Monday, November 24, 2014

Starz Denver Film Festival 37 Final Report - "Blind" and "Clouds of Sils Maria" offer an intriguing qualitative contrast for the last day of the festival

As explained in this post, the Starz Denver Film Festival is once again upon us, and I have been relating my experiences with the various films I see in daily reports and individual reviews. For all Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 coverage, please visit this link.

The final day of the festival offered an interesting study in qualitative inverts for me. I found Eskil Vogt’s Blind, the first film of the day, to be only somewhat engaging in the moment, and yet it is such an intellectually rich film, with such an interesting and carefully considered perspective, that it stuck with me through the next screening, and all the way onto now, where it is still cycling through in my head. The things that make it a little icy and distant in the moment are also the things that make it fascinating and rewarding. Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, on the other hand, is a film I largely enjoyed while watching, due to some terrific performances and captivating visuals, yet it is on the whole an uninteresting and unmemorable film, so overwritten, pretentious, and structurally undisciplined that it shuts the viewer out at every turn. It has the air of inviting, stimulating cinema about it, but is ultimately a hollow, unmemorable experience.

Continue reading after the jump…

Blind is the directorial debut from respected Norwegian screenwriter Eskil Vogt, and follows a woman, Ingrid, who has recently lost her vision. Isolating herself in her apartment every day, sitting alone by a window for hours and hours on end, Ingrid refuses to engage with the real world, preferring instead to live in her imagination. A writer, Ingrid invents stories for characters both real and fictitious, and the film mostly takes place within her mind and from her perspective, as we see the scenarios she invents play out – and, more importantly, observe how she is pouring her anger and anxieties into her characters. As she tells us early on, when describing the process of mental visualization she now clings to, “It’s not important what’s real as long as I can visualize it clearly.” And that increasingly blurred line between fantasy and reality is as revealing for the viewer as it is dangerous for her.

It also means that the film’s most compelling aspect – the illustration of an individual mind through the depiction of imagined characters and scenarios – is also its most obvious limitation. Because Ingrid is the only ‘real’ figure we ever see – her husband is a major part of the film, but is almost only seen in the stories Ingrid invents about him – the stretches spent following her characters can be variably engaging. We cannot invest in these people and their troubles, at least not on their own terms, because they only exist as an extension of Ingrid’s psyche; on the other hand, tracing how these characters express Ingrid’s inner turmoil can be an intellectually absorbing experience. I think the problem, if there is one, is that the film is likely too long, using too many of these ‘story’ sequences to express what could have been related in fewer scenes; the film and its ideas feel a tad diluted over the course of its 90-plus minute runtime, the film’s center occasionally getting lost in the complexities of the tale Ingrid weaves, and I wonder if a shorter-form version of this narrative would be more powerful (the last few minutes, which serve as an overly-literalizing and far too tidy an ending, could be ditched entirely, and for the better).

As it stands, though, the film has plenty to offer, and whatever shortcomings the story sequences may have, they are fascinating as a constructed narrative expression of Ingrid’s anxieties. Her blindness has torpedoed her own self-worth, especially where her relationship to her husband is concerned. She fears she has become uninteresting to him, both as a person and as a sexual partner, and takes this largely self-directed anger out at him during her stories, casting him as a cruel and unrepentant cheater in scenarios that grow increasingly callous and ridiculous. In the scant moments of ‘reality’ we perceive, it seems clear that her husband is a good and decent man, a little confused about his wife’s new status quo, but not the kind of person who would do any of these horrible things. Ingrid’s perception of him is all about her own anxieties, rather than anything he has actually done, and the greatest anxiety of all concerns pregnancy; Ingrid and her husband wanted to have children before she went blind, but now, she feels it is impossible. The film’s emotional through-line is the gradual reveal, through the way Ingrid tortures her female lead character and herself, of why Ingrid now fears pregnancy so much, and what that says about her grief and frustration over going blind. And as a cinematic expression of these anxieties, as well as an illustration of what it is like to live inside one’s own mind, Blind truly is accomplished – a character study bound to the imagination, without strict ties to reality, that nevertheless reveals volumes. Whatever shortcomings the film might have, these merits make it worthy of respect and discussion.

