the map while travelling the international film festival circuit in 2009. A few years later, Farhadi went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign language film in 2012 for A Separation. Farhadi was even nominated that year outside the ghetto of foreign language cinema for screenwriting, an accomplishment in itself for a film in Persian.

His talents for writing are on strong display in About Elly, which only now is getting proper distribution in U.S. movie theaters. The film features a large ensemble cast who often rapidly talk over each other, yet distinct characters quickly stand out. The film never grows tiresome, even though the first third feels lighthearted before things suddenly shift into darker territory. The group includes three married couples, some with children, and a divorced man and a single woman. All have a long history together except for the single woman, the titular Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti). Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) is trying to play matchmaker between Elly — her child’s kindergarten teacher — and recently divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), so she has invited her to tag along on a weekend trip by the Caspian Sea.

The group has a long-standing relationship from their college days. Their casual teasing reveals a close kinship. Elly, however, is an outsider. 7There’s an uncomfortable air about her, and Sepideh works overtime to help her fit in, including a little deception about how long the group had planned to stay out there. What’s wrong with a little lie if it’s well-intended? It turns out a lot, and it’s the tangled web of lies that arise that will drive the story through one compelling twist in plotting after another.

Farhadi uses a light but unforgettable touch to reveal the film’s central drama after Elly disappears. He sets up the mystery of Elly’s disappearance by focusing his camera on her during an oddly ominous kite-flying scene. The idea of such an innocent act, a scene where Elly seems content and in the moment6, unconcerned of how to get out of this vacation or why she was brought here could portend something as ominous as her disappearance, which happens off screen, has incredible resonance. A labyrinthine set of lies, a vicious blame game and the inherent mystery of the stranger feed into an epic drama driven by revelations that only put that cast deeper in a grave of regrets they seem to be digging for themselves.

The film never heightens tension through snappy editing or even extra-diegetic music (the film features no score whatsoever). Farhadi also takes an incredibly natural approach. Conversations and dynamic reactions by characters feel straight out of a Robert Altman movie. The film also features strong performances throughout. Several actors perform through sudden pain, like a splinter in the hand and a twisted ankle, which heightens their urgency in raw, genuine ways. One can’t tell if these moments are staged or are spontaneous moments caught on camera. It’s yet another level of truth and lie to consider in a complex story of telling lies. About Elly ultimately makes you think about the lies people tell and their consequences. It’s an inspired mystery that unfolds in plain sight without any dramatic irony.

Hans Morgenstern

About Elly runs 119 minutes, is in Persian and German with English subtitles and is not rated (expect a few swear words and some stressful, suspenseful moments). It opened this past Friday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. For other screening dates as the film rolls out across the U.S., visit this link. The Gables Art Cinema provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review. All images in this review are courtesy of Cinema Guild.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

psychocandyThe Jesus and Mary Chain have once again become quite active. Last year, they debuted their first-ever full live performance of Psychocandy, the group’s 1985 debut album. Now, as the Scottish noise pop pioneers arrive on the 30th anniversary of the album’s release, they are headed to the U.S. Hardcore fans should be delighted that the sometimes-at-odds siblings, Jim and William Reid, have made amends. The band has been on-again and off-again for many years. Besides the tour, they also have high hopes that this year might see the production of a new album.

That The Jesus and Mary Chain are channeling their roots with these live shows bodes well for fans of the traditional JAMC. However, this writer has long enjoyed their experimental leaps. As much as I like to lose myself in it, droning din can only hold my attention for so long. In 1994 the group made an incredible shift in their sound, highlighting melodies untreated by effects, fuzz and reverb and featuring the clearest vocals ever on a JAMC record. Stoned and Dethroned was a compelling album not just because of its surprising new sounds but also how it highlights what great songwriters the JAMC are.

