Thursday, May 14, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria

                   “And I’m getting older too” Fleetwood Mac, “Landslide”
                                                                      (from their 1975 Fleetwood Mac album)
                                                 Review by Ken Burke
Bella, scarred at present but never defeated
 While I realize that there are a lot of possibilities out there in local cinemas to attract my attention for your edification (but I have to admit that neither Hot Pursuit [Anne Fletcher], Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 [Andy Fickman], Home [Tim Johnson], nor Unfriended [Levan Gabriadze] among the current top-income-takers nor much of anything of a more independent nature—except possibly The D Train [Jarred Paul, Andrew Mogel], although the thought of a high-school-reunion-story when I’m already mulling over whether I want to attend my own 50th next year hasn’t exactly inspired me much either) there are also a lot of other non-cinematic-considerations that have kept me largely away from the theaters lately so I’ve got just this one film to comment on for this posting; however, it’s a worthy one that I encourage you to see if your time and logistics allow.  Although Nina and I were able to take a short movie-centric-vacation up to Mendocino to stay at the Heritage House where Same Time Next Year (Robert Mulligan, 1978) was shot (and they loop it continuously on one of their cable channels), a good bit of our current-time-allowance is being devoted to our “reclamation project”-feline (adopted on Valentine’s Day, 2015; she was a $20 shelter special who’s now known as “the $3,000 cat” once we discovered all of the various unknown things wrong with her, which, among other challenges, has left her with only 9 teeth as she determinately gums down her meals), beautiful Bella, who’s now on a 6-week-anti-allegery-food-and-medicine-regiment to help get rid of her itchy head rash.  I’ll let you know later if we’ve made any progress as she settles into her full ownership of our lives.  As you’ll see in this review, though, I’m already beginning to question full ownership of the rest of my life, as this film is very successful at forcing us to confront what existence has offered us, with continuing self-control always a critical concern (and not just in the evaluative sense).
                        Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)
A famous stage/screen actress faces a career dilemma when she finds herself old enough to take on the part of a middle-aged-woman in the revival of a play that began her career when she was cast as the younger, more free-spirited of the protagonist pair; her assistant encourages her, but the role and her rebellious Hollywood co-star aren’t helping much.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.

What Happens: We begin on a train into a gorgeous-but-remote-area of Switzerland (Sils Maria) with famous-French-stage-and-screen-actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her much-younger-but-very-competent-American-assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) traveling to an award ceremony for Wilhelm Melchior (Valery Bukreev, seen mostly in photos), Maria’s mentor from a play that he wrote and directed (along with a film version), Maloja Snake (the title referring to an atmospheric condition that allows a stream of clouds to travel like an advancing snake through the mountains onto a river in this elevated area of the Alps), where Maria’s portrayal of the young, brassy Sigrid helped make her a star.  She had always hoped that Wilhelm would complete a contemplated sequel exploring Sigrid’s life 20 years later, but even as they’re in transit for the ceremony they get word he’s suddenly died (we later learn from his widow, Rosa [Angela Winkler], that it was suicide in response to a terminal illness), leading to an ill-begotten-reunion with Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler), Maria’s co-star from long ago whom she detests because of their failed romance (despite some hostility, he does make a play for her; she surprisingly responds by giving him her hotel room number, but he never calls leaving her in a complex state of disgust).  Maria’s mood isn’t helped by the offer from a rising-star-theatre-director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), who wants to remake Maloja Snake, only with Maria in the role of the older woman, Helena, who develops an attraction for the vivacious Sigrid (to be played by a scandal-ridden-young-Hollywood-star, Jo-Ann Ellis [Chloë Grace Moretz]), much to Maria’s disgust as she finally gets better attuned to social media to view her intended-colleague’s attitude-heavy-escapades, so she’s not interested in the offer as Maria sees Helena as weak and desperate whereas she feels her true persona is still that of Sigrid—despite her advancing years—hindered further by the tension of her divorce-in-progress and the trauma of remembering how the original Helena actress tragically died after establishing the role.  

 However, a bit of time passes bringing us to a new segment of the narrative where Maria has agreed to the role, despite still despising the Helena character, questioning herself as to why she’d want to play this unfulfilled woman, and rejecting every effort Valentine makes to assure her both that the role is more complex than Maria’s willing to admit while her acting is so secure that she’ll easily command Helena’s persona (this leads to conflicts between the 2 women, intensified by Valentine expressing admiration for Jo-Ann’s ability as a thespian, despite whatever tabloid fodder her private life has become—what we see on screen of her most impactful role in some sci-fi/ fantasy-movie seems as preposterous to me as it does to Maria, but Valentine is enthralled with it, silly wig, melodramatic dialogue, and all, even as Maria remains unconvinced of Jo-Ann's talent).

