Saturday, November 15, 2014

AFI Fest 2014: "Clouds of Sils Maria"

Director: Olivier Assayas
Runtime: 124 minutes

The political revolutionaries at the center of Olivier Assayas' last film, the excellent Something in the Air, would probably hate to watch their creator's follow-up. Moving from social and political upheaval to the world of show business, Assayas' latest is a flashier exercise filled with star power and picturesque imagery. It's also one of the director's most purely enjoyable films, even though it outstays its welcome by treading through too much familiar ground. Snappy writing, sleek camera work, and strong lead performances will be enough for some, while others will look at the subject matter and themes and wonder why they spent two hours with testy celebrities. Or, who knows, you might even find yourself somewhere in the middle, as I did walking out of the Egyptian theater last night.

Films that poke at the behind the scenes activities of the entertainment world are often in a precarious position when it comes to the background details. Throw in too many references to real actors and celebrities, and you risk becoming glib and going after easy targets. Throw out too few, and the world of stardom, no matter how far removed from Hollywood, and the story seems too removed from reality to be fully convincing. On this level, Assayas has thankfully hit the bull's eye. The name-dropping is carefully placed, some of it timed for the film's bursts of humor.

Without replacing the actual development, those references go a long way in informing the mindset of Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche). A big star who's won over both Hollywood and the international scene, Maria is busy trying to find her next project, hopefully one that won't involve her hanging from wires in front of a green screen. On her way to a tribute in Zurich - to Wilhelm Melchior who gave her career its start 20 years ago - Maria and her sarcastic assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) learn that Wilhelm has died. Though distraught, Maria, with Val's coaching, makes it to the tribute, dressed to the nines and receiving thunderous applause.

Maria is all set to get out of Switzerland when she's approached by rising director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), who has an ambitious proposition in mind. He wants to restage Melchior's play Maloja Snake, in which Maria originally played the dangerous young ingenue, but with Maria in the role of the older woman. Though Maria eventually agrees, digging into the role of the desperate Helena, seduced and destroyed by young Sigrid, proves far more difficult than anticipated. Secluded in Melchior's mountain home at the behest of his widow, Maria and Val run lines and debate interpretations of the play in the run up to meeting the future Sigrid: Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), a classically trained actress with Hollywood bad girl tendencies.

Sils Maria's first two parts are never less than a blast to sit through. Part one, which ends with Maria and Val preparing to head into the mountains, is lusciously shot, accentuating the high fashion, fancy galas, and luxury cars. Several dynamic, overhead camera shots make Maria's travels feel like the arrival at the red carpet of the Oscars. Assayas can be a fluid and engaging storyteller - Something in the Air had its share of thrilling photography - but here he's clearly having quite a bit of fun dipping his toes in the lives of the rich and famous. Though not as showy, the film's second part, confined to the mountains, is just as visually arresting.

That same sense of liberated style also applies to Binoche's just-shy-of-fading star. An expert at playing charming, sensitive characters, it's great fun to see the actress tear into such a haughty, self-involved role. Her face, which grows exponentially more expressive with each passing year, is a joy to watch as Maria's fear, disdain, and spite burrow into her eyes and the lines around her eyes and mouth. Even when Maria sheds the fancy gowns and chops off most of her beautiful black hair to prepare for rehearsals, she remains as nervy and high maintenance, a cactus draped in Chanel. For longtime followers of the Church of Binoche (converting was one of the best decisions I've ever made), her success with the role likely won't be a surprise. Just as Assayas' world knows what Maria Enders is capable of, international audiences have long been aware of Binoche's talents.

So even though it's fun to see Binoche play such a different role, the film's understated surprise is none other than Stewart. An easy target after the Twilight series, the actress has made the leap to "respectable" world cinema without stumbling. If anything, she's proven that she's much better suited to material like what Assayas has given her than blockbuster extravaganzas. Stewart, low-key, sarcastic, and determined, is an inspired foil for Binoche's high-pitched hysterics. Initially just a sounding board with two phones, Val inches out of her shell once the film moves to the mountains. Never at full-on odds with Maria, Val's relationship with her jet-setting boss is what keeps some of the film's repetitive rehearsal scenes afloat. Maria and Val's opposing interpretations of the play nicely run alongside the film's ideas about aging and clinging onto youth in the face of middle age.

And even though some of Assayas' writing is rather on-the-nose, he keeps Sils Maria buoyant with a boisterous sense of humor. Without leaning too heavily on his Hollywood references, Assayas' script gets great mileage out of its characters' reactions to their compromised situations and idealogical confrontations. Even with the beautiful landscape photography, there's nothing more striking in Sils Maria than the small moments when Maria and Val go toe-to-toe, either at each other's throats or in laughing in each other's faces.

With Maria and Val's dynamic being such an integral part of the film's energy, it's no surprise that Stewart's exit from the story lets a lot of wind out of the story's sails. Even though the third segment of the film is labeled as the epilogue, it's far too long and touches on too many of the same ideas as before. The finale, set during a dress rehearsal, has a great moment between Binoche and Moretz, but just about everything leading up to that point could be left on the cutting room floor without any losses. Assayas touches on Jo-Ann's status as a paparazzi target early on with some hilarious footage of her bad behavior, so the reintroduction of the paparazzi at the end is redundant. Jo-Ann's scenes before the epilogue are more than sufficient, and the reprisal of the paparazzi angle detracts from the better established issue of aging and faded glory. For a film so confidently assembled, the epilogue is an odd misstep that gets in the way of Sils Maria keeping up its streak of winning dramatic and comedic moments.

Grade: B

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