It became a huge hit for the band, much to the chagrin of some of the more traditional JAMC fans. I had a sneak listen in the form of a promo CD from American Recordings, and below you will find a facsimile of the review I first wrote for a music ‘zine called “Jam Entertainment News,” which was later published by my college paper, “The Beacon,” from Florida International University (click to enlarge and read):

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I’ll leave you with a video pick from the album featuring Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval in what is probably the album’s perkiest track:

The Jesus and Mary Chain kick off their North American tour in Canada today (May 1) and continue into the USA until the middle of the month. Tour dates are as follows:

May 1 – Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto, ON
May 3 – St. Andrew’s Hall, Detroit, MI
May 5 – Riviera Theatre, Chicago, IL
May 7 – The Bomb Factory, Deep Ellum, TX
May 9 – Austin Psych Fest Presents Levitation, Austin, TX
May 11 – Ogden Theatre, Denver, CO
May 13 – Vogue Theatre, Vancouver, BC
May 14 – Showbox at the Market, Seattle, WA
May 16 – Warfield Theatre, San Francisco, CA

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Mekons posterI had a bit of a meta experience at the screening of Revenge of the Mekons the other night. Early in the film, the band jokes about the lack of attendance at their shows, and someone explains that you know you are at a Mekons show because it’s just you and some friends. At Wednesday night’s O Cinema Miami screening of this delicious documentary, there were only three other people besides my wife and I, and as it turns out, two of them were longtime friends I know from the local music scene. Afterward we all learned that we heard about this screening from the same mutual friend’s Facebook posting about the screening, two days earlier. One of my friends, a fellow who basically defined the Miami noise-punk scene who goes by the name Rat Bastard, said, “Even if you gave a month’s notice about this screening, I bet you the same fuckin’ people would have showed because nobody gives a fuck about the Mekons.”

Well, their loss. We sure enjoyed the movie. Revenge of the Mekons is much more than a band profile. It’s the history of the UK punk rock scene told from an intimate perspective. It wraps social milieu, the art scene, the local music scene of Leeds, England and the lameness of the music industry around these unforgettable creative personalities. Up until seeing this film, this writer knew of the Mekons on the periphery, in the shadows of much more famous and accomplished bands. But Joe Angio’s film revealed a mythic quality of this band, a sort of well-kept secret of the U.K. punk scene of the late ’70s, and I feel enriched for it.

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Unlike many of their counterparts in that scene, the Mekons are still performing together and even still record new music. Despite one four-year break, they have consistently released new albums over the years, some of them on major labels. The film reveals there have never been any laurels to rest on, as notoriety has always eluded the group, despite respect from critics of both the art and music world. Still, there is humility to spare among the band members, many of whom have “real jobs” to pay the bills. Still, you feel like these people have a sense of magic around them. There’s a genuine quality to why they create music, despite it often having a ramshackle, amateurish quality. Yet there is a traceable evolution over the years in ways no one could ever imagine punk rock to evolve (there was a period where Hank Williams had a huge influence).

Though it feels like the film jumps around rather haphazardly, there’s a well-balanced offering of vintage footage, talking head interviews featuring members of the group and fans like music critic Greil Marcus and musician Will Oldham. There are also brief musical performances (no entire songs) meant to illuminate the band’s lyrics and the band members’ unbridled energy and humor (they still drink on stage, apparently). This approach also perfectly represents the Mekons’Mekons_-_Revenge_of_the_Mekons_PR_pic_by_Derrick_Santini_-_via_BB_Gun_Press___Music_Box_Films path to “success.” I use the word in quotes because even the band laugh about the idea of success. As singer Sally Timms notes during a group radio interview, they only measure success with their longevity. Names like Gang of Four and even U2 are dropped with a sort of bitter-sweet irony. However, even Hugo Burnham of Gang of Four appears to sing the group’s praises (Bono probably forgot about them, even though U2 apparently played warm-up act for a show the Mekons once headlined, a memory Mekons’ singer/guitarist/drummer Jon Langford recalls with great judgement of Bono’s stage presence and a bit of sly irony).

