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Hrutar (Rams) Wins Un Certain Regard Prize at Cannes

Saturday, May 23rd, 2015

Hrutar (Rams) by Icelandic director Grimur Hakonarson was a surprise winner at Cannes.

As Michael Roddy reports for Reuters Canada, “An Icelandic movie about two sheepfarming brothers who have not spoken in 40 years but are brought together by an outbreak of a disease that threatens their flocks won the Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday. Hrutar (Rams) by director Grimur Hakonarson took the top prize in the grouping of 19 films in the festival’s second most important competition. The films are chosen to display filmmaking techniques and trends in a variety of cultures and countries around the world. Jury president Isabella Rossellini said viewing the entries ‘was like taking a flight over the planet and seeing all the inhabitants and their emotions.’

Hakonarson said winning was a surprise, but he was delighted. ‘There are very good films in this program and very big directors,’ he said. ‘I didn’t expect this. I’m in heaven.’ The film is set in remote northern Iceland, among sheepfarmers whose livelihood is threatened by an outbreak of scrapie that is fatal to sheep and requires all their flocks to be put down, but the director thought it would strike a chord with anyone. ‘I think it’s a universal story, it’s a story about family conflicts, even though it’s an Icelandic film, it seems to touch the hearts of the audience, you know, but the film, it’s also entertaining, it’s also funny. It’s a mixture of drama and comedy and we seem to have, maybe, profited from that a little.’”

Congratulations! — now all the film needs is a US art house release, or at least, a DVD – or even VOD or streaming.

Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Just as I finish up my book on black and white, Amsterdam University Press comes out with this fabulous book on early color filmmaking.

Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema by Giovanni Fossati, Tom Gunning, Joshua Yumibe and Jonathan Roson is a stunning look at early hand colored and dyed cinema, from the turn of the 19th to 20 the centuries, which collects in one volume an enormous number of gorgeous, hand colored images. As the press material for book notes, “we normally think of early film as being black and white, but the first color cinematography appeared as early as the first decade of the twentieth century. In this visually stunning book, the editors present a treasure trove of early color film images from the archives of EYE Film Institute Netherlands, bringing to life their rich hues and forgotten splendor.

Carefully selecting and reproducing frames from movies made before World War I, Fossati, Gunning, Rosen, and Yumibe share the images here in a full range of tones and colors. Accompanying essays discuss the history of early film and the technical processes that filmmakers employed to capture these fascinating images, while other contributions explore preservation techniques and describe the visual delights that early film has offered audiences, then and now. Featuring more than 300 color illustrations for readers to examine and enjoy, Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema will engage scholars and other readers of all ages and backgrounds.”

Early reviews have been rhapsodic, with Martin Scorsese declaring that “‘I could gaze at the images in this book for hours. They are as fascinating as illuminated manuscripts or magic lantern slides,” and artist Tony Oursler commenting “in the endless rewrite of art history the moving image seems indefinably futuristic. Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema makes the case for the importance of these mind-blowing masterpieces. These stunningly chromatic film stills link technology and the human touch while revealing one of film’s best kept secrets. Traditional painting and sculpture relies on reflected light while projected light opens a wildly new path of experimentation. Here we see, for the very first time, images made at the speed of light.”

You can see more images from book by clicking here, or on the image above.

Mike Fleming Jr. Interviews Woody Allen in Deadline

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

Mike Fleming Jr. of Deadline just published a fabulous interview with Woody Allen.

Even with his newest film, Irrational Man, at Cannes, Allen despairs of the current state of the movie business, and I must say I agree with him entirely. He has a deal for a series with Amazon, but doesn’t know what to do with it; he seems genuinely unhappy with all his work, and is only now turning to digital with a sort of “meh – why not?” attitude – “digital is really not cheaper and it’s not faster” – and he gets no pleasure from seeing his films – “I hate them all. None are different, and all are…unsatisfying, when you’re finished” – and never goes back to see them again.

But most of all, like all of us who love the cinema, he sees where Hollywood is heading, and he doesn’t like it one bit. Asked what he thought of the way the industry was heading, Allen responded flatly “well, I think it’s terrible. To me, movies are valuable as an art form and as a wonderful means of popular entertainment. But I think movies have gone terribly wrong. It was much healthier when the studios made a hundred films a year instead of a couple, and the big blockbusters for the most part are big time wasters. I don’t see them. I can see what they are: eardrum-busting time wasters.

