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Posts Tagged ‘French Cinema’

Jean-Luc Godard’s First Film – Une Femme Coquette (1955)

Friday, February 17th, 2017

See Godard’s first film, shot in 1955 – with English subtitles! Click here, or on the image above!!

As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky writes on The AV Club Website, “Une Femme Coquette may not sound like anything special—a 9-minute no-budget short film, shot on a borrowed 16mm camera by a 24-year-old amateur with no formal film school training. But the short . . .  has for decades been a sought-after item for art-house buffs and rare movie fiends.

Filmed in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1955, it was the first attempt at a narrative film by the iconic French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard—a pivotal figure in the evolution of movie style, who would make his feature debut just five years later, with the hugely influential and perennially cool Breathless.

Never distributed, Une Femme Coquette has had less than half a dozen public screenings since the 1960s; we were able to track down the only known 16mm print to a national film archive in Europe, where it was being stored unlisted for a private owner, to be loaned out only with the personal permission of Jean-Luc Godard himself.

This makes it the holy grail of the game-changing New Wave era—a film so rare that it has often been listed as lost by biographies and film history books. And it might as well have been. No other surviving narrative film by a major, big-name director has been as difficult to see—until now.

Earlier this week, a copy of Une Femme Coquette surfaced on the digital back channels frequented by obscure movie enthusiasts. An enterprising user named David Heslin has uploaded this rarity of rarities to YouTube, complete with English subtitles.

Credited to ‘Hans Lucas,’ a German pseudonym that the Franco-Swiss Godard would sometimes employ during his brief career as a film critic, Une Femme Coquette was the budding director’s modern update of a Guy De Maupassant short story called ‘The Signal.’

Godard—who makes a cameo around the 2-minute mark, wearing his famous prescription sunglasses—would readapt the story as an Ingmar Bergman parody for the film-within-the-film portion of his 1966 feature Masculin Féminin.

While nothing is known about Une Femme Coquette’s lead actress, Maria Lysandre, the man on the park bench is played by Roland Tolmatchoff (credited as ‘Roland Tolma’), a cinephile and car dealer with whom Godard maintained a friendship for years, and who loaned many of the convertibles memorably featured in the director’s 1960s films.”

An amazing discovery – click here and see for yourself!

Jean Renoir: A Biography by Pascal Mérigeau

Friday, January 20th, 2017

Now we have the definitive book on Jean Renoir, in a superb English translation.

As the Running Press, which has published Jean Renoir: A Biography in the United States notes of this excellent volume – clocking in at nearly 1,000 pages, but absolutely page-turning in its intensity and incredibly detailed research – “originally published in France in 2012, Pascal Mérigeau’s definitive biography of legendary film director Jean Renoir is a landmark work—the winner of a Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary achievement. Now available in the English language for the first time, Jean Renoir: A Biography, is the definitive study of one of the most fascinating and creative artistic figures of the twentieth century.

The French filmmaker made more than forty films from the silent era to the late ’60s and today he is revered by filmmakers and seen by many as one of the greatest of all time. Renoir made acclaimed movies in France, America, India, and Italy and became a writer during the last part of his life. Drawing from unpublished or little known sources, this biography is a completely fresh approach to the maker of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, redefining the very function of the movie director and simultaneously recounting the history of a century.”

Renoir was indeed one of the greatest of all filmmakers, noted for his humanism and his ability to move smoothly from one genre to another without a pause, as well as having a career not only in France, but in the United States in the 1940s at the now defunct studio RKO Radio Pictures, then journeying to India to make the first color film there, The River (1951), before returning to France in the 1950s to make a final group of masterpieces, and eventually settling in California before his death.

Mérigeau’s magisterial biography clearly surpasses all existing writing on Renoir, and it’s amazing that we had to wait four years for this remarkably deft translation by Bruce Benderson – and that the book is only available in paperback. Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) is routinely included in nearly every “ten best films of all time” list, but his other work, especially his work in America, clearly deserves more attention, which Mérigeau ably supplies.

