In 1849, on Saint-Pierre, a French-ruled island off the Newfoundland coast, two sailors rescued from the thickest winter fog in memory celebrate their deliverance by getting drunk and killing a man as a kind of stupid prank. One is sentenced to die; the other isn’t but dies anyway through a stroke of dumb luck. The survivor, Neel Auguste, has to be kept alive through the following spring because, unlike in the old days, the authorities can’t just shoot him or hang him. The law demands death by guillotine — “the widow” — and the nearest one is far to the south, in Martinique.
The Final Frontier has received any number of varied cinematic treatments over the years, ranging from a Kubrickian adherence to physics, to full-on Road Runnerish refusals to honor the laws of gravity. High Life, the latest barbed wonder from Claire Denis, makes its particular approach to the void clear from the first few moments. Here, the objects set adrift in space either hover poetically, or fall straight down to God Knows Where. While the effect may well make scientists clutch their heads, it informs the film’s startling combination of unblinking body horror and gauzy far-out glories, fueled by the respectively stoic and frenzied performances of Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche. Even at its most baffling, you can always detect the pulse of a master filmmaker. She controls the vertical, the horizontal, and everything in between.
The live-action Ghost in the Shell (2017) is both a big-screen adaptation of the long-running Japanese manga (comic book) by Shirow Masume and a remake of the landmark animated 1995 feature from Mamoru Oshii. No matter how you split the difference, the film had a high bar to clear even before the controversy over the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is simply Major in this adaptation. A veritable weapon—her body is almost entirely artificial, a sophisticated cyborg with a human brain who isn’t sure where the person ends and the technology begins—Major is the leader of the Section 9 strike team, an anti-terrorist division of the government that, at times, battles rival sections as well as external threats. Their biggest nemesis, however, is a cybercriminal named Kuze (Michael Pitt) who hacks into human minds and turns ordinary people into terrorist weapons.
Johansson is remarkably effective in the role, impassive but not blank, both physically fierce and ethereal, morphing in action as the technology flickers into chameleon mode or sends her senses into 360 degree awareness. She is graceful and powerful, still and sudden, woman and machine, and her sense of identity is wrapped up in this alien physicality. Her relationship with Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the scientist who created her cybernetic shell and ostensibly saved her life after a terrorist bombing, is somewhere between filial respect and professional collaboration, and for all the maternal care that Ouelet tries to push down, there’s something else creating the emotional distance between them. Major is most at ease with Batou (Pilou Asbæk), her trusted and fiercely loyal number two, and she is completely loyal to their section head Aramaki (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano), whose impassive expressions (Takeshi’s eternal hint of a smile makes him all the more enigmatic) covers his protective nature. As she has no memory of her past before the accident, they are the closest thing she has to family. At least until Kuze starts dropping hints about her origins and questions the identity she has taken for granted since her cybernetic rebirth.
Olivier Assayas wrote this drama about a veteran actress facing a transition in her career after Juliette Binoche, arguably France’s greatest and certainly most ambitious actress working today, challenged him to write a film centered on women. It was a friendly challenge—she had already starred in two films he wrote for director André Téchiné and another, the lovely family drama Summer Hours, that he directed from his own script—and Assayas emerged with one of his most beautiful, nuanced, and complex films to date.
Clouds of Sils Maria doesn’t open on Binoche’s Maria Enders but on her assistant, a worldly American twentysomething named Valentine (Kristen Stewart) who we meet juggling phone calls and scheduling issues in the noisy passageway of a train travelling through the Swiss Alps. In the midst of the journey—Maria is on the way to a tribute to the playwright who wrote her breakthrough part—they learn that the author, a lifelong friend as well as mentor to Maria, has just died. The story plays out in the shadow of his death and the memory of the play that launched the career of the then 18-year-old Maria over 20 years ago. A hot young theater director wants to restage the play with Maria in the role of the older woman, a 40-year-old professional destroyed by the vicious younger woman (it sounds a whole lot like something Fassbinder might have written), and she struggles with it. She can’t relate to what she sees as a pathetic, weak character, but is it because she can’t yet acknowledge that she’s aging out of the dynamic roles reserved for younger actresses? The director (Lars Eidinger) has a different take: they are two sides of the same woman. Maybe that’s what really bothers Maria.
