Hard to Be a God – Aleksei German (2015)

Hard to Be a God is one of those rare films that defies description. It is nominally sci-fi, adapted from the novel of the same name by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, but if you don’t pay somewhat careful attention to the opening voice-over, you can be forgiven (if not excused) for not understanding the fantastical underpinnings of the tale. The story, told obliquely, concerns a parcel of scholars sent to an Earth-like planet (picked, we are informed, because it has castles like Earth) to observe and interact with the locals. It is unclear if the scholars are taken as actual gods or simply nobility descended from mythical stock, but they wield power over the populace both because of their titles, and because they are more intelligent and skilled, in most every life task, than the locals. The planet on which they’ve landed appears to be stranded in an Earth-like Medieval period, but unlike on our snug rock, the Renaissance on this planet has happened in reverse; that is, it is in the thrall of a kind of anti-Enlightenment, with knowledge being lost, scholars pilloried and killed, universities sacked. This description does not quite convey the extent of it, though, as the “problems” are more thoroughgoing. It is not simply that this planet is going through a dark era, or a period of iconoclasm; indeed, the denizens of this planet seem to be regressing, or rather, one gets the feeling that this place is slowly tilting off its kilter, spinning backward not only in a historical sense, but in an evolutionary one as well. It is a place of anti-production and anti-consumption. The Dons (as the scholars are called), being stranded here, have been forced to involve themselves in the internecine politics of the planet (which are confusing), and after so long dealing with the locals, have become weary, apathetic, unhinged, or a combination of the three. The focus of the film is one Don Rumata, who seems a pretty decent overlord, but who definitely falls into the weary bordering on apathetic category. (He fights when he has to, prefers not to kill, although he has skills that allow him to wreck havoc if he wants, and opens and closes the film playing his intergalactic saxophone with a resigned ennui). There is not much conventional “action,” but the overall thrust is that the Don has to rescue one worthy, named Budakh, from the “greys,” which leads to out and out destruction.

Visually, the film is stunning. The planet, as much as we see of it, looks like a massive Medieval city, with some bleak marshy countryside for good measure; everything is covered in mud. Well, this is a vast understatement. The film’s environs are by far the gloopiest, poopiest, glopiest, wettest, muckiest you will ever see – the set design and production quality are amazing. This is a planet covered in scat, but not in the John Waters gross-out mode; you get the sense that everything is shit, but you can’t tell the difference between the shit, the mud, and … well, there isn’t much else. Furthermore, the locals are obsessed not only with shit, but with effluvia of every variety. The key sense on this planet is smell, not taste, such that the Don, when offered a mug of something (usually milk?), will take it in his mouth, swish it around, and then spray or spit it out – not from any offensiveness, it seems, but simply because that is how it is done. Everyone is obsessively spitting or clearing their noses by ripping massive goobers this way and that (usually ending stuck to or dripping down their faces), or, with much due fascination, wiping some glob of gloop out of some nether-crack and giving it a nasal once-over, equal parts means of identification and aesthetic judgement. If you are to be randomly killed (and odds are, if you are a local on this planet, you will be), it will likely be by dunk in an overflowing latrine – but such events happen with such equanimity on the part of all participants (victims included) that one gets the sense that it is kind of entertaining too. This is what I mean by describing the populace as devolving. It’s not the right word, as we don’t have evidence they were ever different, but most of them seem dim in the sense that a primate is “dim” – easily distracted, struggling to suppress their id, randomly poking, hitting, throwing dirt, grabbing people by the nose, etc. (In some sense, it does recall the Three Stooges). Their sense of humor is equally deranged. Dead dogs, which abound in the film (usually strung up from small gallows), are used to bonk people over the head, with a Nelson-from-the-Simpsons “ha ha” not uncommon. Outhouses are often on the second floor, and delight is taken (again, seemingly by both parties) in crapping on someone’s face. My attempts at analogy are going a little over the top; the tone is everyday and spot-on anthropological, in that the dwellers of this planet by and large take it all in stride, knowing no different. It’s not a hootenanny, nor a nightmare – just the way things go. They may behave like bird-brains, but there is a nascent innocence to them, and the acting never goes over the top.