This all culminates in a wonderful portrait of what genuine, unbridled creative process is like for some incredible musicians, which also includes the amazing talents of Lu Edmonds (Live review: PiL at Grand Central, Miami, Oct. 5, 2012), credited as the band’s only true musician by the other members of the group. You sense that these artists are content with their place in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll history because they are still making rock ‘n’ roll history. Few bands have been able to reinvent themselves and get away with it over such a long career. There is a sense that there is no prior album to measure success against. But even sweeter, there’s an infectious, purist spirit that these are people who have all found their bliss. Revenge of the Mekons is a marvelous portrait of humanity benefiting from the spirit of creativity.

Hans Morgenstern

Revenge of the Mekons runs 95 minutes and is not rated (I can’t say there’s anything offense about it because this is as genuine a portrait of musicians you will ever). It played for one night only in Miami, but others across the U.S. will have a chance to see it, as it tours the nation. Screening dates can be found here (that’s a hot link, just scroll down a bit). You can also request this film by visiting this link. The film’s PR rep invited me to the one-night only screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

My_Life_Directed_POSTER_FINAL_A_AIM.inddIn the new behind-the-scenes documentary about Only God ForgivesMy Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, we meet more than a writer/director caught up in his craft. We also meet a father and husband sharing his self-doubt with his truest confidant: his wife, Liv Corfixen. Speaking via Skype with her husband, Nicolas Winding Refn, at her side, she says, “All that fear and doubt, of course, it’s only me who sees that. That’s why I thought I could make it a very personal film … as Nicolas said, he can’t show that side to everyone else because he has to be on top of the world. That’s why I thought it could be a good idea if I made it because it gets more intimate and personal, and that side you don’t get to see.”

“For Liv it’s like, here we go again,” Refn adds.

The couple have been married 20 years and have two daughters, ages 4 and 10. Corfixen is an actress in their native Denmark, and she appeared in small roles in Refn’s early films. But the documentary she has produced is their greatest collaboration yet. Even though, she admits, whenever she sees him caught up in movie productions, she feels left out of the marriage. “All the time. All the time,” affirms Refn.

“Early on, it was easier for me, I guess,” she says, “but as the years go by, I sort of find it harder in a way, or maybe it’s because we started to join him on those trips. Whereas, before, I sort of stayed behind in Denmark with the children, and that was too hard on our marriage, and then we decided to come along every time, like we did in Bangkok, cause then we see him more, but sometimes you get the feeling that you are left out because he’s constantly in a meeting all weekend … but you know it’s only for a few months, so you kinda live with it. It’s not like I’m complaining. It’s just sometimes I feel, oh, we got to get those eight weeks over with, so we can have normal life again.”

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Right now the couple and their children are in Los Angeles where Refn is in the middle of shooting his next movie, The Neon Demon. In My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn, Corfixen captured him anxiously running his fingers through his hair, as he declared about his movie, “I don’t know what it’s about.” It would also seem a little futile to ask him what Neon Demon is about, at this point. When asked about his new film, he said he “kinda” knows what it’s about, but that could change. “I shoot in chronological order,” he explains, “so everything’s a constant evolution.”

Asked now what he thinks Only God Forgives is about, Refn answers:  “I think it’s about many things, but of course there’s a very strong undercurrent of an incestuous relationship between a mother and her son set in the world of crime with a backdrop that is very, very alien because being a foreigner in Thailand is essentially like going to the moon, so there’s a very strong science-fiction-esque element to it, and there’s very much a mixture of Asian spirituality where the acceptance of the supernatural world is as normal as eating, which is very alien to Westerners, so therefore it becomes very much like a metaphor for a man’s journey to essentially be — his impotence is because of his amputation, because of his violent nature, because of his mother that everything leads back to all evil.”