I think Hollywood has gone in a disastrous path. It’s terrible. The years of cinema that were great were the ’30s, ’40s, not so much the ’50s…but then the foreign films took over and it was a great age of cinema as American directors were influenced by them and that fueled the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. Then it started to turn.

Now it’s just a factory product. They can make a billion dollars on a film and spend hundreds of millions making it. They spend more money on the advertising budget of some of those films than all the profits of everything Bergman, Fellini and Bunuel made on all their films put together in their lifetimes. If you took everything that Bergman made in profit, everything Bunuel made and everything that Fellini made in their lifetimes and added it all together, you wouldn’t equal one weekend with the The Avengers and its $185 million to $200 million.

Hollywood is just commerce, and it’s a shame. There are all these wonderfully gifted actors out there that, as you said before, will be in a film of mine for virtually nothing, union minimum, for what you called validation. Really, it’s because they want to work on something that doesn’t insult their intelligence; they don’t want to have to get in to a suit and practice stunts for two months and then do stunts and then… they want to be in something that doesn’t demean their artistic impulses.”

Much more here in Deadline - read the entire interview – it’s essential.

Cannes 2015 – What’s Been Sold, and What’s Still Out There

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

So what’s been sold at Cannes, and what’s left, as of May 14, 2015?

Well, by the time I post this, it will already be outdated, but as of this writing, Ron Howard’s authorized documentary on The Beatles is still up for grabs, but a lot of the top picks have already found a home. As Diane Panosian writes in Studio System News, “there’s a lot buzzing at this year’s Cannes Film Festival that’s running from May 13 through the 24. But the films with flashy premieres at the festival are just the tip of the iceberg, what with the market, Marché du Film, running concurrently and over 5,000 films being offered up to distributors.

Many films have already been scooped up by distributors for a domestic release. Lionsgate picked up the Colin Firth/Nicole Kidman starrer Genius as well as Sicario with Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt and the studio is teaming up with Roadside Attractions to distribute the Matthew McConaughey-starring The Sea of Trees. Weinstein will distribute the much talked about lesbian romance film, Carol starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara along with the Robert De Niro Boxing pic, Hands Of Stone. Woody Allen’s Irrational Man and the Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister will be released by Sony Pictures Classic. Fox Searchlight also made a deal for Paolo Sorrentino’s Cannes Competition film Youth [shot in English, with Michael Caine in the lead, always a good sign].

Not to mention Elvis & Nixon and Macbeth have been making waves at the fest, both of which were picked by SSN in our AFM most bankable list. Macbeth will also be distributed domestically by Weinstein. You’ll need to be fast on the trigger, but there are still a lot of titles up for grabs, so SSN is wading through the titles to pick the most bankable out of the lot for U.S. audiences. Since it is Cannes, these won’t be blockbusters, but they also won’t come with a blockbuster price tag. These are the types of indie and mid-budget films that will give investors a solid return on investment and if handled correctly could pick up awards in fall.”

The list of films still available includes A Tale of Love and Darkness, Bleed for This, I Kill Giants, Jackie (starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy), The Lobster, Nocturnal Animals, Maggie’s Plan, The Operators, HHHH and the untitled Ron Howard Beatles documentary. So things are off to a fast start, and there’s still a lot of dealing to be done, but all of this, at least for me, seems to obscure the original purpose of Cannes – to celebrate the very best in international cinema, and sell it at the same time – but now, with theatrical dead, and Netflix swooping in to make deals that cut out theatrical play in return for paying up to 130% of a film’s budget to lock it up for international streaming, many of these films, even if sold, will never really reach a wide audience.

This is the real problem, as I have said so many times before, with the digital era. While it seems that everything is more accessible than ever before, only the most commercial films get a theatrical run, and this attain some visibility, while the rest go straight to VOD and streaming – not even DVD anymore, which is becoming a niche platform. So for all of those at Cannes who are dragging themselves from one screening to another in exhaustion, I have only limited sympathy – at least they get a chance to see some of the most adventurous films being made, screened in a theater as they were meant to be seen, while the rest of us will have to be content with flatscreens and laptops.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot on offer here – and most of it will eventually find a home.

Interview: Agnès Varda by Violet Lucca

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Here’s a fabulous interview with Agnès Varda by Violet Lucca published in Film Comment on May 11, 2015.