This is a pretty hip high school. Not only do they employ a once-promising, now boozy, crushingly charismatic author as an English teacher, they’ve just hired an acclaimed painter—also loaded with charisma—whose career has been derailed by rheumatoid arthritis. Because of a trumped-up antipathy between these reluctant academics, this private school is about to witness a battle between, as the title puts it, Words and Pictures. If the writer can stay sober long enough, he’ll teach the kids about the power of prose, and if the painter can stifle her bitterness, she’ll espouse the primacy of the image. It’s elbow patches vs. stained smock, plus a countdown to the first shag between these two spectacularly good-looking people.
Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche play wordsmith and picture-maker, respectively. The casting is a source of both appeal and disappointment in this one-note movie; the roles are large, but the material thin.
The Past (Sony, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, Digital, On Demand), Asghar Farhadi’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning A Separation, relocates from Iran to Paris to tell an equally nuanced story of the complications of marriage, romance, family, and communication. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has returned to Paris from Iran to finalize a divorce from Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and steps into a family drama involving his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s new man (Tahar Rahim), their angry and resentful kids, and a mystery that is really none of his business, which he investigates with a gentle remove that allows him to gloss over his own baggage until he, too, must confront his own issues and failings.
Like A Separation, The Past is a beautifully observed portrait of people who fail to communicate and the assumptions that accrue in the void of understanding, and a sympathetic presentation of flawed people who don’t always make the right decisions and aren’t even always honest with themselves, and he takes his time weaving defining details through the fabric of their lives. Bérénice Bejo, so bubbly and bright in The Artist, is remarkable as Marie, struggling to work through her own resentments after four years of separation with Ahmad.
In French and Farsi with English subtitles. The Blu-ray+DVD release features both formats in a single case plus commentary by director / writer Asghar Farhadi, a filmmaker Q&A from a screening at the Directors Guild of America and the featurette “Making The Past.”
Juliette Binoche stars in Camille Claudel 1915 (Kino Lorber, DVD, Digital HD, VOD), Bruno Dumont’s portrait of the artist during her imprisonment in an insane asylum and based on her correspondence with her brother Paul Claudel, a poet and Christian mystic whose compassion for his fellow man appears more theoretical than practiced. As Camille, famed sculptor and one-time lover of August Rodin, she is an anxious storm of anger and loss, racked with paranoia (she’s convinced that Rodin and his cronies are engineering her imprisonment and trying to poison her). But her greatest loss is not freedom but the ability to express her artistic drive and she is lucid compared to the other, seriously mentally challenged inmates. Her expression reveals an instinctive revulsion for these fellow patients, no doubt in part for the implicit suggestion that she is one of them, but also a compassion when she faces not the patient but the vulnerable human in need of help. The staff sees it in her too and they trust her to look after one or another of the patients at times. The savage duality of so many of Dumont’s characters and cultural collusions from previous films are seen here, but there’s also caring and compassion, at least until the film shifts to her brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent) and the insufferable piety that commits service to God at the expense of those on earth. French with English subtitles.
Juliette Binoche turns 50 next year. At an age when actresses are relegated to supporting roles or safe TV duty, this Oscar-winner is distinguishing herself as perhaps the most adventurous movie star alive right now. Not only does she work with the crème de la crème of the international directors’ club (David Cronenberg, Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Haneke, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Olivier Assayas—and that’s just in the past decade), she also lends herself to smaller projects with first-time filmmakers and even the occasional Hollywood opus.
As a young actress, Binoche was spontaneous, almost wild. And while her features have refined into a face tautened by experience, she still has that ability to push herself into some truly dangerous places. There’s ample evidence of this in Camille Claudel 1915, a tough-minded film by a difficult director, Bruno Dumont.
The films of Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami have always explored the complex relationship of cinema to the world it reproduces and recreates in a frame. To quote a line from Certified Copy, “It’s our perception that gives [art] value.” The film, which is also Kiarostami’s first film produced and shot outside of Iran, plays with our perceptions in playful and provocative and revealing ways.
Certified Copy is a truly cosmopolitan affair, with a goddess of a French leading lady (Juliette Binoche), a British opera singer (William Shimell) as his leading man, an Italian location and crew, and a meandering, introspective, fascinating conversation that slips between English, French and Italian. Kiarostami penned the screenplay himself, with Massoumeh Lahidji “adapting” and translating. Binoche plays a French-born antiques dealer and single mother in Italy (she’s never called by name in the film and is identified as “Elle” in the credits, which in French means “she”), at once pulsing with life and worn down by it. Shimell is James Miller, a British author and philosopher in Italy for the release (in translation) of his new book on art, authenticity, and value. He arrives at his press conference a calm, confident man, all reason and unflappable self-control, even when she arrives late and carries on a distracting conversation of gestures with her hungry, bored son. She arranges a kind of date with the handsome and assured author, driving him through the alleys of her small town through the countryside to a nearby village to view an “original copy” as they debate the meaning of authenticity. They can’t agree on anything, but there is something there.