 Jo-Ann would like to rise above her sordid-but-successful-existence as well, hoping that this role will allow her to be taken seriously as a dramatic actress, even though she’s potentially complicating her private situation by carrying on an affair with Christopher Giles (Johnny Flynn), a prominent-yet-married-young-author, another aspect of Jo-Ann’s life that’s simply accepted by Valentine but looked down upon by Maria, especially after Christopher’s wife learns of the affair and attempts suicide, bringing scandal to the Maloja Snake project even before it’s under way.  As Valentine continues to encourage Maria to see the value and suppressed dignity in the character of Helena (even noting that she simply is removed from the plot of the play, with the assumption but no hard evidence of suicide), employer and employee continually clash, leading to Valentine’s sudden disappearance one day on a mountain-trail-hike/script-running-session/ argument with Maria about the possibility of being in the right location to actually see the clouds move in with that celebrated snake-like-appearance (which does occur after Valentine suddenly vanishes).  Throughout these scenes of their line-readings it’s clear that the play’s characters inadvertently (but purposefully within the structure of the film) reflect the relationship between Maria and Valentine, especially as the younger woman continues to assert herself to her employer just as the play’s Sigrid is taking command of an infatuated-but-lesser-personality in Helena.  After this, we jump ahead again to find Maria with a new assistant as she’s committed herself to the play so we end the film with opening night as we see Maria on stage as Helena just about to have her first encounter with Sigrid.  Throughout, the pace of these successfully-underplayed-scenes has been steady but restrained, frequently ending with fadeouts to dispel any emotional tension that has previously been built up, with Maria consistently providing an engrossing screen presence that speaks easily of her complex life now under further duress from having to acknowledge her own natural aging even though she’d still like to see herself as the cocky ingénue of her youth (there are also odd-but-intriguing-cutaway-scenes of the death of Wilhelm and a dissolve-montage [with overexposed imagery backed by intense music] of a disturbing trip by Valentine to visit her photographer-boyfriend at Italy’s Lake Como, leaving us confused as to what’s going on with her).

So What? Despite my strong admiration for Clouds of Sils Maria, I’m finding it harder than anticipated to write about this fine film, possibly because its focus on the potential emotional difficulties of aging strike closer to home that I usually care to admit.  Although this film is focused on a woman about 20 years my junior (I’ve gotten terrible at estimating ages of just about anyone so that if you’re under 30 you probably look like you’re still in grade school to me while if you’re anywhere over 70 and I don’t understand better from knowing you personally I’ll probably assume that you’re at least in your mid-80s as a way to distance myself from the reality that you could easily be in my age bracket but you look “so old” that I couldn’t possibly share the same demographic as you—although for just about every sales and social consideration in our culture it rarely matters how specifically much older than 65 you are because we [67 for me, just to give this ramble some concrete context] older Americans are all just largely seen as Medicare cows out to pasture waiting for the Ultimate Butcher [well, after all, the Grim Reaper is always shown with a scythe] to claim us for other uses), her difficulty with acknowledging some connection to her stage character is more familiar than I’d like it to be for me, especially as I realize that at my age (where I have a sense of “mortality reality,” in that a good number of my high-school-classmates are already gone) I could easily be one of the residents of the various retirement homes that my parents lived in until their respective demises at ages 92 (father) and 87 (mother), even though my mind is filled with thoughts of my various life stages that rarely are placed in eras older than my 40s.  (I think retirement has something to do with that, especially when I visit my former place of employment at Mills College in Oakland—26 years there, ended in 2013—to watch former colleagues take their own retirement honors while seeing many of those other people that I worked with still in the flow, simultaneously allowing me to feel like I’m still in it too yet reminding me that I’m disconnected from that now, just as I’m disconnected from the decades of my life that I invested in the place.  Do they give senior discounts for therapy? [Mental, not physical; I’ve already got that on the calendar as my joints increasingly remind me that they’ve existed as long as my distracted mind has.]  It’s sounding like I need to look into it, so I’d better get back to the review before the “kids” in the photo above [Christopher and his clandestine paramour, Jo-Ann] get so bored with this critic’s self-exploration that they head off to find a screening of Unfriended.)