As Varda notes, in part, “each film has its history, its beauty or not beauty, and its meaning.  The meaning can change over the years for people who watch the film, because there is a lot of evolution in the sense of history, the sense of understanding.  But when you speak about 35 millimeter or DCP or video, it’s unimportant. The film is what it is, but what is different are the people who made the film.  I change.  I wouldn’t do the same film today about Cuba or about the planters or about women.

Each film has a date glued to it.  And what we try is to overcome the date and make a meaning that can be more than ’62 or ’61 or whatever.  But still, even Cleo from 5 to 7, which deals with a temporal history about being afraid of an illness, being afraid of dying, still has in the film itself a purpose— we include for example the radio broadcasts telling the news of the time. Or in Kung-fu Master!, you have the awareness of AIDS in ’87. I think that we try to escape the limits of history and the time, but still I like to have a point that gives a date to the film, and not make believe that it’s nowhere, no time.”

You can read the rest of this excellent piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

Freddie Francis, BSC, on The Innocents (1961)

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

Freddie Francis, the Oscar winning cinematographer, did some of his best work on The Innocents.

Freddie Francis was one of the greatest cinematographers in the history of the cinema, in addition to directing a number of underrated Gothic thrillers in the 1960s and 70s, but he is best remembered for his fantastic work in monochrome, or black and white, films.

One of his favorite films was Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), adapted from Henry James’ classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw. I knew Freddie from 1984 up until his death in 2007, and watched him at work on the sets of many of his films, including his last as a DP, The Straight Story (1999), which was directed by David Lynch and shot in Iowa in a mere 23 days.

I wrote a book on Freddie’s work, aptly titled The Films of Freddie Francis in 1991, conducted a lecture /screening of his work at the British Film Institute with him shortly thereafter, and frankly, I miss him a lot – he was a good friend, and a good colleague. When I shot my feature film What Can I Do? in 1993, it was Freddie who put me in touch for much of the technical staff who worked on the film, and though we never had a chance to work together formally, we remained close friends throughout the years.

In any event, Freddie and I had a friendly argument over the years that above all other formats, he loved black and white CinemaScope the best. Freddie always denied it, saying that such things as aspect ratios were just part of the business arrangement of setting up the production of a film, and as this excerpt from his autobiography demonstrates, there was certainly some truth to that – The Innocents started out as a project in Academy ratio, but was bumped up to CinemaScope at the insistence of the 20th Century Fox front office.

Nevertheless, as the triptych of stills above illustrate, once he was told that he had to shoot The Innocents in ’scope, Francis and director Jack Clayton embraced the format with such stylish assurance that it seems that the film had always been meant to be shot that way.

In Francis’ later films, it always seems to me that in his ’scope work, especially with his tendency to highlight the outer edges of the frame on the left and right, and leave the middle as a more atmospheric buffer, Francis was pursuing a conscious strategy that prevented his work from ever effectively being subjected to “pan and scan” treatment, which shows only a portion of the film. One of the most effective Gothic thrillers of all time, The Innocents is well worth seeking out and viewing – it’s a remarkable film in every respect.

You have to see The Innocents in its original format, as this interview clearly demonstrates.

Agnès Varda To Receive Honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

Agnès Varda, here seen shooting The Gleaners and I, will be awarded an Honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes.

As Kinsey Lowe reports in the always-reliable online journal Deadline, “Agnès Varda will be honored for the body of her work at the closing ceremony of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. She’s the first woman selected for this distinction. Only three other directors — Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood and Bernardo Bertolucci — have been recognized in this way for the global impact of their body of work.

From her first film, La Pointe Courte in 1954, Varda’s style reflected elements of what would become the French New Wave although because she preceded that movement her work is more Left Bank in style. Her next feature, Cleo From 5 To 7, was a documentary style look at a singer awaiting results of a biopsy, which foreshadowed Varda’s fascination with human mortality. Her films also tended to focus on women and her subsequent film Vagabond [1985] examined the investigation of the death of a female drifter.

She married film director Jacques Demy in 1962 and after his death in 1990, she made Jacquot de Nantes, about his life and death. In 2000, she used a digital camera to make The Gleaners and I [see still above]. Her 2008 autobiographical work Les plages d’Agnès picked up France’s the César for best documentary. A well-rounded and multifaceted artist, she started out as a photographer. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art held an exhibition entitled Agnes Varda in Californialand in 2013. The show was a sort of reflection of the time Varda spent in Los Angeles in the ’60s and included sculpture, photographs and short films.”

This is an honor that is more than overdue – congratulations to the foremother of the New Wave.