Already we are in a strange world. German makes the planet more closeted feeling, smaller, dirtier, cramped, tired and piling up on itself (reflecting the Don’s weariness and the experience of constant repetitive stimulation) by way of his staging and shooting. This film contains what must have been some of the most difficult exercises in blocking and camera movement in film history. The camera moves in a way very similar to the “hysterical” camera of Andrzej Zulawski, but with less sweep, in spaces much more cramped and confined, and within takes that last far longer. We are often very close to people and things, so much the better to scent them, but the scope is epic in that there are constant entrances, exits, and details, details, and more details to sniff in. The film does not do much to help the confused spectator, but the camera, strangely embodied, almost becomes our second self, or at least an equally bewildered friend helping us through. It is a long film, but only because there is so much to see and so little guidance; tiring, but only because the planet is unrelenting and exhausting. The experience of watching the film is the exact opposite, though – the longer it went on (unlike Don Rumata, I would wager), the more I found it funny, fascinating, and inexhaustible.

Four and a half stars out of five

Norte, the End of History – Lav Diaz (2014)

Lav Diaz is considered a practitioner of “slow cinema” – along with directors such as Lisandro Alonso, Bela Tarr, and Theo Angelopoulos. Somehow the “movement” has been defined as being minimalist, lacking much in the way of traditional dramatic structure or narrative, and, in some quarters, is considered antagonistic to the audience. Personally, I think the category is faddy and a bit pretentious, riding on the “I’m more authentic/sensitive/astute than you are” pieties of the slow food movement (among others). Then again, dear observant reader, you might have noticed that I’m a bit of an atavistic grouch, so take such food for thought with a grain of sun-dried sea salt. The observational mode, wherein the viewer does different work (I will not say more, because I think classical Hollywood film making requires an equal investment in viewer attention) – building a narrative in concert with a portrait of time experienced more phenomenologically – has been around as long as cinema has. What is now lumped into this category in the past were simply called “art films,” and included at least much of the work of the European new-waves and, to some extent, Neorealism. These films tend to be more concerned with the experience of time passing, and with lived reality, rather than dramatic structure.

Norte does not feel terribly slow, nor terribly different from other art films that tackle the lives of fairly ordinary people. The story (yes, there is one) has superficial similarities to Crime and Punishment: an intellectual adrift in his existential crisis kills a pawn lady and her daughter as a challenge to himself and a rebuke to his social position, and the good husband of a struggling family suffers for it in his stead. The first hour or so of the film follows the intellectual, a law school dropout, within his milieu, and then switches for the bulk of the film’s remainder to the family, fragmented by the crime. We see the husband in jail, slowly becoming beatified and transformed (he was already good, but becomes more so), while his wife, their children, and her sister struggle to get by and deal with the separation. The film does not lack drama; alterity reemerges in the final half-hour or so and offsets the “slowness,” or rather the habitual daily rhythms, established earlier, in ways that reconfigure our sense of the protagonists and their futures. (The last shot can be read as either slightly hopeful or despairing in a fashion that would make a Neorealist proud). Diaz does a great job of capturing the sense of time passing in a palpable way, the characters shifting as existence weathers and, to some extent, redeems them. Highest marks go to the audio; like much slow cinema, Diaz eschews music and favors seemingly ambient sound. It is mixed and layered so well that in some sequences it builds invisibly, but with more purpose and complexity than the visuals, with a high level of detail. He is also a master of shooting at night, capturing the nocturnal exhale of the earth, or the electric hum under the solitary smoker’s contemplation, as well as anyone. The climaxes of the film’s various lines were my only reservation. Diaz is not jerking viewers around, there are good reasons for resolving things as he does, but it also feels a little like he is jumping from one trope to another: art film as observer of lived reality to art film as deus ex machina, meter of the absurdity and impersonality of the universe. There’s no reason not to see it, friends, it’s on Netflix.