While the publicity materials tout that fact that the book is supposedly the first to examine Renoir’s unfinished Hollywood film The Amazing Mrs. Holiday (1943) - which isn’t true; this has been common knowledge for quite some time – and also makes much of Renoir’s leftist work in France in the mid 1930s, for me the most intriguing sections came on such films as his American noir The Woman on the Beach (1947), which has long been known to have a troubled production history – yet Mérigeau has additional material on this film as well.

I had known that the finished film was sneak previewed to a teenage audience expecting an RKO musical or screwball comedy, and that the resultant debacle led to a savage recut of the film, but Mérigeau has unearthed the fact that the film was actually shot twice to appease both audiences and the censors – the original version, now lost; and the final version, with a different actor in a key role.

So, 2016 ended with a landmark volume on Robert Bresson, another giant of the cinema; now, in the opening days of 2017, we are given a superb – and smoothly translated – life of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, exploring not only his films, but also his life, and the way in which he viewed the human condition with both the greatest sympathy, as well as a sharply clinical eye.

This book is a must for anyone interested in the cinema – a major accomplishment.

Memories of Raoul Coutard by Lee Kline

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

Here are some memories of Raoul Coutard, one of the greatest cinematographers of all time.

Raoul Coutard, who photographed some of the most brilliant films of the New Wave, died recently at the age of 92. I don’t like to do obits in this blog, preferring to celebrate the work of the living, yet Coutard’s contribution is simply too significant to ignore. Happily, the colorist Lee Kline has recently published some thoughts about working with Coutard on digital restorations of some of his greatest films on the Criterion website, and here is part of what Kline had to say.

The first time I met Raoul Coutard was in June of 2002. I was in Paris to remaster a few films for Criterion, and one of them was [Jean-Luc] Godard’s Contempt. We had gotten in touch with Coutard and asked him to come in and help us with the color, which he did. He showed up and got right to work. I was awestruck that one of the world’s greatest cinematographers was working with us on what I considered to be one of his masterpieces.

It was not the easiest session for me because I spoke virtually no French and had to rely on people interpreting for me. Coutard worked with the colorist on the color grading: desaturating here, adding a little more contrast there, and bringing Contempt into the digital age with grace and ease.

He was fast, assured, and to the point. Because of the language barrier (or so I thought—more on that later!) we didn’t converse very much, but I got to hear translations of many great stories from the set. I could pretty much understand what he had done from the changes happening on the screen.

A few years later, we asked Coutard to come back in for a few more films. One was Band of Outsiders, and the other one was Costa-Gavras’s Z. We met at Eclair Laboratory, which was in a terrible neighborhood outside of Paris. He didn’t want to go there, and we didn’t want to go there. But Costa-Gavras wanted to go there. We met, and for some reason that I can’t remember, Costa-Gavras couldn’t make it and we had to work on Z without him.

I was with my colleague, who spoke French, and I was telling her that I thought there was something wrong with the color blue that was on the screen, trying to make my case so she could translate to Coutard. He then slowly turned to me and said, ‘What don’t you like about it?’ I was in shock that he never told me he could speak English! Everything then changed, and although his English was limited, I could finally speak directly to him.”

Coutard, famously practical and with a misanthropic streak a mile wide, could be difficult to work with. As recounted in his obituary in The New York Times by William Grimes, Coutard’s “collaboration with Godard ended when France was engulfed by the political events of 1968. ‘Jean-Luc is a fascist of the left, and I am a fascist of the right,’  Coutard told The Guardian. But the two reunited in the early 1980s to make Passion and First Name: Carmen.

He also had a falling-out with [director François] Truffaut, with whom he had collaborated on Shoot the Piano Player and The Soft Skin. The Bride Wore Black (1967) was their last film together. ‘I had the ridiculous idea to quit smoking at the same time we were filming the movie,’ Mr. Coutard told The Houston Chronicle. ‘I was very unbearable and very unpleasant, so we parted ways after that.’”

But here, readying is work for release in DVD and Blu-ray format, Coutard seems to have struck up a real accord with Kline, and it’s a pleasure to have this glimpse of the gifted artist in his last years, just as cantankerous as ever, yet assiduously making sure that his films made the jump to digital with all their pictorial values intact.

You can read the entire article by clicking here or on the image above.

