[Marxism] A Film About Film Divides Cannes

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon May 26 09:19:01 MDT 2014

NY Times, May 26 2014
A Film About Film Divides Cannes
Olivier Assayas Talks of His New ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’


CANNES, France — There’s a scene in “Clouds of Sils Maria” in which a 
young American played by Kristen Stewart delivers a beautifully sincere 
defense of blockbusters to a French star played by Juliette Binoche. 
They’re talking about movies in a multilayered film from the French 
director Olivier Assayas that is itself partly an inquiry into cinema. 
The star, Maria Enders, has become famous in big movies, yet she also 
voices contempt for them. Given how closely Mr. Assayas cuts to a 
central tension that plays out yearly at the Cannes Film Festival — a 
temple of auteurist worship that rolls out the red carpet for industrial 
cinema — it isn’t surprising that “Sils Maria” wasn’t wholly embraced here.

One of the strongest entries in the main competition, “Clouds of Sils 
Maria” pivots on Maria, a figure who, along with driving the narrative, 
engages in a struggle that expresses some of Mr. Assayas’s complex ideas 
about movies. Soon after the film opens, Maria learns that an old 
mentor, Wilhelm Melchior, a theatrical godhead somewhat inspired by 
Ingmar Bergman, has died. (Mr. Assayas, 59, a former critic for Cahiers 
du Cinéma, helped write a book on Bergman.) Accompanied by her 
assistant, Valentine (Ms. Stewart), Maria travels to Melchior’s home in 
Sils-Maria, an area in the Swiss Alps known for its haunting cloud 
formations and as where Nietzsche first came upon the idea of eternal 
recurrence. There, unsettled by death and her own mortality, Maria 
confronts the past, present and future.

Last Thursday, I met Mr. Assayas on a yacht flying a flag for Arte, the 
European network that helped produce “Clouds of Sils Maria.” Yachts are 
part of the semiotic landscape at Cannes, emblems of privilege that are 
scattered over the harbor and moored at the jetty next to the festival 
headquarters. But they also serve utilitarian functions: That night, Mr. 
Assayas, Chloë Grace Moretz (who plays a star in “Sils Maria” who’s 
tabloid bait) and other members of the cast and crew gathered on the 
yacht for a low-key dinner. The next morning, the team would face its 
longest day at Cannes, beginning with an 8:30 a.m. press screening and 
reaching a climax in the early evening with the official premiere and 
the ceremonial walk down the red carpet.

Mr. Assayas, who lives in Paris with his wife, the director Mia 
Hansen-Love, and their daughter, had arrived by train earlier in the 
morning. He has been at Cannes many times, most recently in 2010 with 
“Carlos,” his sprawling epic about Carlos the Jackal. Seated on one of 
the yacht’s upper decks, the whippet-thin, fast-talking Mr. Assayas — 
words cascade from him like water — said that “Sils Maria” had grown out 
of his collaboration with Ms. Binoche on the André Téchiné film 
“Rendez-vous,” which was in competition at Cannes in 1985. Written by 
Mr. Assayas and Mr. Téchiné, “Rendez-vous” tells the story of a young 
actress (Ms. Binoche), who, when the film opens, is an unknown, and, 
when it ends, is waiting in the wings of a new play, her stardom assured.

“It all goes way back to my relationship with Juliette,” Mr. Assayas 
said. “Rendez-vous” made her a star and was his first produced 
screenplay. “The film was shown here,” he said. “André got the prize for 
best director, the film was released, like, the same week in France and 
became a big hit.” He had made some short films and was working at 
Cahiers, but “all of a sudden, people were quoting me.” Mr. Assayas and 
Ms. Binoche wanted to work together again but didn’t until “Summer 
Hours,” his sublime 2008 film in which she co-stars as one of three 
siblings dealing with the aftermath of their mother’s death. Sometime 
later, Ms. Binoche called him and said: “O.K., what about that movie 
we’re supposed to make. Is it happening?”

Mr. Assayas, then in the middle of writing his last feature, “Something 
in the Air,” signed on to a reunion. “I had no idea what the film would 
be,” he said, “but I knew I could do something with Juliette in 
relationship to our common history.” That history plays out in “Sils 
Maria” in a number of ways, including through a twisty narrative thread 
involving Maria’s difficulty in accepting a role, one that Valentine 
aggressively pushes her to take. Two decades earlier, Maria rose to fame 
in a Melchior play, “Maloja Snake,” as Sigrid, a young woman who drives 
an older woman, Helena, to suicide. Now, Maria is being courted for a 
new production, this time as Helena.

“The play tells a simple story,” the director for the new production 
says to Maria, “an older woman falls in love with a scheming girl who 
has her wrapped around her little finger.” From the way Maria interacts 
with Valentine, he could be talking about them — or not. The film is 
filled with such teasing doubling and, in moments, evokes both “All 
About Eve” and especially “Persona” without ever descending into 
pastiche. Instead, Mr. Assayas plays with the idea of art imitating 
life, as well as the reverse, while also exploring questions of time, 
youth and the slipping away of each. Although Maria is a star, she’s 
also around 40 (Ms. Binoche is 50), and time and the movie industry are 
not on her side. She resists taking the role of the older woman even if 
it’s a part she plays in life.

A mesmerizing hall of mirrors, “Clouds of Sils Maria” won defenders but 
no prizes at Cannes. It is destined to be one of those films that, 
having initially divided reviewers, will be rediscovered by viewers 
willing to sift through its depths and Mr. Assayas’s ideas on realism, 
the fast-changing world, fast-moving audiences and the fast-mutating 
cinema. Once again, the subject turned to blockbusters. “There’s an 
audience to whom they do say things,” he said, his voice quickening. “In 
many ways, they are the most coherent representation of the world they 
live in.” This needs to be respected, and understood. And then Mr. 
Assayas quoted from Valentine’s defense of the blockbuster: “It’s a 
convention, but it’s not dumber than any other convention,” which he 
believes to be “profoundly true.”

More information about the Marxism mailing list