Four stars out of five

The Last of the Unjust – Claude Lanzmann (2014)

Lanzmann, best known for his masterpiece Shoah, has extended that project with a few other films in the last ten or so years. Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4 p.m. told the story of Yehuda Lerner, who lead an uprising and eventual escape from the titular extermination camp. The Karski Report recounted the history of FDR’s unwillingness to intervene in the early years of the Holocaust after being notified of the horrors by Polish Army courier Jan Karski. Both of these films, while having to do with the Holocaust, fill out areas of interest mostly untouched by Shoah itself. The Last of the Unjust revisits material from Shoah directly, in the form of extended interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, the last Elder of the Jews (and the only to survive the war), the president of the Jewish Council in the “show ghetto” of Theresienstadt, and self-appellated “last of the unjust.” Murmelstein, as the political leader of the ghetto, was in close contact with Adolph Eichmann, and was tainted by this contact, considered suspect basically for having survived the war, and for (as the film eventually explores) working to improve the ghetto, which had the side effect of making it more effective for propaganda purposes. Because of this, he was imprisoned after the war and then lived in exile in Rome for the rest of his life, rather than emigrating to Israel.

In many ways, this feels like Lanzmann’s most intimate film, and his most chronologically resonant. Anyone who has seen Shoah will recognize the aesthetic; in that film, he eschewed period footage in favor of returning, in that film’s present day, to the sites of the atrocities. In The Last of the Unjust, he deploys a similar stratagem, but is now at a once remove, both from Shoah and from Murmelstein – he travels to the present days sites that form Murmelstein’s chronology and story, and reconstitutes the past by reading from Murmelstein’s writings at the sites, and by unfurling large portions of the Murmelstein interview conducted for Shoah. He also makes use of the art representing the ghetto produced by its inmates during their interment. So while this is a film about Theresienstadt, it is also a portrait of Murmelstein as a man, and as a friend (or at least someone Lanzmann obviously admires). Much of the film is Murmelstein talking; at first he seems purely heroic and self-effacing, but later Lanzmann complicates this by asking harder questions about his “collaboration” with the Nazis and his choices during the later stages of the war. Murmelstein is not defensive, and a complex portrait of a man in an impossible situation emerges – he makes no bones about the fact that defending and improving the ghetto was of paramount importance to him (and at one point even claims that he and the ghetto were one and the same thing, although he does not mean this in a megalomaniacal sense). By the end of the film, we might feel that, all judgement being impossible (this is one of the key points of Shoah, that agency, and hence an ethics, was suspended in toto for those in the camps), he might have something in common with Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai, in that he came to love too dearly that which allowed him to hold onto some semblance of a world. Beyond these issues, the film is very interesting, and indeed touching, as a conversation between two old men: Lanzmann, in 2013, near the age that Murmelstein was some 35 or so years earlier. Lanzmann appears on camera more than in his other films, and by reading Murmelstein’s text, performs his absence. We get the feeling that he too identifies as a “last of the unjust” – the end of the film confirms his affinity for this man, who survived any way he could for the sake, he says, of telling the story. Essential viewing for documentary fans or for those interested in the Holocaust (which should be all of us, really).

Four stars out of five

Listen Up Philip – Alex Ross Perry (2014)