Clouds of Sils Maria is deserving of neither, in large part because it actively suppresses the latter. The film follows a famous middle-aged actress, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her devoted personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart) as they prepare for a new production of the play that launched Maria to stardom when she was 18. The play traces the relationship between two women, one younger and one older, as their professional connection leads to romantic entanglement, and back then, Maria played the younger character, a manipulative woman who drives her lover over the edge. Now, Maria has been asked to do the play again, this time playing the older woman, and while it is an obvious publicity stunt, it also offers her the chance to do more meaningful work than she has had in ages – or likely will for a long while, due to the burden of age in the entertainment industry. As Maria prepares for the part with Valentine’s help, in the gorgeous Sils Maria region of Switzerland, her own fears and struggles reveal themselves through the work, just as the relationship between Maria and Valentine starts to bear similarities to the themes of the play.

But don’t take my word for it – the film will tell you all this, and everything else it might possibly have to say, upfront. Every single conversation in this film is an overwritten exercise in pretension, with characters constantly giving voice to the themes of the play, the themes of the film, the connections between the two, their inner anxieties, their perceptions of everyone else’s anxieties, and so on. Up to a point, it’s sort of comical how completely and totally every dialogue exchange reads like a philosophy essay, rather than an actual illustration of character; it plays engagingly, because the actors are good enough to sell it, but the sheer degree of pretension is unmistakable.

Eventually, though, it stops being fun or interesting, as one realizes – after the fifteenth conversation between Maria and Valentine about how Maria’s fears about the part reflect where she is in her life, or how the mountains of Sila Maria are a metaphor for both the play and their lives (Assayas may as well have just called his film Adventures in Liminality) – that the viewer is a wholly inessential part of the film’s equation. Assayas cares not whether we are watching or engaging with his film – the characters will go on doing that for us, ad naseum, whether we’re there or not. The film’s dialogue is so overwrought, so consumed with telling us what the film is about rather than showing us, through meaningful actions or non-spoken emotional expressions, that it cuts the viewer out at every turn. Cinema, in its ideal state, is a conversation between the film and the viewer, where each entity brings something to the table, and the resulting fusion of experience and perceptions creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts (really, this is the function of all art). Clouds of Sils Maria allows no room for the viewer whatsoever; it exists in its own insular world, where the characters perform all of the acting and reacting for us, and where all possible interpretations are voiced, re-voiced, and echoed, over and over again.

And when I invoke the word ‘pretension’ in describing the kind of dialogue Assayas writes, I do so not only because of the film’s compulsive tendency to tell us exactly what we should be thinking at all times, but because the writing is so damn self-congratulatory about itself, so possessed with the importance and intelligence of its own ideas that they all have to be expressed as if they are the height of modern philosophical insight. The film has a great deal of contempt for both the internet and for contemporary Hollywood (superhero films and science-fiction in particular), and the film’s actual depiction of both is so enormously ignorant that it appears as if Assayas has never actually encountered either one – meaning that when Maria dismisses superhero movies as “generic pop psychology,” I found myself cackling out loud at the film’s audacity. Clouds of Sils Maria thinks it is a deep film, and that it is ‘above’ commercial cinema trends as a result. It is not. It is a film with a handful of interesting ideas it squanders through overbearing writing, and is ultimately just as ‘simplistic’ as the films it dismisses. More so, in fact, because I can think of plenty of recent superhero movies – Captain America: The Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past come immediately to mind – that are much sharper and smarter in their characterization and thematic intent, and which spoon-feed and hand-hold the audience a good deal less than Clouds of Sils Maria. If any film is guilty of ‘generic pop psychology,’ it’s this one.