Miss Mend, or The Adventures of Three Reporters on TCM

Friday, May 8th, 2015

Once again, TCM scores with another amazing classic film – this Sunday night May 10th, 2015.

Almost unknown in the West, even today, though luckily actually available on DVD, Miss Mend, or The Adventures of Three Reporters is a really wild Russian film that mixes equal parts action serial, Dr. Mabuse crime film, and political satire in a film that breaks tradition with all other Soviet film of the silent era.

Made in 1926, the film chronicles the attempts of “three reporters and an office girl trying to stop a bacteriological strike by some powerful western business leaders against the USSR,” and while the whole film is typically outrageous Soviet propaganda, it’s filled with an energy and kinetic power akin to the work of Sergei Eisenstein crossed with a dash of Fritz Lang, and succeeds almost through sheer outrageousness alone.

As film critic Bret Wood notes of the film, “when one thinks of the Soviet cinema of the 1920s, the images that come to mind are those of state-sponsored propaganda, rendered in a dynamic visual style, orchestrated with the rhythm of hammer blows, engineered to deliver the maximum emotional and intellectual impact. But not every Russian film at the time was cut from the cloth of Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin. There was a whole other movement that embraced the conventions of American and European film as a means of imparting its sociopolitical messages.

Films such as The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom (1924) and even the sci-fi romance Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924) proved that some Red Russians served up their agitprop with joie de vivre. The most prominent purveyor of this breed of film was the Mezhrabpom-Rus studio. In her book Movies for the Masses: Popular Cinema and Soviet Society in the 1920s, Denise J. Youngblood writes that ‘the studio was a flourishing concern, its commercial style already well established. Despite its dependence on leftist, German capital, it turned out unabashedly bourgeois films — films with the dash and glamour which had characterized the pre-revolutionary cinema.’

One of Mezhrabpom’s most ambitious films was Boris Barnet and Fyodor Otsep’s Miss Mend (1926), which tapped into the adventure serial genre that had proven popular in the U.S. (The Perils of Pauline [1914]), Germany (Fritz Lang’s The Spiders [1919-20]), and France (Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires [1915]). Broken into three feature-length installments and clocking a total of more than four hours, Miss Mend is a hyperkinetic comedy thriller that achieves the near-impossible challenge of maintaining audience interest over the course of a plot that expansive without being exhausting.

The labyrinthine plot follows the exploits of a muck-raking reporter, Barnet (Barnet), a photographer named Vogel (Vladimir Fogel), Hopkins the clerk (Igor Ilyinsky), and a typist named Vivian Mend (Natalya Glan), who stumble upon a conspiracy to murder American industrialist Gordon Stern and lay the blame on the Bolsheviks. Through a falsified will, Stern’s empire will go to the vampish second wife Elizabeth (Natalya Rozenel), who hands it over to a ‘gigantic criminal conspiracy’ known as the Organization, led by an assassin named Chiche (Sergei Komarov).

In part two, the nefarious Chiche reveals a plot to sell plague-inducing biological weapons to a cabal of wealthy industrialists. To demonstrate the effectiveness of the germs, he sends an ampule to be discharged in Soviet Russia (where it will eliminate thousands of labor activists). A motorboat chase ensues and the ampule is intercepted by Vogel, but is accidentally smashed, and the passengers and crew on the S.S. Preussen begin dropping like flies.

In the concluding section, the plague is contained and pursuit of Chiche reaches a fever pitch. Hopkins falls under Chiche’s hypnotic spell (a reference perhaps to Fritz Lang’s arch-villain Dr. Mabuse, who was a master of mind control) but it is unclear just how deeply entranced he may be. As the Organization begins to unravel, its mastermind makes a last-ditch effort to release the plague-bearing bacterium upon the world, but he hasn’t accounted for the presence of the Soviet Police, who have the chance to be the heroes of the climactic third act.

According to Youngblood, ‘Miss Mend was one of the most-seen [Soviet] films of the twenties, with a recorded audience of more than 1.7 million in the first six months. It played at least two months at the deluxe Ars theatre in Moscow.’ But Youngblood reveals that the critics were not as enthusiastic as the ticket-buyers. ‘Miss Mend was one of the most criticized movies of the twenties . . . The reviews ranged from the dismissive (“naive and stupid” and “varnished barbarism”) to the denunciatory (accusations that the film’s cheerful antics promoted “hooliganism”).’ Not exactly an intellectual exercise, the film was nonetheless laced with bits of social commentary, often aimed at various forms of Western decadence (including corrupt cops and red hot jazz).”