Listen Up Philip is a strange hybrid. Stylistically, it harkens back to films of the 1970s, although it is set in the present day. However, the type of film it is recalling never actually existed; instead, it kind of recalls the 70s as a specific aesthetic amongst a specific milieu (New York literary types?). It presents as a strange love child of Tarantino and Woody Allen. Another set of echoes are the recent Whiplash, with which it shares, in transformed fashion, the themes of prickly mentorship and the obnoxious striving of youth, and the literary character of Inherent Vice. (Alex Ross Perry’s first almost-feature length film, Impolex, is an adaptation of Gravity’s Rainbow). So what is the film about? Briefly, it is a portrait of the titular Philip, a relatively young author whose second book (the pretentiously titled Obidant) is about to be published. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Asshole, it could perhaps be called. Philip happens to meet a literary idol of his, the older author Ike Zimmerman (played by Jonathan Pryce, seemingly modeled on a degenerate Philip Roth) and they strike up a friendship. At the same time, Philip’s relationship with his girlfriend Ashley (played by Elisabeth Moss) disintegrates. That’s pretty much it. Like what it parodies, the film is often insufferable and tedious, but within that gambit, it is very often truly funny as well. Faults are apparent, but are they faults or simply features? The film lacks emotional depth, but so does the protagonist. The film is often very static structurally, but then again, this might also be inherent to the subject matter. There is an unrelenting, vacuous, overly-verbose voice-over that is foregrounded, but then again… you know where I’m going. No matter its faults, if that they be, this is not an empty parody of form or surfaces. What gives it integrity and interest lies in the materiality of the film’s construction rather than within its concepts: the ill-fitting sutures that tie segments together, and the great puncta within many shots carry an internal poetry, adding to the humor by undercutting the pretension, and forming a truly distinct style. In the service of what, though? It is hard to say, as the film basically ends where it began, with some laughs along the way, and a nice side trip through the life of Ashley sans Philip. A relationship film though? Not really, unless we are speaking of how an egomaniac relates to himself. I can see this being a film that polarizes, and it is hard to deny that it is one-joke in nature, and we do get it. But is that all there is to get? That question, nagging, is the keyhole through which we might glimpse…

Three and a half stars out of five

The Imitation Game – Morten Tyldum (2014)

Ugg, if there is one genre I tend to detest, it is the bio-pic. Why so, you life loving types might ask? Well, settle onto my knee, sonny, and grump along with me for a moment. First of all, most of the time we are being told a story we already know, so there are rarely any surprises involved. This might be tolerable if the subject were portrayed in an interesting fashion. As it is, most often the subjects of such films are slavishly worshiped, great golden men (and rarely women) held aloft for us to cheaply revel in the glow they reflect, all of us puny crudmuffins now suddenly reawakened to our shared “humanity.” Ah yes, who doesn’t want to shave a piece of self-esteem off the ol’ block of the less than flinty Mahatma, or perhaps even J.C. himself? I dare you, my friends, to look back through biographical films made even in just the last twenty years. Will you find a critical viewpoint? Will you find anything that not only makes you reconsider what you knew, but even keeps you awake? I think not. Tedium and self-righteousness do not a happy pairing (nor a happy viewer) make.

Here endeth the preamble-by-way-of-explanation-hinting-at-an-apologia for seeing, and thus commenting on, The Imitation Game. I was convinced to see it by someone who shall remain nameless. But, lo, good news – it is not bad! Yes, I already knew the story of Alan Turing (spelling his name like a proper Alan should). And yes, there is more than a little basking and past-patronizing in the mix. What makes this good, then? Well, it is very well directed. The structure of the film is more sophisticated than most, moving around the chronology in a way that makes emotional impact, and the overall design of the film (the sets, the costuming, the mise-en-scene and camerawork) evokes the era without italicizing or winking. The performances are also good, and Cumberbatch does make a very sympathetic Turing, even when at his prickliest. Perhaps it is Turing’s outsider nature, and his tragic end, that made me more sympathetic than normal. There is plenty to dislike, but more in the mode of “oh, must you, really?” (disappointment) rather than “cripes!” (sigh, eyes rolling). The film often slips into Hollywood heart-string contrivances – as in the cryptographer who, at the first message successfully decoded, discovers his brother is on the ship they are about to let sink (rather than tip their English hands to the Germans). Punches are thrown, yells are exchanged, “Who are you/we to play God?!?” etc. Such things feel like the screenwriter trying to gin up some teacup tempest dramatics in stiff-upper-lipsville. A poor score mars the film as well – then again, ninety percent of scores are poor and unnecessary. Oh well. Yes, this is a positive review.