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After he finished Only God Forgives, Refn showed a fascination with the film’s many negative reviews. “I guess there’s almost a kind of sadomasochistic joy in it because, deep down, I know they’re wrong,” he admits.

“But it’s also fun,” adds his wife, who listens to him read a negative review in her documentary.

“It’s kind of enjoying the hatred that essentially has no effect. There’s a kind of Machiavellian joy in it,” adds Refn.

Full disclosure. I was among those who wrote a negative review of Only God Forgives. Although, I like to keep “hatred” out of my judgement: Film Review: ‘Only God Forgives’ is a problematic, distancing art film.

One thing we have in common is an affection for Chilean cult director . He appears in My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn during two revealing tarot readings for both Refn and Corfixen. “Alejandro is all truth,” notes Refn before he explains how important the tarot readings are to him. “I’ve been using him a lot. I’ve also been using him in this movie, regularly. It’s always good, whenever in doubt, call the Jodorowsky hotline. It’s very much part of the game. Obstacles inspire creativity.”

*  *  *

You can read much more of my conversation with this creative couple, including a fun little argument between them about the possibility that Corfixen may not be a huge fan of his work either, jump through the logo for the Miami New Times Arts section below to read this part of our conversation:

NT Arts

Hans Morgenstern

My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn runs 58 minutes, is in Danish and English with English subtitles and is rated PG-13 (there is adult language). It opens exclusively this Friday, May 1, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque at 7 p.m. On the following Saturday, May 2, at 7 p.m., the cinematheque will also host a Skype Q&A with Refn and Corfixen.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Garson front cover by Terry O'Neill - Getty ImagesEven though it totaled over 15,000 words and was spread out across five parts, one of the most popular posts on this blog remains an archival piece on pianist Mike Garson (From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie – Part 1 of 5). Most recently, the two-hour plus interview provided at least a tiny bit of backing material for a book: Bowie’s Piano Man: The Life of Mike Garson. I was honored the author, Clifford Slapper, found my work interesting enough to reference in his book, which stands as the first biography of the one musician who has spent more time collaborating with David Bowie, than any other one.

The UK-based Slapper — who is also a pianist — kept me posted about the book up to its publication. Below is a Q&A we recently conducted via email that reveals his noble inspiration behind it (the art and craft trumps the gossip) and also shows his light approach to prose, making the book not only an informative read but a breezy one at that.

Hans Morgenstern: What inspired you to write the book … besides Mike being such an important Bowie collaborator?

Clifford Slapper: When I was 7 I started going to piano lessons, as my parents had noticed that my miniature piano was my favourite toy. They found a local teacher called Miss Beryl Silley — quite a name, especially since she was teaching a young Slapper! My grandmother — who used to take me to the weekly lessons — bought me a cassette tape of Elton John’s Honky Chateau album (so named as it was recorded at Le Chateau D’Hérouville, where Bowie would subsequently record Pin Ups), which has great piano parts and which I love to this day. My real epiphany, however, was when I went out and bought a record myself for the first time, at age 10: David Bowie’s 1973 album Aladdin Sane, on vinyl. It completely blew my young mind! I have been in love ever since with the music of both Bowie and Garson!

Many years later, I got the chance to work, briefly, with David Bowie, and a couple of years after that to meet, and become Clifford Slapper and David Bowie by Ray Burmistongood friends with Mike, and then to work closely with him in the extensive interviews and research involved in writing his biography. Within a few hours of meeting, I asked if there were any biographies published of him, and he replied that there were not, but that as a fellow pianist with a similar outlook, I might be the ideal person to write one, and here we are five years later with the book finally being published.

How long were you working on it?

About five years. In addition to hundreds of hours of discussion with Mike, I also interviewed some forty people who have worked with him or otherwise know him well.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about Mike while doing it?

On first hearing that he had once planned to become a rabbi, I was initially surprised. In time, however, this was less surprising as he approaches his life and work in a way which is always studied, disciplined and yet inspired, and he naturally adopts the role of mentor, educator, and guide for many of those around him.