Jean Cocteau in 1963: “I Hope You Have Not Become Robots”

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

In August 1963, just a few months before his death, Jean Cocteau recorded a message for the year 2000.

As Josh Jones perceptively writes in Open Culture, “Jean Cocteau was a great many things to a great many people—writer, filmmaker, painter, friend, and lover. In the latter two categories he could count among his acquaintances such modernist giants as Pablo Picasso, Kenneth Anger, Erik Satie, Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf, Jean Marais, Marcel Proust, André Gide, and a number of other famous names . . .

As you’ll see in the short film above, Cocteau Addresses the Year 2000, the great 20th century artist considered the many awards bestowed upon him naught but ‘transcendent punishment.’ What Cocteau cared for most was poetry; for him it was the ‘basis of all art, a religion without hope.’

Cocteau began his career as a poet, publishing his first collection, Aladdin’s Lamp, at the age of 19. By 1963, at the age of 73, he had lived one of the richest artistic lives imaginable [though he was materially poor, and relied upon the generosity of others for his daily needs], transforming every genre he touched.

Deciding to leave one last artifact to posterity, Cocteau sat down and recorded the film above, a message to the year 2000, intending it as a time capsule only to be opened in that year (though it was discovered, and viewed a few years earlier). Biographer James S. Williams describes the documentary testament as ‘Cocteau’s final gift to his fellow human beings.’

He reiterates some of his long-standing artistic themes and principles: death is a form of life; poetry is beyond time and a kind of superior mathematics; we are all a procession of others who inhabit us; errors are the true expression of an individual, and so on. The tone is at once speculative and uncompromising…

Portraying himself as ‘a living anachronism’ in a ‘phantom-like state,’ Cocteau, seated before his own artwork, quotes St. Augustine, makes parables of events in his life, and addresses, primarily, the youth of the future.

The uses and misuses of technology comprise a central theme of his discourse: ‘I certainly hope that you have not become robots,’ Cocteau says, ‘but on the contrary that you have become very humanized: that’s my hope.’ The people of his time, he claims, ‘remain apprentice robots.’

Among Cocteau’s concerns is the dominance of an ‘architectural Esperanto, which remains our time’s great mistake.’ By this phrase he means that ‘the same house is being built everywhere and no attention is paid to climate, atmospherical conditions or landscape.’

Whether we take this as a literal statement or a metaphor for social engineering, or both, Cocteau sees the condition as one in which these monotonous repeating houses are ‘prisons which lock you up or barracks which fence you in.’ The modern condition, as he frames it, is one ’straddling contradictions’ between humanity and machinery. Nonetheless, he is impressed with scientific advancement, a realm of ‘men who do extraordinary things.’

And yet, ‘the real man of genius,’ for Cocteau, is the poet, and he hopes for us that the genius of poetry ‘hasn’t become something like a shameful and contagious sickness against which you wish to be immunized.’ He has very much more of interest to communicate, about his own time, and his hopes for ours.

Cocteau recorded this transmission from the past in August of 1963. On October 11 of that same year, he died of a heart attack, supposedly shocked to death by news of his friend Edith Piaf’s death that same day in the same manner.

His final film, and final communication to a public yet to be born, accords with one of the great themes of his life’s work—’the tug of war between the old and the new and the paradoxical disparities that surface because of that tension.’

Should we attend to his messages to our time, we may find that he anticipated many of our 21st century dilemmas between technology and humanity, and between history and myth. It’s interesting to imagine how we might describe our own age to a later generation, and, like Cocteau, what we might hope for them.”

It’s also remarkable that even in his last months, Cocteau remained dedicated to the future of humanity, and the humanities, and the need for poetry in the modern world, and that he created this last film entirely extemporaneously, speaking from the heart without notes or preparation, with a desperate urgency to communicate one last time with the youth of the future – albeit from beyond the grave. On his tomb, it says simply “I stay with you,” and so he does, more important now than ever, as one of the foremost humanists of the modern era.

This is an invaluable document; a real call for humanity to a future that desperately needs it.

New Frame by Frame Video: François Truffaut

Friday, September 9th, 2016

I have a new video on the late French filmmaker François Truffaut, one of the great romantics of the cinema.

