May 18, 2015
A subtle film about brotherhood and tearing down the idea of “the enemy,” Tangerines (Mandariinid) is a beautifully shot meditation on what war means to soldiers on opposite sides when they are forced to take shelter together after being injured in battle. Even though it arrives in theaters rather late after its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign film, the cooled buzz about this film from Estonia should not deter those looking for quality cinema. As the hype wanes, what you are left with is a fantastic movie that should stand on its own as a quality work of deft storytelling resonant with humanistic concerns.
The film opens with a title card providing context to this war that one character calls “The Citrus War.” Events in the film take place in Georgia in 1992, not long after the fall of Soviet Russia. Many newly freed states saw conflict during this time. In this case, Estonian immigrants were forced out of Georgia during the ensuing conflicts between Georgians and Abkhazian separatists. Lembit Ulfsak plays Ivo, a carpenter from Estonia who has refused to leave his property in the lush Georgian countryside. He builds crates for his neighbor, tangerine farmer and fellow Estonian Margus (Elmo Nüganen). They are caught up in the timely harvest of the fruit with no one to help, as most Estonians have fled at this point in the conflict.
When a skirmish suddenly breaks out on their front yards, Ivo takes in two wounded soldiers from opposite sides. Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a mercenary for the separatists, vows to kill the Georgian soldier Niko (Misha Meskhi), as soon as both are well enough to step outside Ivo’s house — Ahmed does not want to dishonor their host by killing his enemy under Ivo’s roof. This allows the men to get to know one another, and despite conversations often turning to the rhetorical righteousness for either side, a humanizing effect occurs. Though Niko and Ahmed seem at odds over everything, they are also like two brothers that have gotten on one another’s nerves.
Writer/director Zaza Urushadze takes his time to allow the tension to turn while the men are inhibited from fighting, patiently deflating their tiresome conversation to levels of absurd, ill-informed rhetoric. Early on, we know the primary concern of the plot lies with the harvest of the crop and not the war. In a sly redefinition of military, Ivo and Margus have been promised help by other soldiers to pick the crop. This speaks to the importance of the land as more than territory but a space for life-sustaining nourishment. There are also many affectionate wide shots of the country’s lush landscape beautifully lensed by Rein Kotov. Against many of these images is the melancholic instrumental music by Niaz Diasamidze, a Georgian musician who specializes in the panduri and pulls incredibly somber melodies out of the bowed instrument.
Like the land and fruit, music also matters above the fight in Tangerines. After he’s well enough to sit at the table, Niko spends much of his time repairing a cassette tape that was damaged in the skirmish. The mystery of the music on it will not be revealed until the film’s finale. In one scene where Niko is working on the tape, Ivo has tuned his radio in on a station featuring a frantically plucked zither. Niko asks Ivo to change the music because it’s “driving him crazy.” As Ivo gets up, Ahmed says “but I’m listening to it.” And Ivo sits down.
The relevance of music above the war is also wittily manifested by what isn’t translated from the radio. In this “war movie,” news of the war doesn’t matter as much as music. When Ivo and Ahmed turn on the radio, in two separate scenes, and tune it in to a news report, the subtitle only reads “War news on the radio.” Whether it was a creative decision by the director or not, it still serves to diminish the relevance of the war on this story. The specifics of what the radio announcer says about the war doesn’t matter as much as the music, be it the diegetic music that highlights the differences of the enemies or the extra-diegetic score by Diasamidze for setting the film’s somber mood.
But this is a violent setting, and indeed these men will be tested when war inevitably returns to their doorstep for a shocking finale that delivers the film’s message via a visceral confrontation. Urushadze never hints at his capability in staging the violent confrontation that closes this story of temporary peace during wartime. That he can add an impact to it via a humanizing character study speaks to the film’s use of violence in important narrative ways above exploitative entertainment value, but most of all, it offers a heart-breaking portrait of the dehumanizing randomness of war.
Tangerines runs 87 minutes, is in Estonian, Russian and Georgian with English subtitles and is not rated (expect wartime violence and cussing). It opened last Friday in our Miami area at the Tower Theater where it plays through Sunday and in nearby Broward County at the Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood where it plays through Thursday. For theaters in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. All images are courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films, who also shared an on-line screener for the purpose of this review.
May 13, 2015
Mad Max: Fury Road is a thrilling ride set in a post-apocalyptic world where the main ruler has centralized all resources. The new world is a top-down patriarchy where water, plants and even women and men are resources controlled and owned by a ruthless authoritarian version of Methuselah called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who has also propelled himself by conveying a myth of eternal existence to his followers. Indeed, the regime at the Citadel is a strange combination of religious fanaticism, top-down control, private ownership of natural resources, and a cult-like militarized core of supporters who are mostly male.