What was the most challenging part of writing Mike’s story?

It was difficult to decide how best to approach telling that part of his story in which he was involved with Scientology for some time, many years ago. In the end, I think we found the right way and the right balance. He has had an honest and Author Photo by Ray Burmistonunstinting spiritual quest throughout his life, and that was simply one period alongside many others in that regard. I also did not want to dwell on any salacious details which might pertain to the early tours with Bowie or others. This is a book about creativity and finding artistic and developmental meaning in life. It does not engage in the cheap gossip or petty mundane details which can all be found in profusion elsewhere.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

As I say at the end of the book, “Our shared hope is that people may be inspired … to overcome any obstacles in their quest for authentic expression and creativity … and that this opens up a wider exploration of how music is created and what it can do.” Mike hopes that the story of his life might bring pleasure and insight to readers but above all wants to encourage people to be active in taking “a few things from this book that ring true for them, and use that in their lives to bring joy to themselves and others”.

*  *  *

The book is published in the U.K. You can purchase it in the U.K. and Europe here (that’s a hot link) or direct from the publisher here (another hot link — they ship worldwide). But there is also a U.S. entry on Amazon.com for those in the States. You’ll be supporting Independent Ethos by jumping through this link and purchasing it:

Bowie's Piano Man: The Life of Mike Garson

Bowie's Piano Man: The Life of Mike Garson

Buy from Amazon

Thanks to Clifford for taking some time to answer my inquiries and including me in his terrific book!

Hans Morgenstern

Book cover photo by Terry O’Neill/Getty Images. Photos of author Clifford Slapper are copyright owned by Ray Burmiston. From top to bottom: 1. Clifford Slapper on the set of Ricky Gervais’ TV show ‘Derek’ photo by Ray Burmiston; Clifford Slapper with David Bowie, photo by Ray Burmiston. 

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

ex-machina-ExMachina_Payoff_hires2_rgbAs that other sci-fi movie featuring Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac looms (ahem, Star Wars VII), there’s a small sci-fi suspense film pitting the two actors together over a robotic femme fatal (Alicia Vikander) coming out in wide release this Friday. Ex Machina, the first film directed by Alex Garland, the writer behind such “re-inventive” sci-fi/suspense films as 28 Days Later and Sunshine, is a compellingly entertaining film featuring a handful of characters stuck together inside a big house in the woods. But it’s also a little more than that.

In a wordless prologue, we watch Gleeson’s character, Caleb, from behind a computer screen, celebrating after he wins some major prize via email. There’s sharing via text, social media and almost instantaneous responses of “congratulations!” and “take me!!” Meanwhile, people gather around his cubicle, as the news of his win spreads. The delay of the “real world” over the virtual world makes for a funny dig at the relevance of one above the other. But it is also an important set-up in establishing an encounter with the virtual as substitute for the real thing, for this film is all about a man’s idea of harnessing feminine sexuality in an ideal, constructed surrogate for the real thing … and paying the price for it.

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It turns out Caleb has been invited by his boss (Isaac) to his mansion in the woods for a week-long stay where he will meet Nathan’s latest high-tech invention: a sexy-looking robot called Ava. Caleb is a skinny, awkward nebbish, simply geeking over the fact that he gets to meet the reclusive founder/inventor of a computer system called Bluebook for which Caleb works as an office drone. After a two hour-plus helicopter ride over his boss’ property, he is dropped off in a clearing and told to follow a river, which will lead him to the house. It’s a nice surreal and ominous touch with echoes of no escape. After letting himself in with an automatic ID card maker, Caleb finds Nathan hitting a punching bag shirtless. Nathan explains he is detoxing a hangover. Nathan’s all smiles and “bros” over Caleb, trying to bring him down to earth from his celebrity fixation over their meeting. It’s as if an Apple “genius” had a chance to live with Steve Jobs for a week.