Three stars out of five

Leviathan – Andrey Zvyagintsev (2014)

Leviathan has aroused considerable controversy in its native Russia, apparently for portraying local authorities and the church in a light less than glowing; the Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky accused Zvyagintsev of playing up problems within Russia in order to win foreign accolades. (The Ministry of Culture co-financed the film, so the criticism might seem odd, but Zvyagintsev’s earlier films, particularly The Return, brought international praise and comparisons to Tarkovsky, and were not overtly political). That he has won the foreign accolades is not in doubt, as the film tops many “best of” lists from the past year, yet this is hardly a shocking expose. In fact, Western viewers will no doubt see much that is overly familiar in the corruption portrayed in the film (the fact that the film is fairly subtle and does make Russia look like every other capitalist kleptocracy probably counts against it rather than mitigates). The film concerns Nikolai, a somewhat hot-headed auto mechanic and independent businessman in a small Russian town who happens to own a nice piece of property, generations-old, overlooking an inland sea that is drying up (symbolism alert!). The mayor of the town covets the property, and so requisitions it to build a “community center.” The film portrays the blow-back from the Mayor and his cronies as Nikolai tries to fight the acquisition, with the help of an old friend from Moscow, Dmitriy, a well-connected lawyer. I won’t say much more on specifics, since the slow unfolding of Nikolai’s fate pretty much is the film, but needless to say things work against him, and by the end of the film, he finds himself in dire straits.

There is much to like about the film, most significantly in the open-endedness of many of the sequences, which often softly set us up for one type of payoff and deliver something less expected. Likewise, the portrait of a man against the system is not strident, as by the end viewers could see Nikolai’s afflictions as the result of so much bad luck, general bull-headedness, the course of life playing out or as a top-down conspiracy. It is true that the religious figures in the film don’t fare well, ranging from a kind of bleak “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” existentialism to providing full-on corrupt moral cover to political misdeeds of all stripes; even so, one gets the sense that the Job-like struggles of the Russian everyman are, in Zvyagintsev’s view, the natural state of things in Russia. In this, the film follows in a long tradition of Russian pessimism (although this particular tale is mostly punishment without the crime). The film has weak areas: the symbolism, such as the Job connection, explicitly referenced within the film, is heavy-handed at times; the Philip Glass style undulating score is weak and grating (although thankfully saved for the beginning and end). You could argue that it’s overly long. I just didn’t find it any more or less compelling than other “grinding a man down” art films of yore. I must say that I often find Russians unsympathetic and cold anyway, so it wasn’t hard for me to buy into this as another entry in the “same old story” of life sucking in Russia.

Three stars out of five

Maps to the Stars – David Cronenberg (2014)

Maps to the Stars is really a film with one story, about a dysfunctional family that has little to do with celebrity except in the most superficial way, that tries to pass itself off as a portrait of Hollywood and its denizens. At least, that’s how it feels, although on reflection, the only other storylines going have to do with Julianne Moore as a less than relevant actress trying to revive her career, and Robert Pattinson (now Cronenberg’s go-to blank face) as a limo driver with aspirations, and both of those threads weave into the main plot fairly tightly. (At least Mr. Pattinson has moved from the back seat to the front – perhaps next time he’ll be allowed to exit the vehicle). No, this is not The Player, even if the trailer gives the sense of that type of insider satire coupled with some possible body horror elements. Really, it has some satirical elements, which will quickly date as the names drop away into the tidal basin of history, but in fact the film wants to be a mythopoeic saga of family discord, with enough incest zest to connect it, constellation-like, to the ancients and their worldview. Yes, this is Cronenberg, so while the Freudian elements should be running freely like sap from some cosmic tree (or, if that’s too much to ask from him lately, at least stacking up like the Collected Works), we are instead in the mental realms that generated Spider and Eastern Promises; that is, the realm of scripts unwritten by Mr. Cronenberg. I’m not sure why Cronenberg has bowed-out of the writerly side of things, but his late period works (everything since Crash) have pretty much given up the ghost. Some of his late films are good, many are not – Spider in particular was boring and mannered – but I do enjoy his style, as it has shifted from the scruffy-yet-controlled early genre days to a super-controlled crispness that I do find refreshing (like snow down your sock – a snowball to the face is asking overmuch). Anyway, what about the movie? Okay, yes, it is not boring, and has decent to good performances from actors working with characters that are just-compelling-enough, but everything is half-baked and underdeveloped. The family dynamics and psychological aspects are never given full force and are overly broad, and the satire, while humorous in parts, is likewise too specific. It is better than the aforementioned later films, and one gets the feeling that without Cronenberg at the helm, this would have been much worse, veering quickly into quirk and/or tedium. What spoke to him in the script is hard to guess. This film contains the pastiest John Cusack ever, as well as the worst digital fire ever.