And you’re going to miss this? No, you’re not – DVR it. Miss Mend is an astounding piece of filmmaking.

68th Cannes Festival 2015 – The Final Film Line Up

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Here’s the final line up of films for the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, as reported in The Guardian:

Opening Night Film

La Tête Haute (Emmanuelle Bercot, France)

Closing Night Film

La Glace et le Ciel (Luc Jacquet, France)

In Competition

The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan)

Carol (Todd Haynes, US-UK)

Cronic (Michel Franco, Mexico)

Erran (Jacques Audiard, France)

The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece-UK-Ireland-Netherlands-France)

Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)

Louder Than Bombs (Joachim Trier, Norway-France-Denmark)

Macbeth (Justin Kurzel, UK-France-US)

Marguerite and Julien (Valerie Donzelli, France)

Mon Roi (Maiwenn, France)

Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke, China-Japan-France)

My Mother (Nanni Moretti)

The Sea of Trees (Gus Van Sant, US)

Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, US)

A Simple Man (Stephane Brize, France)

Son of Saul (Laszlo Nemes, Hungary)

The Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone, Italy-France-UK)

The Valley of Love (Guillaume Nicloux, France)

Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy-France-Switzerland-UK)

Out of Competition

Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen)

Irrational Man (Woody Allen, US)

The Little Prince (Mark Osborne)

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, US)

Alias Maria (José Luis Rugeles Gracia)

AN (Naomi Kawase)

Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

The Chosen Ones (David Pablos)

Fly Away Solo (Neeraj Ghaywan)

The Fourth Direction (Gurvinder Singh)

The High Sun (Dalibor Matanic)

I Am a Soldier (Laurent Lariviere)

Journey to the Shore (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Lamb (Yared Zeleke)

Madonna (Shin Suwon)

Maryland (Alice Winocour)

Nahid (Ida Panahandeh)

One Floor Below (Radu Muntean)

The Other Side (Roberto Minervini)

Rams (Grimur Hakonarson)

The Shameless (Oh Seung-uk)

Taklub (Brillante Mendoza)

The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Midnight Screenings

Amy (Asif Kapadia, UK)

Office (Hong Won-chan, South Korea)

Love (Gaspar Noé, Argentina)

Special Screenings

Amnesia (Barbet Schroeder)

Asphalte (Samuel Benchetrit)

L’esprit de l’escalier (Pabla Lucavic)

Hayored lema’ala (Elad Keidan)

Oka (Souleymane Cisse)

Panama (Pavle Vuckovic)

A Tale of Love and Darkness (Natalie Portman)

Critics’ Week Competition

Dégradé (dir: Arab and Tarzan, Palestine)

Krisha (dir: Trey Edward Shults, US)

Mediterranea (Jonas Carpignano, US/Italy)

Ni le Ciel, Ni la Terre (Clement Cogitore, France)

Paulina (Santiago Mitre, Argentina)

Sleeping Giant (Andrew Cividino, Canada)

La Tierra y la Sombra (Cesar Acevedo, Colombia)

Special Screenings

Opening film: The Anarchists (Elie Wajeman, France)

Les Deux Amis (Louis Garrel, France)

Une Histoire de Fou (Robert Guédiguian, France)

Closing film: La Vie en Grand (Mathieu Vadepied, France)

Directors’ Fortnight

Opening film: In the Shadow of Women (Philippe Garrel, France)

Allende, Mi Abuelo Allende (Marcia Tambutti, Chile)

Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)

The Brand New Testament (Jaco Van Dormael, Belgium)

The Cowboys (Thomas Bidegain, France)

Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, Colombia)

Fatima (Philippe Faucon, France)

My Golden Years (Arnaud Desplechin, France)

Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier, US)

The Here After (Magnus von Horn, France)

Much Loved (Nabil Ayouch, Morocco)

Mustang (Deniz Gamze Erguven, France)

Peace to Us in Our Dreams (Sharunas Bartas, Lithuania)

A Perfect Day (Fernando Leon de Aranoa, Spain)

Songs My Brothers Taught Me (Chloe Zhao, US)

Special screening: Yakuza Apocalypse: The Great War of the Underworld (Takashi Miike, Japan)

Closing film: Dope (Rick Famuyiwa, US)

An eclectic line-up, dominated by French cinema, but with a very interesting jury – Joel & Ethan Coen – Presidents; Rossy de Palma (Actress – Spain); Sophie Marceau (Actress, Director – France); Sienna Miller (Actress – United Kingdom); Rokia Traoré (Composer, Singer-songwriter – Mali); Guillermo del Toro (Director, Writer, Producer – Mexico); Xavier Dolan (Director, Writer, Producer, Actor – Canada); and Jake Gyllenhaal (Actor – United States).