Of course, no meeting like this ever leads to anything idyllic. Nathan is soon revealed as a mad scientist frustrated by his work in perfecting the ideal robot who happens to have the body of a young woman. Nathan takes to drink every night and reveals a cynical sense of humor that covers up a misanthropic personality on the verge on giving up on himself. Caleb is almost the opposite. Not only can’t he understand Nathan’s sense of humor, but he’s too excited by the honor of the invitation to notice Nathan’s unstable character. Nathan — and soon even Ava — manipulate this poor milquetoast throughout the movie. Though Caleb thinks he is rather smart about AI, mistakenly believing he’s figured out his role as a collaborator with Nathan to apply the Turing Test to Ava, he’s actually always one step behind. After all, Nathan hand-selected Caleb based on his profile culled from his Internet searches, including his online “porn profile” to interact with Ava — another revelation Caleb comes to a bit too late.

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There’s a desperation to both of these men, who are both human and therefore terribly flawed, blinded by an arrogance that never allows them to know just how deep in shit they are getting into. Caleb is a geeky, lonely male who tries to keep his cool by spewing his highfalutin knowledge of theory. At Nathan’s prodding for how he “feels” about Ava, he drops the fancy talk to tell him, “I feel that she’s fucking amazing.”

Nathan is a bit more interesting, corrupted by wealth, his God complex and his libido. Sexually, his creation becomes his downfall, as he mistakenly thinks he has ownership of its being. There’s a terrific reveal that alludes to one of the greatest misogynists in literature: Bluebeard. Yet, Nathan still garners the viewer’s sympathy, which is a feat for a film villain, and Isaac walks that line supremely. Though he has a dryly humorous dance scene with one his robots, there is also pathos in it. He’s a sad drunk who echoes Oppenheimer quoting from the Bhagavad Gita: “The good deeds a man has done before defend him.”

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It’s his fate that is the most interesting at the end. Too bad, Garland cannot handle the climactic finale as well as it deserves. Some may confuse it for humor or even justice. Resolution has always been a problem for Garland’s scripts, and Ex Machina does not fix this. But the concept of Ex Machina remains interesting. The notion of AI follows the clichés we know from similar films. Ava does arrive at that existential conundrum of computers that have become self-aware: “Don’t dismantle me!” But that’s not what this film is about (for truly mystical concerns of AI, check out Computer Chess [Film Review: Computer Chess reveals the mystical in the cyber]). Ex Machina is about man projecting ideals in the worst kind of way. Ava has curves but nothing organic below the surface save for obscure gears and glowing wires. She’s a pretty face with a stilted control of English. There’s an element of clear dehumanization that requires someone like Caleb and Nathan to project an ideal on. When she does act out, as teased in the trailer below, there is no sense of empathy. The notion of sexuality is but a tool for Ava to harness in order to gain an upper-hand over the men. To anthropomorphize this thing would be a mistake. Ex Machina is ultimately the most weirdly feminist film by a man, focusing on the shortcoming of man’s perception of women, and for that, Garland deserves kudos.

Hans Morgenstern

Ex Machina runs 110 minutes and is rated R (Violence, cussing and naked lady parts). It opens this Friday in most every theater in the U.S. A24 hosted a preview screening last week for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Clouds_of_Sils_Maria_posterNot since Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, has a movie unpacked identities in flux as profoundly as Clouds of Sils Maria. Whereas Bergman concerned himself with transference on a psychological level between two women, writer/director Olivier Assayas examines transference on a more labyrinthine level by bringing in the industry of Hollywood, celebrity and the spectrum of roles the people of this milieu play both on-screen and off. At the heart of the movie lies an amazing relationship between a star actress and her assistant, but the film also looks beyond, examining the role of director and actress, generational differences and the perceptions of those on the outside of the industry. It’s a challenging film, but it also could be one of the best movies you will see this year.