Two and a half stars out of five

Two Days, One Night – Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (2014)

I have only seen a few of the Dardenne brothers’ films – I know, time for the thumbscrews – but Two Days, One Night is more uplifting and less dedicated to sober realism than past efforts. Per usual for them, the film centers on working-class people living close to the edge, but the fact that one is Marion Cotillard and the other is the most supportive husband in the world raises this to an almost Hollywood level of good feelings and redemption. Cotillard plays Sandra, who gets notice on Friday that her job is to be eliminated, voted out by her co-workers in favor of an end of year bonus for themselves; depressive and self-effacing type that she is, she has to be goaded into fighting for her job, first by a friend in the company (who convinces the boss to allow a new ballot on Monday morning) and then by her husband, who convinces her to contact her co-workers directly over the weekend and lobby for her job. The film takes place over Saturday and Sunday, as she seeks out and attempts to convince said co-workers of her value, which she herself is unconvinced of. Without her job, though, she and her husband risk slipping back into the public housing they have only recently lifted themselves out of, and she backwards into a likewise depression. In being forced to speak for herself, Sandra comes to understand something not only of her own self-worth, but of the worth of colliding with all types of people, no matter the outcome; indeed, the film is strongest as a portrait of how work fragments and alienates people from each other, but also how it can form bonds and renew possibilities, even when antagonisms are the surface result. Her visits form an overall portrait of the working life, and some of her encounters are incredibly affecting – as with the co-worker who bursts into tears, hoping for her to win the vote and keep her job even though it would be a financial “disaster” for his family, as he is the sole breadwinner. It is within the material reality of these interactions that the film excels; in the macro, a definite moral emerges – that fighting or standing up for yourself is its own reward, and leads to happiness and hope – that while doubtlessly true somehow still feels slight. It never feels pat, though, or easy, which does matter. Cotillard gives a good performance, but not an amazing one; her self-hatred and destructiveness felt contrived to me, and a few key scenes centering around those tendencies could have been usefully cut (it seems like piling on after a certain point). The film’s climax has its own climax, a choice that one can see coming from a mile off, but even here, the almost Christian morality works rather than grates, and resolves into a genuinely feel-good conclusion. As for the film’s construction, it is solid, as is all the Dardennes work, but their style has gotten to the point of practically being an anti-style – “the official international hand-held camera vérité style deployed when keeping things real.” Perhaps take a flight of fancy sometime, bros, especially given that this film hews close to the terrain of fable?

Four stars out of five

Jauja – Lisandro Alonso (2014)

Jauja introduced me to a director I must admit I was ignorant of, although he has directed four other features; the film was entered in Cannes this past year, which is what brought it to my attention. Set in Patagonia, at the turn of the century (or perhaps before, the date is unclear), the film features stunning imagery and restrained performances, most startlingly from Viggo Mortensen, who speaks his patrimonial tongue throughout. A kind of existential western, Jauja concerns Mortensen’s journey, as a cartographer traveling with an army detachment, to locate his runaway adolescent daughter. The film begins with dreamy vibes and only grows stranger, more spare and more hallucinatory, as the saga unfolds. That said, Alonso is known for low-key storytelling and the use of non-actors, so this is emphatically not hallucinatory in the acid western stylings of Robert Downey’s Greaser’s Palace or even Jodorowsky’s El Topo. Rather, the film, by the end, reminded me very much of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir’s masterpiece from the late 70s. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t, but I will say that the film, which I felt was going in disappointing directions by the three-quarter mark, turns around in the finish; indeed, the ending, as the best endings do, forces you to reevaluate all that has come before, and opens up a poetic dimension unimagined until that point.