It’s been a while since I dropped a new video in the Frame by Frame series, directed by Curt Bright, so here’s a new one on François Truffaut, the great French filmmaker who, along with Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and just a few others personified the energy and vitality of the Nouvelle Vague – the New Wave of French cinema that took hold in the early 1960s.

Truffaut most famous film is undoubtedly the semi-autobiographical The 400 Blows (1959), but more than a little ironically, he’s most known to American audiences for his work as an actor – a task he performed in several of his own films – in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), during which he wrote the scripts for his next three films during production breaks.

Starting as a critic, as I recount in my book The Early Film Criticism of François Truffaut, Truffaut was something of a firebrand – which he later regretted to a degree when he became a director himself – but soon found his true calling behind the camera, creating a series of luminous masterpieces that helped to define the French cinema during this vital and prolific era.

His early death in 1984 robbed us of one of the great talents of the cinema, but fortunately, Truffaut was extremely prolific, and left behind a body of work that is at once deeply felt and also somewhat caustic in its view of live, love, and the travails of the human condition. Truffaut’s work is absolutely essential to any understanding of the cinema, and so if you haven’t seen one of his films, please stream one tonight – and be dazzled.

You can see the video by clicking here, or on the link above – enjoy!

Éric Rohmer: A Biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe

Friday, April 1st, 2016

I’ve been reading an advance copy of Éric Rohmer: A Biography, and it’s an absolutely brilliant book.

As the Columbia University Press website notes, “the director of twenty-five films, including My Night at Maud’s (1969), which was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and the editor in chief of Cahiers du cinéma from 1957 to 1963, Éric Rohmer set the terms by which people watched, made, and thought about cinema for decades. Such brilliance does not develop in a vacuum, and Rohmer cultivated a fascinating network of friends, colleagues, and industry contacts that kept his outlook sharp and propelled his work forward. Despite his privacy, he cared deeply about politics, religion, culture, and fostering a public appreciation of the medium he loved.

This exhaustive biography uses personal archives and interviews to enrich our knowledge of Rohmer’s public achievements and lesser known interests and relations. The filmmaker kept in close communication with his contemporaries and competitors: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette. He held a paradoxical fascination with royalist politics, the fate of the environment, Catholicism, classical music, and the French nightclub scene, and his films were regularly featured at New York and Los Angeles film festivals. Despite an austere approach to life, Rohmer had a voracious appetite for art, culture, and intellectual debate captured vividly in this definitive volume.”

To that, I can only add that this is the book on Rohmer’s life and work, superbly translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal. Both of the volume’s authors are eminently qualified for the project: Antoine de Baecque is a professor of the history of cinema at the University of Nanterre, and has published biographies of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, in addition to serving for a number of years as editor in chief of Cahiers du cinema, while Noël Herpe is a senior lecturer at the Université de Paris VIII, and has published works on René Clair and Sacha Guitry, as well as a book of interviews with Éric Rohmer about his text Le Celluloïd et le Marbre.

With many behind the scenes photographs, selections from correspondence, detailed financial accountings of production circumstances, and offering a sympathetic yet clear-eyed portrayal of Rohmer as alternatively imperious and yet by turns extraordinarily generous to neophyte filmmakers, Éric Rohmer: A Biography is a feast of a book. I have been returning repeatedly to the volume in the past few days, marveling at the detail and precision of the text, which in many ways mirrors the precise yet romantic tone of Rohmer’s films themselves. Now, if only all of Rohmer’s works would come out in a complete DVD box set, we’d have a much fuller sense of this extraordinary artist’s legacy.

Éric Rohmer: A Biography will be released in June 2016 – you should order an advance copy now.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Compelling New Film “Mustang” (2015)

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s (center above, with her cast) debut film Mustang is a remarkable piece of work.

As Carolina A. Miranda wrote in The Los Angeles Times - easily the best mainstream paper covering film in the United States – “It starts off as an innocent game: Five exuberant young girls, playing with boys on a beach, piling on top of one another’s shoulders to wrestle. Gossipy villagers construe the play as something sexual — and word gets back to the girls’ family. Suddenly, these spirited young women find themselves punished, trapped by their family and the strict gender mores of their remote Turkish village — a condition they do their best to escape in increasingly elaborate ways.