KB at May 12, 2015 dinner with Nina
prior to the Neil Diamond concert
 As to what matters in the larger perspective of Clouds of Sils Maria, beyond my increasing awareness that the guy in my mirror is never going to look like those “old” photos from 20 or more years ago again (at this point I don’t think that even the man in The Graduate [Mike Nichols, 1967] whose 1-word-advice for Benjamin Braddock’s [Dustin Hoffman] future was “plastics” has enough of that stuff to aid a surgery that would restore my wedding-picture-looks again [even though I was 42 then]), the primary emphasis should be on how the main 3 female characters in this narrative (and the men who round out their stories) come to different but reasonably-parallel-understandings of themselves as the plot unfolds.  Maria is determined that she despises the play’s character of Helena because she sees this older woman as weak, unsympathetic, and desperate; it’s only after Valentine keeps encouraging her to understand Helena as dignified but lost that she begins to see herself in the role as well as finally accepting value in it 
for both herself and the character. (Of course, she has to lose Valentine in the process but that makes for an intriguing comment on the original play as the assistant argues that Helena doesn’t necessarily commit suicide, she just disappears from the action, as Valentine herself does in this film.)  Valentine, on the other hand, while she interacts with Maria much more as a colleague than an employee, seems to have aspirations for herself that transcend her working-class-status, shown especially in the earlier-line-reading-scenes with Maria where she clearly has a command of Sigrid herself, barely looking at the script, while later line-readings on the mountain path require her to look more frequently at the written text as if she’s abandoned any thoughts of being an actress herself given Maria’s constant dismissal of her interpretation of Helena, as if Valentine has no appropriate understanding of the nuances of written/performed drama.  Finally we have Jo-Ann, a self-aware-talented-screw-up (whose actual clandestine screwing with Christopher indicates how difficult it is for her to put aside her temporal pleasures) who longs to give her career the type of substance that playing Sigrid brought to Maria but who fears that she’s not capable of rising above her own scandal-ridden-personality in order to inhabit the self-confident, domineering role that proved so pivotal for Maria long years ago and could easily strike real (rather than foolish) gold for her if she can just transcend her own self-detested-actions.  

 When you put them all together, these women present quite a compelling story that has no fast action, no soul-searing-drama (as with Ingmar Bergman’s career of intense-psychological-masterpieces), and no dramatic resolutions but still manages to resonate with intelligence, deeply-felt personal challenges, and a sense of embracing the demandingly-difficult-truth-of-life in a quiet-but-determined-manner (further enhanced by Stewart winning the César Award [essentially the French Oscar] for Best Supporting Actress, the 1st time for this honor to an American actress, enhancing her status as a serious screen presence after those forgettable Twilight Saga movies [Catherine Hardwicke, 2008; Chris Weitz, 2009; David Slade, 2010; Bill Condon, 2011, 2012]).

Bottom Line Final Comments: If you’re intrigued by the concepts presented in Clouds of Sils Maria you may have to work a bit to find a theater still playing it after 5 weeks in release 
(I know, it would help if I’d gotten to it sooner, but as explained above I’ve been rather busy lately with other matters—just ask Bella) because it’s in only about 183 movie houses, having made only a bit over $1 million in domestic ticket sales (as the opening credits show, it took about a dozen companies to even get it made, indicating what a high-concept-but-low-mass-attraction-project it is), so I don’t expect much expansion, especially as the summer blockbuster season gets into full swing with the release this coming weekend of the Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller) remake to add to the latest Avengers’ cash-avalanche at the box-office (up to about $875 million globally as of this writing).  Still, if you can find this marvelously-crafted-European-sensibility-but-done-in-English-language-film and are willing to contemplate what it has to offer about the inevitable process of coming to grips with both your younger self and the dreaded loss of that idealized-persona, this is a cinematically-beautiful-experience that should prove quite rewarding both for those of us looking back over our previous long haul and younger viewers who’re willing to at least consider what it will be like when they actually have to accept the aging process themselves rather than simply dismissing the thought of such along with the creaky, grumpy, cynical owners of those aged selves they might encounter (I speak from increasing experience here—especially the creaky part).  For my Musical Metaphor to speak to the themes of Clouds of Sils Maria I’ve chosen The Beatles’ “Fixing a Hole” (from the 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album) at to acknowledge the emotional growth of Maria Enders as she comes better to terms with her middle-aged-status, finally embracing the character that she so despised for most of the film.  (You know, I found my own mind wandering recently, trying to remember why I started doing these Musical Metaphors to go with the reviews, only being able to recall that it was a spontaneous decision [just as was the on-the-spot-move back in Dallas when I was the film critic for KTXQ-FM (1979-80) and one day decided to give “5 buckets of bitter tears” to some melodramatic mess (I forget which one) that fascinated the female member of the drive-time-DJ-pair that I worked with, which led to my ongoing rating system of 0-5 buckets of … whatever … for each film I reviewed], but after watching the penultimate episode of AMC’s Mad Men last Sunday I realized that I was inspired to offer my Metaphors by their use of such tunes with each episode’s closing credits of this fabulous [but almost-concluded] TV series, where their choices also vary between rather obvious to more obscure commentary).

