Olivier Assayas

Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria

A searing satire of an antiseptic Hollywood system, a meta-commentary on “Celebrity” culture, a melancholic evocation on the impermanence of youth, a pensive portrait of clandestine love, Clouds of Sils Maria is all of this and more. And yet, to simplify or contextualize its intelligence into precise, aphoristic themes feels wildly inappropriate. Olivier Assayas’ latest masterwork transcends superlatives – too daring and damning to be labeled. Its beauty is ineffable. Seamlessly divided into two chapters (plus an epilogue), the film opens with the passing of Wilhelm Melchior, a lauded writer/director responsible for jumpstarting the career of Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche). Twenty years since playing the lead in Melchior’s beloved lesbian drama “Maloja Snake,” Maria is headed to the Alps to pay her respects at a posthumous retrospective. At her side is Valentine (Kristen Stewart), Maria’s devout personal assistant responsible for essentially everything in her life. Once the initial pretenses of the festival subside – the press, the photo shoots, the pseudo sentimentality – Assayas’ introduces his first question: how are we supposed to behave in the wake of death? Maria is understandably distraught upon hearing the news of Melchior’s death – so much so that she’d rather not attend the “posthumous homage” of his work. In the age of Twitter and the twenty-four-hour news cycle, how we grieve, publicly and privately, seems to be actively changing. When someone we’ve known and loved (or even someone we never met, but knew of) ceases to inhabit the same space we do, how do we […]

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Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria

Hollywood is a fickle business, and it’s no secret that it’s at its most treacherous when you’re attempting to navigate its murky waters as an aging actress, especially one who used to be a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young starlet. Roles that were once piling at your feet faster than you could say “is it really necessary for my character to wear this crop top?” are — not suddenly, but gradually enough to not notice their slide — drifting away and being handed to the next new cute thing. Even if  you’re still respected and revered and praised, you’re not going to be called an ingénue anytime soon. The tides have changed. With the new international trailer for Clouds of Sils Maria, Juliette Binoche is figuring this out all too well for herself when Chloe Moretz storms into her life. Binoche is Maria Enders, an actress who found great fame as a young woman playing Sigird in a play called “MalojaSnake.” Twenty years later, when the playwright who gave her this starmaking role dies, she’s compelled, albeit hesitantly, to join a new production of the play — this time playing the role of the emotionally fragile older woman. Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz), Hollywood’s heavy-partying It Girl takes on her former role and challenges her as an actress and apparently her sanity as well.

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When fighting their various political fights, young people oftentimes lose sight of why exactly they are fighting in the first place, getting swept up in the intrigue of dodging the police or suddenly having a tangible purpose in life. Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air follows a group of these idealistic young people, who think that revolution is in their grasp… until disillusionment sets in. The film chronicles the lives of high schooler Gilles (Clément Métayer) and his friends’ involvement in this all-consuming revolutionary fight against the establishment in early 1970s France, in the aftermath of the General Strike and student uprising of May 1968. Assayas’s film is interesting and adeptly captures the misguided, yet well-meaning political fervor of this specific youth culture, but it sometimes falls flat in terms of delving deeper into characters and getting to the root of their passion for their various causes.

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Culture Warrior

A very strange thing happened at this year’s Golden Globes ceremony. Somewhere between Ricky Gervais’ biting monologue/critique and Robert De Niro’s uncomfortable lifetime achievement acceptance speech, an epic international arthouse film won the award for Best Made for Television Movie or Miniseries, beating out the other nominations in the typically HBO-dominated category. Olivier Assayas’ Carlos is, from an American perspective, quite difficult to classify. We first heard about it when it was met with rave reviews at Cannes and other festivals, then it was distributed theatrically through IFC (in its original 5 ½ hour run time) while it had a three-episode “miniseries” run on the Sundance Channel just as it had done in France when originally commissioned for French television. Now, before an explicitly planned DVD release (though there is some certainty that the film will be the latest IFC release to get the Criterion treatment), it’s available streaming in its three-part miniseries form via Netflix (which is how I eventually saw it). All this is to say that it’s quite a task to say with any certainty precisely what Carlos is and in which medium it belongs. The film was financed by French television, yet it’s shot in a widescreen aspect ratio (2.35:1) typically reserved for theatrical cinema, and its 3-episode structure doesn’t follow the expectations of brief closure at the end of each segment typical of, say, an American television miniseries (it comes across more like a necessary break for exhibition and an arbitrary break in storytelling). Now […]

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Criterion Files

For regular readers of this column (yes, all both of you – thanks, Mom and Dad; Neil really appreciates the traffic), it may seem like I have something of an obsessive inclination towards choosing French movies. Such an observation would not be incorrect. I’m fascinated by French movies. It’s difficult to deny that, between eating baguettes and smoking cigarettes at cafés, the French have taken the time to make some pretty damn good movies. And not just now. Or in the 60s. Every decade of the twentieth century, from the formative works of Lumiere to the contemplative mood pieces of Claire Denis, the French have had a consistently strong output and have had enormous influence on western film history at large. For some reason, French movies speak to certain type of cinephile very potently. I haven’t done the math, but it’d be safe to say that more French movies make their way to the US than from any other non-English-speaking country. And it seems every year that a French film makes its way onto the Best Foreign Language Film awards lists. So part of the reason a love for French cinema proliferates amongst Francophiles and cinephiles alike throughout the country is simply a self-determining factor: French films are available and accessible (commercially, not always artistically), thus an interest can grow, which in turn enables more commercial availability. While many international film histories are only selectively accessible to US consumers (I, for one, can only name two or three notable Spanish […]

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Biopics tend to focus on the subject’s high and low points with little time for the real lives in between. It’s a problem of running time as films are compelled to force their stories into a two hour window, but two filmmakers in the past couple of years have foregone that route with their own biographical films running well beyond that artificial 120 minute limit. Both films feature criminals as their subject, and both come from French directors. Jean-Francois Richet’s 2008 film, Mesrine, is a two part, four hour look at notorious French gangster, Jacques Mesrine, and stars Vincent Cassel in the title role. Never one to shy away from a challenge, director Olivier Assayas released his own biopic this year. Carlos is a three part, five hour plus epic about the world’s most infamous terrorist. And yes, star Edgar Ramirez’ testosterone-fueled Carlos makes Bruce Willis’ turn in The Jackal look like a that of a pig-tailed little girl…

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