The only thing that’s sad here is that most of these films will never make it into general distribution around the world, with the obvious exception of things like George Miller’s Mad Max reboot; the rest will be seen and savored by a select few, while the rest of the world will have to settle for Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 or The Avengers: Age of Ultron. As far as most of the world is concerned, the films in the list above might just as well not exist, simply because they’ll never get the distribution they need.

This is one of the major problems of the digital universe; these excellent films are essentially being shuttled off to oblivion, and of all the films listed here, perhaps two or three will make their money back.

And, of course, this is just the line-up; beyond this, all the backstairs wheeling and dealing that goes on will determine the future of international cinema, especially Hollywood cinema, as deals are cut for and endless series of franchises, reboots, sequels, and prequels.

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria is Olivier Assayas’ finest film in quite some time – a really dazzling achievement.

And as Peter Debruge noted in part in his review for Variety, the film had an unusual genesis. According to Debruge, “after collaborating with Assayas on 2008’s perfect, albeit ultra-safe Summer Hours, actress Juliette Binoche challenged the director to write a part that delved into genuine female experience. Though deceptively casual on its surface, Clouds of Sils Maria marks his daring rejoinder, a multi-layered, female-driven meta-fiction that pushes all involved — including next-generation starlets Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz — to new heights.

Binoche plays Maria Enders, a 40-ish movie star approached about appearing in a fresh staging of the play Maloja Snake, a film adaptation of which launched her career two decades earlier. This time, she’s being asked to interpret the older role — a burnt-out, middle-aged businesswoman manipulated by her young female assistant. Maria has always identified with the other character, the one she played at age 20, whereas the role of the has-been is haunted by her previous co-star, who died in a car accident a year after they shot the movie . . .

As the film opens, Maria is traveling with her assistant Val (Stewart) to accept an award on behalf of her close friend and mentor, playwright Wilhelm Melchior (a provocateur loosely inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant echoes below the surface here). En route, while dealing with the particulars of her in-progress divorce, Marie receives word that Melchior has died, dredging up an unpleasant figure from her past, an old co-star named Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler) whose desperation provides a horrifying glimpse into where her own career could be headed.

For this and her myriad other insecurities, Marie has Val, the hyper-reliable young woman who serves as her minder, mother, therapist and rehearsal partner. It is Val who talks her nervous boss into doing the Maloja Snake revival, dragging Marie to a studio-produced superhero movie just to see Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz), the edgy young actress tapped to play the other part. Running lines from the play, Marie and Val may as well be describing their own sexually charged codependency, so perversely does the dialogue fit the pair’s own increasingly unhealthy dynamic.

At times, Val excuses herself to visit a photographer boyfriend (although a weird mountain-driving montage suggests she may simply need to get away when the connection becomes too intense), until finally, she seems to disappear altogether, just one of the many mysteries woven into this rich and tantalizingly open-ended psychological study . . .

Ultimately, Stewart is the one who actually embodies what Binoche’s character most fears, countering the older actress’ more studied technique with the same spontaneous, agitated energy that makes her the most compellingly watchable American actress of her generation . . .

Sils Maria reaches for the stratosphere — which incidentally, is where most of the film takes place, high in the Swiss Alps, above the clouds. From this celestial vantage, Maria and Val are free to observe the real Maloja Snake, a seething meteorological formation that sends clouds winding serpent-like through a valley lined by mountains on either side.

In addition to documenting this spectacle afresh, Assayas unearths an old 1924 silent movie by German director Arnold Fanck, the sort of relic that makes one grateful someone thought to capture this mesmerizing phenomenon on film. Binoche leaves audiences with the same exhilarating feeling here — of having witnessed something precious and rare — answering the challenge of Assayas’ script by revealing a character incredibly closer to her soul.”

With links not only Fassbinder and American pop culture films, as seen in the film-within-a-film ostensibly starring Chloë Grace Moretz, as well to Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Sils Maria instantly jumps into my Top Ten List — in which there are, admittedly, 250 films at least – and is a work of mysterious, mesmerizing brilliance, which should be seen by everyone.

This excellent film will play May 1 – 7, 2015 at The Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater – don’t miss it.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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