Moreover, Assayas’ writing, for all its self-satisfied smugness, just isn’t very good. He writes in one uniform, faux-intellectual voice at all times, across all characters and through all areas of the film, and that lack of vocal differentiation is deadly to a film that absolutely requires it. There is no verbal diversity at all between the normal character dialogue and the writing of the play Maria prepares for (which is supposed to be a masterpiece, but comes across as something just as dry and pretentious as the film itself), and even the fake science-fiction movie Maria and Valentine go see at one point – the one that prompts the ‘generic pop psychology’ line – sounds exactly like everything else in the film. How can one make fun of something else by casting it in the same verbal light as one’s own work? It’s baffling, and while the scene, with its ridiculously gaudy sets and costumes, is clearly supposed to be funny, a self-declared biting satire of real Hollywood movies, it elicited only crickets at the sold-out screening I attended (the only bit of amusement in the entire scene is Juliette Binoche wearing 3D glasses and scowling, which is indeed an incredible sight).

The utter uniformity of the writing hurts the performers more than anything else. Assayas has written essay-readers, not characters, for his talented cast to play, and it’s a shame, because everyone is doing good work here. Binoche wears years of experience in her physical presence with ease, and beautifully expresses the dichotomy between a celebrity’s public and personal image in the film’s early going, but the writing sells her short; she projects hints of a character so much richer than anything Assayas gives her to play. Similarly, Chloe Grace-Moretz, in the role of a young starlet who will be performing Maria’s original role in the play, seems game for anything Assayas might throw at her; the only problem is, Assayas gives her a different character to play in each scene – Miley Cyrus-esque train-wreck at first, then an earnest actress, then an image-obsessed teen, then a cold and icy monster – none of which fully gel with one another.

The only performer who breaks through the oppressiveness of the material, and seems like an actual living, breathing human being as a result, is Kristen Stewart, doing what is easily the most impressive work of her career. Even in her best work previously – Adventureland, On the Road, etc. – Stewart has always been defined by that dreamy, dead-eyed quality, by a physical unease that reflects interior discomfort (or, in the case of Twilight, just makes the character creepy and impenetrable). Here, however, she sheds all her familiar tics for a performance that is positively alive, vibrant and energized and thoroughly natural at every turn, belying not only existing perceptions of what she is capable of, but the wooden, inhuman nature of Assayas’ script. Stewart is so good here, so compelling and fascinating to watch, that she makes whole stretches of pretension sufferable, and even, in the small details and non-vocal ambiguities of her performance, adds shades of grey to a thoroughly black-and-white experience. She is an absolute revelation here – one-upping the great Juliette Binoche is not a feat to take lightly – and I would honestly recommend seeing the film for her performance alone.

Or the first two acts of the film, anyway. Clouds of Sils Maria has one of the most bafflingly protracted endings I’ve seen in ages, barreling past what could have been a genuinely intriguing and impactful conclusion on to a painfully unnecessary epilogue. Now, I know this is a complaint I make a lot these days – the problem of a film offering two potential ending points, and not trusting itself to stop on the earlier, bolder moment – but when I do so, I can usually at least identify what the filmmaker was going for, and why they felt their ending necessary. Not so with Clouds of Sils Maria. The epilogue, which is a pretty big chunk of screentime, adds absolutely nothing to what we already know about Maria and her emotional journey, and only repeats themes and ideas voiced many times earlier. It also takes Stewart’s character out of the picture, and the abject, mind-numbing dullness of the epilogue makes it readily apparent how much Stewart was doing to hold the first two acts together. Without her, the film has nothing, yet continues in what seems like an infinite, unending loop of faux-intellectual drudgery. Given that the film’s primary form of communication is the thematic sledgehammer, perhaps the point of the epilogue is just to hit us over the head with it several more times.

Oh well. Clouds of Sils Maria may be a disappointment, but just because my experience at the 2014 Starz Denver Film Festival ended on a down note doesn’t mean the last two weeks weren’t a whole lot of fun. Out of the 12 films I saw at the festival, eight were thoroughly enjoyable, and at least six are locks for my year-end Top 30 (and at least two will make it to the Top 10). I saw movies that would be difficult to see anywhere else, met some awesome people along the way, and had a fun, engaging time throughout, even through the films I found dull or uninteresting. I may publish another piece on the festival today or tomorrow, wrapping things up with my final thoughts on how the whole thing went, but for now, it suffices to say that the Denver Film Society did a terrific job this year. I only wish I would have had the time to see more movies, and I am already excited for next year.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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