Mustang, the debut feature film from French-Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, has captivated audiences around the world with its dreamy style, its charismatic cast and its thorny subject matter, the latter of which gets at an ongoing social divide in Turkey, in which rests the issue of the place of women. The film has also catapulted its 37-year-old director into the international limelight. Mustang was part of the Official Selection at Cannes, where it won the Europa Cinemas prize, it made the shortlist for the Academy Award for foreign film, and it nabbed a Golden Globes nomination in the same category.

The story, interestingly, is all based on an incident that Ergüven experienced as a girl in Turkey. (The director was born in Turkey but has lived in France for most of her life — traveling between the two countries regularly.) She and family members played a game riding on boys’ shoulders, an action that was similarly misconstrued by local villagers. ’The discussion was less violent than in the movie, but the point was the same,’ she says. ‘You’re called to strict rules very brutally’ . . .

In this lightly edited conversation, she discusses the hybrid cultural place her film occupies, the ways in which it secretly pays tribute to a popular Hollywood escape film and the Los Angeles-related project she may be working on next.

Your film — a Turkish-language film set in Turkey — is the official French selection for the Academy Awards. At a time in France in which right-wing politicians have made statements against immigrants, has it led to any blowback for you? How has the film community treated the selection?

It’s the second time I’m running for France with a Turkish-speaking movie, since I also ran at Cannes. The film is considered French. As soon as we came out of postproduction we were embraced by Unifrance [which promotes French films abroad] and the Ministry of Culture. There was no distinction between “Mustang” and any other movie. I’m French [but Turkish]. Most of the team was French.

It was a very modern choice and a very radical choice. There is a lot of right-wing ideas in Europe these days. But what I love the most about France is that there is curiosity of looking at the world through film. French producers are very invested in different directors from the four corners of the world. And in Paris you have an audience that watches film in its original language. What’s happening in Europe, it’s more like a muscular reaction.

But the highest ideals of France and its respect for culture is in making a choice like this and saying, ‘No. We are curious we are open. We are diverse rich and complex and this is what 2015 looks like.’

What about in Turkey? I understand that you have received criticism that the film is not Turkish enough.

The thing is that Turkey right now is extremely polarized — and I take positions very openly, which most people in Turkey don’t do anymore. So, already, 50% of people will be antagonized by what I’m saying. There are a lot of people who really love the film. There are people who really bash it and they say, ‘She’s not one us.’ I find that disturbing.

There are comments which I feel are intellectually dishonest. If you have a troll saying anything negative about the film, when you look at their profile, the first thing you generally see is that they’re from AKP [a socially conservative political party]. They’re not saying, ‘I disagree with you and the film’ or ’I think it’s boring.’ They’re not talking about it in terms of cinema. But, for me, in cinema, there are no frontiers.

You gave your film a very Western name — a distinctly American name in fact. Why?

I wanted one word which would encapsulate the spirit of the girls — which was untameable, wild, free. There is a strength, there is the visual rhyme of their hair, when they’re running around the village, they’re like little wild horses. I looked for different names of wild horses around the world, and this one generated the most in terms of imagery. Then we made the word ours. Now when I see a little girl running freely, I think ‘mustang.’”

Read the entire interview here – my thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for this recommendation.

The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle is a minor but enchanting Eric Rohmer film . . .

. . . and it’s too bad there won’t be any more, as even the slightest of Rohmer’s film is a tonic in the oversaturated, hyper-edited CGI world of the present, harking back to a time when humanistic concerns, were more important than the latest mobile gadget. As Aaron Goldberg wrote of the film when it first appeared in the web journal Senses of Cinema, “while not highly regarded (by some) in the expansive Rohmer canon, The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle stands as one of Rohmer’s most playful, if not hilarious features.

Filmed quickly on 16mm while Rohmer was waiting to get decent sunset shots for his sublime Le Rayon vert (1986), The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle features mainly non-professional actors who improvised most of the witty and frank dialogue . . .  Rohmer’s old-school (cinematic) ‘new wave’ chops are working in full effect here. From the shaky vérité camerawork, to long discussions about morality and art, his romantic heart is working in cruise control, delivering a film that ably stands it’s own ground.”