An important chunk of the film unfolds at a luxurious home in the village of Sils Maria in the Swiss Alps. French movie star Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) has her younger right-hand Val (Kristen Stewart) read lines with her for a play loaded with the ghosts of Maria’s past. The home belongs to the widow of the director that made Maria a star. The play Maria is preparing for is the theatrical presentation of the film that made her career: Maloja Snake. In the film version, Maria played the 18-year-old Sigrid, an intern who has an affair with her middle-aged boss, Helena, only to dump the older woman, as the business crumbles around her. In the stage play, Maria is now to take the role of Helena.

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Maria needs a bit of convincing to play Helena. A young, but highly respected director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), is determined to have her play the role that was formerly played by an actress who died not long after the film’s release, lending one of several ominous layers to the role. Also, Maria is reluctant to taint that part of her life with what may seem like a trivial gimmick in stunt casting. “I played Sigrid in Maloja Snake when I was 18,” she tells Klaus. “For me it was more than a role, and somewhere I am still Sigrid.” She then adds, “and it has nothing to do with being a lesbian. I’ve always been straight.” Again, identity and the blurring of the role with identity is meant to prepare the audience to consider the difference between what is stated and what is implied. Klaus speaks of the characters as having the same wounds, which also has echoes of the relationship of life and fiction: “Helena and Sigrid are one in the same person.”

The dramatic implications are enhanced by barely-there hints of intimacy between Maria and Val. Key scenes are stitched together with conspicuous fades at select moments in the narrative that are loaded with both the passage of time and moments obscured and unknowable. This is established subtly, when Assayas uses the technique to explain the death of Maloja Snake‘s author, Wilhelm Melchior. After news of his death, the film fades to the snowy Alps, showing rescuers collecting his body at a distance, and then the film fades again. Not long after this scene, his widow, Rosa (Angela Winkler) shares a secret with Maria: Wilhelm never died of a heart attack while on a walk but took his own life after receiving news of a fatal diagnosis. This establishes the fades as a narrative tool that obscures secrets.

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Later in the film, during a hike in their gorgeous backyard of the Alps, Maria and Val jump into a chilly lake. Maria strips naked and Val down to her underwear. They laugh and splash around, as the film slowly fades to black. In another, Val heads out to meet a guy for a date, and Maria runs to a window to watch her drive off, and there is another fade. The following morning, Maria rises to peek into Val sleeping, with her backside to the door. Val’s only wearing a g-string and T-shirt, Assayas cuts to Maria’s gaze before fading to black again. These are hints that imply more than a professional relationship between these two women.

None of this would work without the actresses giving the camera silent performances loaded with unexplained feelings. Binoche plays Maria Enders with a veneer of confidence and experience that barely shrouds a sense of insecurity that comes with aging in her business while constantly being reminded of the youth of her assistant. You can sense Maria’s reluctance to tap into it during her often frustrated line readings with Val, yet it is key to a performance that CLOUDS-OF-SILS-MARIA-6unnerves Val toward the end of the movie. Though Binoche is terrific in the film, Stewart will stand out to many as the movie’s strongest element. Recently, Stewart was the first American actress to win the Cesar award for best actress — France’s equivalent to the Oscar, and the proof is in the pudding, as they say. She excels at delivering nervous awkwardness with a disarming hangdog distance behind large-framed glasses. It always feels as though something is brewing below the surface. Her performance harnesses the natural quality of her acting, and it also carries the weight of her own celebrity on a meta-level, as the film also alludes to paparazzi and an interest in an actress’ life outside of her work, something Stewart is all too familiar with.

