Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Movie Review: Clouds Of Sils Maria/Slow West (2015)
Back when I reviewed Still Alice, I found myself unable to remove the mental association about SWIMNOT’s involvement in the Twilight films. Looking back on it, I definitely ended up doing her a disservice and treated her largely as a punchline. Given her work as Bella Swan, that is probably to be expected to a certain degree as that is definitely the kind of film series that is custom-made to damage careers. However, after seeing her outright impressive turn in American Ultra, I think we’ve reached the point where she has earned her place as a legitimate actor. So, as we take another look into this indie Cinderella story, and if that sounds trite forgive me for picking the most appropriate phrase possible, I’m putting an official embargo on Twilight jokes. This is Clouds Of Sils Maria.

The plot: Maria (Juliette Binoche) is a famous actress of stage and screen, having gotten her start in both the play and film versions of Maloja Snake by Swiss playwright Wilhelm Melchior. However, in the wake of the sudden news of Wilhelm’s death reaches her shortly before an award ceremony that he was meant to win, a theatre director approaches her to once again perform in a rendition of Maloja Snake. Only this time, instead of playing the younger Sigrid as she did all those years ago, she is to play her older counterpart Helena. As she reads through her lines with her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), and comes to terms with the renegade actress Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz) that will starring opposite her, she begins to realize just how much she holds dear when it comes to this role.

Playing around with the boundaries of reality is certainly nothing new in the realm of film. After all, what is cinema but convincing people of a false reality for a 90-or-so minute duration? This film does much the same, only in a refreshingly subtler way than usual. Whenever the line between fiction and reality is blurred, like with the works of Satoshi Kon or Charlie Kaufman, it’s done with a psychological bent that is meant to actively make the audience question what the reality of the film actually is. Here, by contrast, it’s done in a more immediate sense, meant to directly draw the audience’s attention to the line while keeping it as distinct as possible. Basically, the main way it is accomplished here isn’t to confuse the audience; it’s more to show just how good the actors are, both in and out of the film’s universe. When Maria and Valentine are doing line reads for the play, through the clever writing as well as the phenomenal acting from Binoche and Stewart, the parallels that are drawn make for impressive set pieces. The reason why the acting works as well as it does is that it makes for incredibly smooth transitions between them reading lines from the play and them just talking, yet doesn’t make either line of discussion feel stilted. It’s incredibly natural both ways, which gives credence to Maria’s abilities as an actress as well as to the story of the film overall. They even manage to generate comedy out of the frustration Maria feels about flubbing her lines.

Since the comparison is pretty much inevitable, I’ll make the one and only Birdman comparison here and now. While Riggan’s ego was about staying true to himself and doing what he believed was right, Maria’s ego is about staying true to not only herself but also the legacy of her role. The core of the film, that being Maria returning to perform a role opposite the one that made her famous, is a surprisingly prevalent tradition with more classical actors: John Gielgud went from playing Cassius to the emperor he plotted to kill in two separate versions of Julius Caesar, and John Hurt went from protagonist Winston Smith in 1984 to antagonist Adam Sutler in the 1984-esque V For Vendetta adaptation. Here, through her difficulties in dealing with her shifted perspective in a story that means something very dear to her, she is not only dealing with a straight-up mirror of how much time has passed but also trying to reconcile all of it so that not only her own legacy is upheld, but also that of the writer/director Wilhelm Melchior.

Then there’s the differing stances on that fictional line on the other side of the screen, as we see how the audience responds to it. The centrepiece when it comes to this perspective is through a conversation between Maria, Valentine, Jo-Ann and her lover Christopher (Johnny Flynn). Both Jo-Ann and Chris admire Maria, but in different ways. Jo-Ann isolates a film that she did with Harrison Ford, where her performance was that emotionally effecting that it is what drove her to become an actress. Chris, on the other hand, brings up seeing her at a screening of one of her earlier French films and brings something she said in response to a question that he found inspiring. That lack of bias when it comes to where and how an artist affects the audience and which is more important is also shown through how Maria and Valentine react to Jo-Ann’s latest film, a rather astute send-up of modern superhero flicks. Valentine shows a certain understanding of Jo-Ann’s character and her emotional woes, whereas Maria sees it as pop psychology hidden under a patently absurd premise. Neither of them are right, and neither of them are wrong because they don’t exist when it comes to the effect of art, particularly cinema. A lot of the dialogue involves differing interpretations of certain texts, mainly the play at the centre of everything, and it never comes across like some or any of these characters were written to abjectly “not get it”; instead, they just give differing opinions and, in most cases, give adequate reasons for why that is. Even the titles used enforce this: the fictional play Maloja Snake and the actual film Clouds Of Sils Maria are referring to the exact same thing, just worded differently.

There’s also some screen time devoted to different brands of reality outside of film and theatre. When dealing with a film that focuses on actor ego, it’d be surprising if it didn’t deal with celebrity news in one form or another. For the most part, despite how she’s on screen nearly as much as Stewart or Binoche, it’s centred on Jo-Ann’s character. We see her attitudes to the paparazzi and the reasons why she is doing the projects she’s doing, but probably the sharpest point made is how she is seen by the rest of the world, Maria and Valentine in particular. Jo-Ann, from how the tabloids, interviews and film panels portray her, is a rebellious teen in that ex-Disney sort of way; it feels like she’s overcompensating for some sort of pre-existing image that she wants to shed. However, Valentine takes an immediate shine to her because of the fact that she is so abrasive and, after she sees more footage of her online, Maria starts to understand that mindset and reciprocate it. It definitely mirrors how some people view Kanye West in today’s day and age: Yeah, he’s an asshole, but some people love him as this cult of personality because he’s such an asshole; he’s entertaining in a different way from everyone else. Hell, so long as an artist keeps making good content, it ultimately doesn’t matter how they are in the real world; they make works of fiction, not autobiography.