The population at the Citadel also embody extremes; Immortan Joe’s army and the main inhabitants of the Citadel are pale white mutant warriors who need blood transfusions to function and exist as devout cannon fodder for their ruler/father figure. They run the Citadel through violence and manage a host of slaves who seem to have been plucked from other territories. Among these characters, women seem relegated (surprise, surprise) either as nursing machines or as “breeders,” a group of beautiful young women, who function as Immortan Joe’s wives. Among the inhabitants of the Citadel, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) stands out; a fighter and leader in her own right, she has a mechanical arm and is entrusted by Immortan to collect fuel for the city though she longs to return to her mythical homeland.
The main action of Mad Max: Fury Road is set in motion when Furiosa escapes and takes the five wives with her only to be soon found out by Immortan Joe. A chase ensues, involving the army from the Citadel that includes a host of vehicles souped up with skulls, spikes, chrome and real flames. The decadence of despot, Joe is acutely visible when one of the trucks in the caravan is solely dedicated to a group of drummers led by a punk/goth guitar player dressed in a skin-tight red outfit who rides at the front with a barrage of speakers at his back. The guns and violence launched at Furiosa are straight out of a nightmare world. Yet her steady resolution to find redemption and her hometown are enough to keep her going.
Furiosa also happens to have taken Joe’s wives with her, including a pregnant Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Capable (Riley Keough), The Dag (Abbey Lee), Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz) and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton). Max (Tom Hardy) ends up tied to the fate of the female group as he seeks to escape the Citadel where he has been turned into a highly coveted Type O negative human blood bag. He has even been named “Blood Bag” by Nux (Nicholas Hoult) a warrior from the Citadel who has strapped him to the front of his car as a human hood ornament, so he might join the pursuit in the middle of his transfusion. At first interested only in his own survival, Max, who enters the story struggling with his own existential demons as seen in violent flashbacks, comes to find that Furiosa’s journey is one he can subscribe to.
The violence around and directed towards the six women is palpable, and although early in the film, their frailty seems to convince the audience that this chase will be over soon, their refusal to take part in the system that never worked for them gives them strength. These are complex female characters — not a small feat for an action film. For example, Splendid Angharad jumps out of the moving freight car as Immortan and his army close-in on them, in a display that surprises Max but that Furiosa seems to accept, as if she knew all along it was there.
The entire ride shows different forms of violence, from the visceral, directly aimed at the women as physical harm, to psychological control. The next point might be considered a spoiler, but it bares mentioning to speak to the intelligent quality of the film’s story. The caravan ends up meeting Furiosa’s ancestors, a group of women who used to thrive before Immortan’s rule. They provide an alternative view of the world for the women and in doing so set in motion the second half of the film, just as filled with action, only this time the group of women have turned around, facing their predators head-on. Via yet another profound plot-twist (and anyone telling you this film is just an extended chase and has no plot is not paying attention), the film makes a strong point that I have only heard from feminists before, the alternative view that fraternity and equality are far superior to patriarchy. In other words, feminism does not equate to man-hating, but it’s an alternative that can only be understood as a partnership. All this in the midst of fire, action sequences, and total vehicular mayhem.
Mad Max: Fury Road is the most recent iteration of the franchise from director George Miller, who previously directed Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). The latest iteration shows his ease with the post-apocalyptic landscape and a deep understanding of presenting the high stakes in this world juxtaposed with high-paced entertainment. Although Miller has waited a long time to retake the franchise, one could say that he has perfected some of the elements of the post-apocalyptic world. The barren desert landscapes, the kinetically edited fast-moving shots that rely more on stunt work instead of digital effects — many presented in amazing widescreen, and his depiction of courage among the “wives” who are permanently in danger, are some of the many elements that will keep you from blinking for the two hours this movie runs.
Mad Max: Fury Road runs 120 minutes and is Rated R (it’s violent, for the most part). It opens everywhere in theaters on May 15. For theaters near you, enter your zip code here. For worldwide release dates click here. Warner Bros. invited us to a preview screening Tuesday night for the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
You 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. There’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 moment, 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.
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.
Stoned and Dethroned: a review from Archives; Jesus and Mary Chain U.S. Psychocandy Live tour begins
May 1, 2015
The 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):
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
May 1, 2015
I 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.
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’ 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.
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.
As 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Clouds of Sils Maria examines the layers of celebrity identity with powerful performances — a film review
April 22, 2015
Not 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.
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.
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 unnerves 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 Internet 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.
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.
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.