 So, in keeping with this understanding of being influenced by my current media surroundings, I’ll offer another Musical Metaphor for this whole blog enterprise, “I’m a Believer,” based on my attendance 
2 nights ago at the San Jose, CA version of Neil Diamond’s latest concert tour (you can see virtually the same as what I've just experienced at com/watch?v=bdPLG2glts0, from the March 15, 2015 show at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center [the video’s a bit shaky, but Neil’s voice was equally a bit raspy both then and at my show, although he quickly got into a fine level of vocals for the rest of his non-stop-2-hours at his northern CA stop; this iPhone photo from San Jose’s not so great either but my wonderful wife, Nina, had to take it from our balcony seats which were practically in the next county—Neil may be even older than us but he’s not cheap … yet]), because I find myself to be a “believer” in the fascination and power of cinema, so that even when a movie is a “true ... disappointment” that haunts “all [the] dreams” of my fellow critics I can usually find something worthwhile about it, just because it’s up there on the big screen, with “not a trace of doubt in my mind” (even when it leads to me giving 4 of 5 stars to the universally-loathed The Lone Ranger [Gore Verbinski, 2013; review in our July 11, 2013 posting]—although I’m not a pushover for everything, to wit: 1 star to Horns [Alexandre Aja, 2013; review in our November 6, 2014 posting], despite my admiration for Daniel Radcliffe pushing himself into new territory).  And, in case you need any further digression from my nervous attempts at real analysis of Clouds of Sils Maria (because of that very poignant accepting-the-realities-of-aging-theme), I’ll finish these comments with a note that you can find composer Diamond’s recorded versions of “I’m a Believer” on his 1967 Just for You, 1979 September Morn (with new lyrics), and 2010 Dreams albums (although the more famous recording was done by The Monkees as a 1966 hit single [for the last week of that year, continued on at #1 for the first 6 weeks of 1967], included on their 1967 More of the Monkees album—and, if you need one more [diversionary] Monkees reference, the theme song from their 1966-68 TV show [found on their 1966 debut album, The Monkees] is used for fun in the currently-playing-documentary, Monkey Kingdom [Mark Linfield, Alastair Fothergill; review in our May 7, 2015 posting], which I’ll let you listen to at because I could have easily used it for an already-established-Musical Metaphor in that Monkey ... mini-review but I was sincerely trying to keep that one brief enough to justify my Short Takes approach).   

 In closing, I’ll also make ironic mention of one of Neil’s encore songs last Tuesday night, the now-popular-sing-along, “Sweet Caroline” (after the public embrace of the single in 1969 it was added to a re-issue of the Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show album, renamed as Sweet Caroline), because it’s now become a mid-8th-inning-event at Boston Red Sox games (as well as at Diamond concerts so if you'd like to sing along too here's your chance at Am_qRM, from April 20, 2013 when he led a joyfully-emotional-crowd-participation-version at Fenway Park as part of the "Boston Strong" recovery efforts following the horrific actions of the Marathon bombers—actually he's singing along also with his recorded rendition and isn't in sync that often but I'll chalk that up to the normal sound delay of ballpark acoustics), yet even as we were crooning it 50 miles south of Oakland the Sox were getting beaten by my precious Oakland Athletics, breaking the A’s 6-game-losing-streak (not to be too uplifted by that 9-2 victory, though, the A’s fell to the Sox the next day 2-0 so everything’s back to normal, allowing my massive tribe of New England in-laws to celebrate … possibly as they ponder their former-eternal-allegiance to “deflate-gate”-penalized-Tom Brady and his “Super” Patriots).  I'm a bit short of air myself after jogging through another one of these never-ending-reviews (despite my frequent claims that I couldn't say enough about Clouds of Sils Maria), but I’ll be back soon, though, with a strong feeling that I’ll have been on the road with Mad Max so once I’ve wiped the bugs and the blood off my windshield I’ll see whether Mel Gibson can be effectively replaced by Tom Hardy in this role or not.
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Here’s some more information about Clouds of Sils Maria: (22:54 interview at the 2014 New York Film Festival with writer-director Olivier Assayas, actors Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart)

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Clouds of Sils Maria is well worth the time although it's is one of those films that won't lose much on the home screen. Certainly Juliette Binoche is the significant reason to see this one although Kristen Stewart is stirring up awards talk. While primarily a French actress, Juliette Binoche appears in many English productions, including one of my favorites, 2000's Chocolat in which she was simply stunning in a well executed comedic drama set in a small French town. Chocolat has all of the ingredients for a memorable experience including some well known actors in smaller parts and is highly recommended if you missed it.

    In Clouds of Sils Maria Juliette Binoche effectively plays herself, an older French superstar who feels 18 and still looks stunning with her beauty undiminished. However this film is something of a Meryl Streep moment for the 51 year old Binoche, as she shows the audience an older version of herself sans makeup, hair and flattering outfits. Still she shines while Kristen Stewart seems to mature in the reflection of Binoche's presence. While not a perfect film, this is an interesting production showcasing two fine actresses.
    Juliette Binoche Wiki
    Chocolat Trailer

  2. Hi rj, Insightful comments, appreciated as always. Thanks for the Binoche links also.