James is every inch the intellectual philosopher and enjoys the discussion as a kind of exercise, all romantic ideals and philosophical ideas, while Elle, far more emotionally invested, draws from her practical experience of living in the world. Over the course of the afternoon they flirt, spar and grow old together. When a chatty trattoria proprietor mistakes them for husband and wife, they simply segue into the roles and the outing becomes a portrait of a marriage fifteen years on. The transition is not exactly sudden or shocking — in some ways, it’s almost imperceptible, thanks to the graceful long takes and the easy rhythms Kiarostami’s style of heightened naturalism — but the tectonic shift is like a narrative earthquake that completely shifts the ground beneath their feet and our engagement with this characters. This is not some first date game from a nervous couple indulging in a little joke. Their whole relationship shifts with it: awkwardness and nervous chatter gives way to the rhythms and comfort of old habits and the disagreements of earlier conversations harden into frustration and exasperation over long-standing aggravations. As the afternoon date becomes a wedding anniversary, old patterns of arguments play out all over again in tetchy exchanges and emotional collisions, or so we can gather from the resignation of their responses.
The three colors are blue, white and red. They are the colors of the French flag, of course, and they are appropriated by director Krzysztof Kieslowski along with the themes of the motto they more or less represent: liberty, equality, fraternity. But the films Blue (1993), White (1993) and Red (1994) are not hymns to patriotism or national identity and the Polish Kieslowski hasn’t any predisposition to making a statement at France. It’s better to think of this trilogy in similar terms as his The Decalogue, ten short films in which he reflects upon the Ten Commandments in terms more suggestive than literal. They are about morality in terms of life in Poland in 1989 and it is that vast collage of life experience in that time and place that is so powerful.
After Kieslowski completed The Decalogue, the Berlin Wall fell, Perestroika was introduced in the Soviet Union and communism collapsed in Eastern Europe. The Three Colors trilogy may begin in France but it reaches beyond national borders to Poland and Switzerland to become in part a portrait of the new Europe. And, I would say, a rumination on the mysteries behind the faces of his beautiful leading ladies: Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob.
Binoche stars in Blue as Julie Vignon, the sole survivor of a car wreck that kills her husband, a revered composer, and their young daughter. Initially bereft to the point of suicide, she’s unable to swallow the pills. It’s more a matter of gag reflex than second thoughts but she embraces the reflex as a way to deal with her grief: she simply rejects all emotional connection to her past and her present life, dropping out of contact with everyone she knew and systematically destroying all extant traces of her husband’s unfinished composition, which we learn she was intimately and creatively involved with. (The title of the composition, “Concerto for the Unification of Europe,” suggests the scope of Kieslowski’s trilogy while commenting on Julie’s aggressive isolation.)
According to a report from the Associated Press, Iranian authorities have released Jafar Panahi. He’s been freed on $200,000 bail, but his troubles may not be over. According to the report, the indictment (which is still sealed; the “crimes” he’s been accused of have still not been made public) will be sent up to a revolutionary court for future action. It seems clear, however that the pressure put on the government through petitions and, especially, the outspoken comments of Abbas Kiarostami and Juliette Binoche from their platform at the Cannes Film Festival was a significant factor in this measured victory.
UPDATE May 19: Jafar Panahi’s letter to Abbas Baktiari, director of the Pouya cultural center, confirms that he is on a hunger strike and explains the conditions of his treatment and the reasons for the action. Read the letter at La Regle du Jeu here.
May 18: At the press conference for the premiere of his new film at Cannes, Certified Copy, Abbas Kiarostami used his platform to discuss the imprisonment of Jafar Panahi and the Iranian government’s treatment of all filmmakers, according to a report on indieWIRE.
The occasion also brought conflicting reports on Panahi’s situation. Kiarostami reported that he had received word that the filmmaker may be freed today. “I got a message from Jafar’s wife and we’re hoping he might be freed today and, of course, if that does happen later today, that will be good news and hopefully I’ll be able to give that good news.” However, conflicting reports that Panahi’s sentence had, in fact, been extended by two months and that he was planning a hunger strike, also surfaced at the press conference.
Panahi had beenÂ invited to serve on the jury for this years Cannes Film Festival before he was arrested and imprisoned for unspecified crimes.