The surrogate for this side of the celebrity aspect of the actress, is the young ingenue who will play Sigrid in this theatrical staging of Maloja Snake, Jo-Ann Ellis, played brilliantly by Chloë Grace Moretz. Jo-Ann is another shifting character in Clouds of Sils Maria. She is steeped in scandal, caught by paparazzi in compromising acts, including wielding a gun at an ex. Behind closed doors, Maria looks her up on the CLOUDS-OF-SILS-MARIA-2Internet and finds a press conference and TV interview where Jo-Ann may be high or drunk. In these on-line video clips, including one with a laugh track inserted, Jo-Ann reveals an ignorance for the material and the play’s director that Maria guffaws about in a sense of schadenfreude that speaks to the morbid interest that draws people to celebrity gossip. Jo-Ann calls the director “Klaus Klaus, the Klaus,” unable to recall his last name. However, when the meeting between the two actresses finally occurs, Jo-Ann is presentable and well-mannered. While Maria orders cognac, Jo-Ann orders chamomile tea. It becomes clear Jo-Ann is playing one role for entertainment news and quite another in “real life.”

But Jo-Ann the actress — who is also well-known as having starred in a sci-fi/action hit — is nothing compared to the intricate relationship between Val and Maria. Their relationship is always fascinating. After watching Jo-Ann as a psychotic, righteous “mutant” in the hit 3D movie, Maria and Val have a great conversation that speaks to their view on what is artistic. Above all, their scenes at the house are an intoxicating blur of the script and their earthy, candid relationship. Often, the director cuts to them in the middle of reading lines that resonate with their private lives, creating a disorienting sense of perspective. In one of the best of these scenes, Maria yells at Val, “I gave you whatever you want, you know that!” Val reads stage directions, “She composes herself,” as if it were some sort of safe word before she reads the Sigrid part: “Like a job at a dead-end company that’s about to go down the drain?” It’s a role, but it also speaks to the fading relevance of her boss in an industry more interested in youth.

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One could go on and on about the performances in Clouds of Sils Maria and the profundity of the characters and their varied personas. None of it would matter were it not in such capable hands, and Assayas is quickly becoming a personal favorite of this critic. There is never a sameness to his films. He is constantly playing with the medium and his manner of telling stories. Be it adventure through music in his last film in capturing an era (Film Review: ‘Something in the Air’ presents vibrant picture of youth in tumult) or the way he played with filmmaking and holding a mirror to the industry much earlier in his career with the witty Irma Vep (1996).

The title of the play around which the film revolves, Maloja Snake, has its own significance. Before she hands over the keys to the house to Maria and after revealing the secret of Wilhelm’s passing, Rosa plays a video for Maria of the 1924 short film “Das Wolkenphänomen in Maloja.” It’s a film by Arnold Fanck, a famous German director who basically invented the German Mountain Film subgenre. The short focuses on a cloud phenomena called the “Maloja Snake” unique to the Alps where clouds snake through the valley and portend dangerous weather conditions. As she shows the film to Maria, Rosa says, “Wilhelm used to say the snake reveals the true nature of the landscape.” The “snake,” a naturally occurring yet mysteriously sublime phenomena, also has resonant effects as a symbol capturing the incongruities of human nature. The film’s title not only references the phenomena but also the nebulous personae of the film’s three women. At film’s end, along with the appearance of the clouds to Maria and Val will come another level of incongruity that will surprise and test the viewer. How the film handles it in a lengthy epilogue reveals yet another glimpse of the complexities of the career of the actress not worth spoiling here, but if you have gone along with it so far, you will find you may just be witnessing one of this year’s greatest films.

Hans Morgenstern

The Clouds of Sils Maria runs 123 minutes, is mostly in English but there are parts in French and German with English subtitles. It’s also rated R (expect some flashes of nudity and coarse language). It opens in our Miami area this Friday, April 24, at several indie cinemas including the Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami Coral Gables campus, Miami Dade College’s Tower Theater in Miami, O Cinema Miami Beach Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood. It comes a little later to South Beach via the Miami Beach Cinematheque on May 29. If you live outside of our area, follow this link for a list of cities showing the film. If it’s not already playing near you, it may show up soon. It continues to roll out through May.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
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