Reviews of French films of the month continue in conjunction with “Volta.ie” with two films by the director Olivier Assayas
Something in the Air (Après Mai)
122mins – 2012
Director: Olivier Assayas
May 1968 was a pivotal time for France and for the ideals of the 1960s – political and sexual freedom. On the face of it, it’s fiery material that should form the basis of an exciting story of danger, passion and young beautiful people going wild.
But as Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 film “The Dreamers” showed us, you can have all those elements in one film set in those heady counter-revolutionary days and the sum of its parts can still be as dull as dishwater.
Assayas’ film has another go at this subject matter which had such a profound impact on French society. The angle this time is to follow the fortunes of one protagonist Gilles (played with realistic non-chalance by Clément Métayer) three years on from May 1968. He’s too young to have been there on the barricades but he and his pals from the lycées of the Paris suburbs are still carrying the burning flame: going to meetings, arguing political points, getting outraged, putting up posters and not shying away from throwing the odd Molotov cocktail or two.
Gilles is your typical revolutionary – spending his time painting, reading accounts of the more salutary experiences of other revolutions that went too far on train going home, writing for a newspaper and meeting his girlfriend Laure; a dreamer that has much more of a hippy vibe going on, who departs for London with her parents for an unspecified time.
Loyalties are tested to the limit when love hits Gilles right between the eyes in the form of fellow-revolutionary Christine (Lola Créton – last seen in “Bastards“) and poor Gilles realises that he’d much rather be painting and cuddling up to her than risking his neck with his increasingly extreme band of brothers.Things get too hot and they head for Italy to wait for things to blow over a bit. There, they hook up with Italian comrades, while Alain hooks up with a red-haired American hippie type. Soon he’s talking of heading to Tibet. Christine is heading further south into Italy with some older revolutionary types while Gilles has to return to France to do his entrance exams for art college.
There’s a strong sense of atmosphere and Assayas’ strong point in setting convincing scenes comes through very much in this nostalgia piece. All the acting is of a high standard overall with Créton’s performance probably the stand-out one for me. The lengthy narrative feels just a little bit drawn out, however, with a soundtrack of original songs exclusively in English lyrics that sound like they were penned by a French composer.
In many ways, it’s a kind-of coming-of-age drama – as much for the youth of France as for Gilles, Jean-Pierre, Alain and the others. All the characters are railing against the system, fighting for causes and looking for more when the first causes appear to be lost. In the end, they all have to face certain responsibilities. The young revolutionaries have a tendency to listen to music in which they can’t understand the lyrics and drink bottles of sugary black fizzy water adding to the profit of an American multi-national.
This is also a film about the frivolity of youth – about the missed opportunities and the willingness of people to risk so much for ideas that dissipate like the smoke the morning after a groovy party. Everyone in this film is serious but then, maybe that’s just the point: they’re all too busy playing at being serious and missing out on the real fun of being young.
Clouds of Sils Maria
124mins – 2014
Director: Olivier Assayas
At the moment, there seems to be two types of movies being made; the gigantic Hollywood blockbuster with the movie star of the moment running around with lots of noisy special effects and corny dialogue and the art-house fare with very good actors you’ve never seen before talking all the time, all they seem to do is talk.
French director Olivier Assayas’ 2014 film “Clouds of Sils Maria” manages to find a bit of a happy medium between the two. You have the ageless beauty Juliette Binoche playing an ageing movie star and first rate Hollywood movie star Kirsten Stewart playing her mousy personal assistant. If you are in doubt as to who exactly Mrs. Stewart, is just check in with any teenager who will automatically assume you have been living under a rock and you will be quickly informed of the outrageously successful teeny vampire series Twilight.
I would like to say she is spreading her acting wings slumming it in highbrow material but I have the feeling she has been around a few tinsel-town high-maintenance managers is her time. There is a nice chemistry between the two leads – not quite mother-daughter but more colleagues that lean on one another. Binoche’s character Maria Enders is travelling through the Swiss Alps to accept an award on behalf of a reclusive writer who launched her into stardom with a juicy part in his film and theatre piece called the Maloja Snake at the age of 19.
Stewart’s handler Valentine is hurriedly scheduling all this on the rocky train ride. Writer/director Assayas uses this time on the phone to set up the story and explain the back story of the relationship between Maria, the writer Wilhelm Melchior, and some other characters from the past. All of this is laid out in smart phone conversations so if you miss the first 10 minutes of the film there is a good chance you will feel like you are on the rocky train trying to figure out what is going on.
Let’s just say Maria is a huge movie star with all of the trappings of the success that something like that would come with including an expensive divorce, hanger-ons and X-men movie parts. It wears on her and you can see it in her face. The phones don’t stop ringing and before the train stops, the famous writer Melchior has died under strange circumstances.
Maria agrees to carry on with the tribute despite the upsetting loss of a friend and mentor. During the ceremony at the ritzy Swiss hotel where a quail egg would cost €300, a young brilliant creepy director approaches her to star in a remake of the Melchior play where she would play the same character aged 40 years and a hot, troubled Hollywood starlet Jo (Anne Ellis, who is in the Lindsey Lohan mould) would play the young Maria. The film enters a fun foreboding territory at this point, like that creaky door at the end of the hall. Will the babysitter all alone go down and investigate?
Maria begs off with a poor emotional state to blame …but we know better. Maria and her trusty assistant agree to meet the widow of Melchior at his mountain top retreat. Here is the real star of the film; The Swiss Mountains, hiking trails along the Alps and its sweeping vistas. I could look at these images for the two-hour run time. It is splendid interruption when we do get outside because from this point on, the movie loses it promising dark edges and starts to change into less inspiring story tones. Maria decides to take the part and rehearses with her assistant Valentine.
Some art imitating life and vice-versa begins and we are not sure what is acting and what’s real. These scenes are clever the first few times but after a while they begin to feel like watching the same card trick over and over. The pair continue to rehearse, hike and wait for the train-wreck actress to appear on the scene, all the while discussing high acting art compared to hamming it up for the screen.
This films spends an awful amount of time taking cheap shots at Hollywood and its business. An easy, lazy target in my books in that it’s like saying cotton candy isn’t good for you. When Jo-Anne finally arrives with baggage in tow, Maria finds herself seeing her younger self and gets caught up in late night celebrity tsunami of car chases and paparazzi. The actresses all turn in fine work but every time the story takes an exciting direction it backs off at the last minute and then leads us down a path less interesting and all the tabloid gossip becomes tiresome.
It’s a good film but misses the chance of being a very good film by a few feet. At one point during the film, the actress and helper take an early morning hike to see the Maloja Snake, a windy cloud, winding its smoky tail way through the hills. It’s an absolutely stunning image that you will be keeping in your memory a lot longer than this film
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