Three and a half stars out of five

Clouds of Sils Maria – Olivier Assayas (2014)

Olivier Assayas’s work is often uneven. He has directed some brilliant films (1994’s Cold Water, 2000’s Les Destinées, and Demonlover in 2002), some that are a mixed lot (such as his best-known, 1996’s Irma Vep), and a few absolute duds (2007’s Boarding Gate, for example). And then there is Carlos – the less we speak of Carlos, the better, but suffice to say that any film that spends a third of its six hour running time with a protagonist hiding out and complaining of varicose testes… One tendency in Assayas work that some perhaps find alienating or off-putting is his foregrounding of the problems of the glamorous, powerful, and well-to-do in a fairly non-ironic way. Irma Vep was about a director losing his way directing a famous actress, Demonlover concerned power plays by sexy movers and shakers within international corporations, and Carlos was Assayas at his international jet-setting worst, a work that signified “cool” at every juncture while being deeply boring, self-satisfied and self-indulgent.

Given that his best films tend to hew away from the surface sheen of money, fame, power, and what we could generally term the “eye-candy” of international capital, I was a bit hesitant on the approach to Clouds of Sils Maria. (The rush to judgement in certain online forums, where users were vehement about wishing the early demise of such “annoying” characters, didn’t help my hopefulness). The film concerns an older actress, played by Juliette Binoche, and her hesitation to take on a role in a play about power dynamics between two women, one older and one younger, where the younger seduces and destroys the older. She originally played the younger role, to much acclaim, twenty years prior, and now is offered the role of the older (to be destroyed) woman, against a current Hollywood ingenue (played by Chloe Grace Moretz). Along for the ride as a helper and confidant is her personal assistant, played by Kristen Stewart.

The film becomes a kind of mental triangle among the women, with Binoche and Stewart mostly bonding, sometimes sparring, as Stewart helps convince Binoche to take the role and coaches her through dialogue preparation. A subtle transference begins to occur, and the dynamics of the play (titled Maloja Snake, after the rarely seen movement of clouds through a mountain valley) start influencing the women’s relationship. Binoche struggles with the meaning and personal ramifications of playing an older, “debased” role (when she is still somewhat resting on her laurels from her younger performance), while Moretz shape-shifts and personifies the “emptiness of today’s youth” that every older generation feels in some measure about its younger competition. Kristen Stewart is stuck in the middle, not only as the go-between for Binoche and the world, but as a woman who can see what getting older has in store for her, and is sympathetic to the prospect and compassionate in her analysis, but who also isn’t there yet and doesn’t want to be.

If this sounds like problems for the elite, well, on one level it certainly is. At the same time, I did not find the characters annoying or their problems uninteresting, as the writing is exceptionally good and the layers manifold. The film deals with multiple issues very subtly: the difference between “performance” and “authentic” self, the nature of acting and popularity, how women relate to each other, all of which is filtered through the larger dynamic of aging and what it means to get older and to feel you are still in step (or not) with your time. It is a drama without pyrotechnics, but it lingers, and the performances are incredibly strong – particularly Kristen Stewart, who I didn’t expect much from but who knocked me out. The film is up there with Bergman’s reflections on the performing life, but Assayas brings an appreciation and critique of both the ridiculousness and the wonderfulness of the post-modern capitalist phantasmagoria. And in terms of a film that tries to observe, and not polemicize, what it means to be a woman and an image, and that seriously considers how women are or are not allowed to age and still remain socially relevant, this is the finest recent film I can think of. For Assayas fans, it’s his strongest film since Demonlover, and worth returning to.

Four and a half stars out of five