Added Caryn James in The New York Times, “as if making a joke about the famous talkiness of his films, Eric Rohmer’s latest work begins and ends with silence – or at least the idea of silence. In the first of the connected episodes in Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, the voluble Reinette treasures silence so much she wakes her friend Mirabelle before dawn to hear ‘the blue hour,’ which is not an hour but a second, not a sound but a brief silence between darkness and light, when the night birds stop singing and the day birds have not yet begun.

Four Adventures is more conspicuously comic, more overtly ethical, more pointed in its action than most of his recent works . . . Part of Rohmer’s genius, of course, is that he keeps creating such lives – ordinary and rarefied at once, almost but not quite beyond our grasp. No one actually lives in the world of a Rohmer film, where the name of a specific television show or rock star never mars a character’s timeless dialogue, where his characters’ heightened sense of everyday life seems absolutely adventurous.

But the deep lure of his work is the suggestion that it is possible to be as articulate or as witty or even as extravagantly morose as a Rohmer character, to stumble across those undramatic moments of perfect grace on some beach or in some meadow.”

Indeed, while the film may appear to be slight, it is in fact a resonant and uplifting work; it just seems effortless, but then again, when you’re a genius, you can knock films out like this in your sleep. But the saddest part about The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle is that it isn’t available on DVD; there’s so much junk trolling about the web, but here’s a sublime and joyful film that really deserves a DVD release. But there is a VHS release, and since I still have a VHS player for such emergencies, I ordered one of the last copies available – used – on Amazon for about $10. You should do the same.

Every Eric Rohmer film is worth seeing, and this is one of his most playful, and joyful films.

Jean Renoir

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Jean Renoir – the most humanist of all filmmakers, something desperately needed now.

The distinguished and prescient film critic Michael Atkinson recently had this to say, in part, about the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir, who is, to my mind, one of the greatest film directors – along with Ozu, Bresson, and a few others – to ever work in the moving picture medium. As Atkinson notes, “in the shadow of the recent decennial Sight & Sound best-movie-ever poll, in which Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) supplanted the long-standing numero uno Citizen Kane (1941), let us just say without quibbling that Jean Renoir’s Le Regle de Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939) is the only genuine competition for the primary slot, and indeed it has claimed #2 or #3 status on the poll for half a century.

No slight to Vertigo is intended, and such is the consequence of rendering cultural opinion by way of crunched numbers and democratic aggregation. But Renoir’s pitch-perfect masterpiece (which has held as the fourth-greatest-ever) is more vital than ever for an art form slowly evolving into computer-generated carnival rides and empty-hearted noise, and that is because it is quintessentially Renoirian, that is, a bottomless harvest of humanity, which is seen in all of its thorny idiocy and yet viewed with the fiercest ardor ever put on celluloid.

If we were a sane species, it’d be Renoir that young filmmakers would take as a model, not Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese. Saying that Renoir is one of maybe seven unassailable masters in the history of cinema is not unlike saying the ocean is large and blue; demonstrating a shrugging nonchalance about his best films should and will peg you to those that know about these things as a flat-out pretender.

Simply, Renoir consistently took on the most complex territory available: the matrix of human camaraderie, the crystalline beauty of social respect and unexpected mutual empathies, the painful distance between the poles of a friendship under pressure, the folly and deathlessness of crazed romance. For Renoir, the tensile strength of love in all of its realizations was an inexhaustible subject, and no one explored it as wisely and whole-heartedly as he did.”

I once taught an entire semester of Renoir from the silents to his last TV movie, and through his films, he consistently amazed the class with his ability to work in any genre, and to always bring out the best in the performers, and to be, above all, forgiving – forgiving of human frailties and vanities, brave enough to make films that directly criticized French lassitude on the eve of World War II, smart enough to come to the United States for the duration of the conflict, but then to return to his homeland, and au courant enough to effortlessly make the switch from silents, to sound, to color, to three camera television shooting, and make it all look easy – eternally modern, eternally humanist.

Yes, if we were a sane species – Renoir would be constantly revived and screened.

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

Headshot of 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.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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