All in all, this film has astounding respect for the art of acting, both for the artist and the audience. It takes a look at the boundary between what is real and what is acted out, how they both can affect people on similar levels and, by film’s end, realize that it ultimately shouldn’t matter how and where inspiration comes from. As someone who has learnt an awful lot from the world of fiction, I have immense respect for this kind of message, especially when it’s delivered with writing this sharp and acting this resonant. It’s better than Avengers: Age Of Ultron, as no part of this film felt unfulfilling… save for maybe the ending, which kind of betrays the approach about not going the abstract route. However, even though both films are probably on par when it comes to how well they’re written, Mr. Holmes just hit harder emotionally.

The Western has probably some of the strangest stylistic and artistically inbred origins of any narrative genre. Its genesis lies in the classic samurai flicks of Akira Kurosawa like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. These would in turn go on to get what are essentially American remakes with The Magnificent Seven and the Three Dollars trilogy that gave Clint Eastwood his most iconic role. Then Japan took inspiration from the sand-scorched cinema of the Man With No Name to create seminal anime works like Cowboy Bebop and Trigun. Then stylistic film nerd Quentin Tarantino took bits and pieces from those series, among many other sources, to help create the Western samurai Kill Bill movies. It’s like a game of tennis where successful volleys result in cinematic gold and not just watching a ball go back and forth for hours without respite. As a result, the breadth of places where people decide to make Westerns is hardly surprising; hell, I looked at a French existential Western earlier this year. So, as I look at today’s film filmed in New Zealand by a Scottish filmmaker, I can safely say that there are more geographically disconnected iterations out there. This is Slow West.

The plot: Scottish teen Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has made his way to the U.S. in order to find his sweetheart Rose (Caren Pistorius), who fled Scotland with her father (Rory McCann) to escape a $2000 bounty. Jay hires bounty hunter Silas (Michael Fassbender) to escort him through the American West, with them encountering many dangerous characters and terrains along the way.

This is a rather impressive cast who all manage to leave an impact by film’s end. Fassbender’s rogue drifter is top-notch, forging some good chemistry with Smit-McPhee’s naïve but determined dreamer. Ben Mendelsohn delivers another bizarrely captivating performance as the outlaw Payne, bringing the same manic kookiness that made him so fun in Lost River. Pistorius, given how well she carries herself off both in her scenes with Smit-McPhee and in the climactic gunfight, had better get more roles after this one because she was fantastic. Andrew Robertt as the writer Werner was a big smartarse but definitely made for an entertaining scene when he got his time to shine.

Rather than creating a large arching story, this film seems to have been designed to be digested scene-by-scene. By that basis, this makes for a particularly good yarn. The main story about Jay’s mission to find love does offer a nice beginning and end in their respective scenes and… well, without giving too much away, let’s just say that after everything he went through, how this film ends really rubs salt into the wound. However, the major draw here comes from the vignettes in between: The Injun hunters, the convenience store robbery, the story about the kid who desired his own wanted poster; it all works really well when seen/heard from the perspective of the very out-of-place Jay Cavendish. It shows a very black sense of humour, as being surrounded by that much death would pretty much require it to keep what little sanity you have left, as well as showing off the traditional harshness of the setting. I’d go so far as to say that this has easily the best scene involving rain that I’ve seen yet in a Western, feeling like something that would have been a legitimate issue in that terrain; hell, it probably still is a cause for concern in the outback today.

While we have the usual musings about how treacherous the era is and what people are being driven to do in order to survive, there’s also a tribute to another more recent tradition of the genre. As our sensibilities concerning Westerns have altered, largely thanks to the works of Clint Eastwood, it has started more and more to incorporate the plights of the original residents of the desert. We’ve seen it before in works like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and, as bad as it is, even the recent Lone Ranger film. Here, writer/director John Maclean takes that concept a step further and looks at the cultural patchwork of the time. Throughout the film, as we meet increasingly colourful characters, we learn that those who aren’t Native American are essentially mongrels: Jay, Rose and her family come from Scotland, Silas mentions having an Irish-Canadian background, not to mention the Swedish family that are torn apart by what takes place around them. That kind of consideration shows not only how needlessly cruel people like the Injun hunters are, but also helps to drive home just how bad the Wild West really is. North America, Britain, Sweden; regardless of where you start, the West is where you’re going to stop if you dare step foot in it.

All in all, this is a nice little morsel of a film. At less than 80 minutes (excluding credits), this film doesn’t waste time and uses every second it has to its advantage, either to show off the landscape, the cast or the simultaneously darkly funny and morally downbeat writing. Given how overstuffed a lot of films are, including several that I’ve looked at in my short time here, there’s definitely something to admire about a film that sticks around just long enough to make its point. It’s better than Paper Planes as this didn’t need to appeal to utter cheese in order to make me laugh. However, out of respect to a filmmaking convention that I genuinely wish was in more releases nowadays, The Transporter Refueled gets the edge thanks to its awesome fight scenes.

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