Posted in: 2000 Eyes, by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews

2000 Eyes: Les Destinées sentimentales

[Written for Mr. Showbiz]

Three hours long and a far cry from his ultramodern chronicles of disenchantment, Olivier Assayas’s Les Destinées sentimentales ranges from the winter of 1900 to springtime some thirty years later. In so doing, the film recalls a genre that was in vogue around the time its own story ends — during the Depression, when cine-sagas of families weathering the seasons and storms of history somehow reassured audiences that “we’ll get through this one too.”

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

DVD: ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’

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.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Vivre Sa Vie, Summer Hours and a Crazy Heart – DVDs of the Week

Vivre Sa Vie (Criterion)

Jean-Luc Godard’s fourth film marked a significant new direction for young turk director, away from the impassioned sketchiness of his furiously directed first films and into the realm of carefully composed scenes and formal visual strategies. Developed to showcase his wife and muse Anna Karina (they were on the verge of breaking up), the film follows the journey of shop girl Nana (both a reference to the Zola novel and an anagram for Anna) from frustrated aspiring actress surviving on the generosity of her dates to professional prostitute. Karina isn’t given a glamorous treatment here, not like in the playful musical A Woman is a Woman, but the camera adores her in her simple shop girl clothes and Louise Brooks “Lulu” bob and Godard directs her to the performance of her career, giving a humanity to this shallow girl. It’s not just the famous close-up of Karina, with tears streaming down her cheeks, intercut with Falconetti in Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, but her distinctive body language, her distracted behavior around her “dates” and furtive response to a police interview.

Anna Karina as Nana, looking for something more meaningful

Godard makes it a mix of character study, social commentary and street tragedy broken into twelve distinct tableaux (the full French title is Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux), many of them composed of carefully arranged long takes by Raoul Coutard. On the one hand it’s a provocative portrait of social and sexual politics (at one point the soundtrack reverts to a recitation of laws on the business of prostitution) directed with Godard’s distinctive gift for counterpoint and dramatic disassociation, on the other a moralistic tale of a shallow, emotionally reckless young woman ultimately punished for her ambitions and infidelities.

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Posted in: Film Festivals

SIFF 2009 – Summer Hours, Still Walking, The Hurt Locker

The complications and tricky negotiations of family, as siblings grow up and leave to establish their own lives and their own families, was a central theme of numerous films at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. Two of the best films from that festival, Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours (L’heure d’ete) and Hirozaku Kore-Eda’s Still Walking, highlight the opening weekend of the 2009 edition of the Seattle International Film Festival.

summerhours
Jeremie Renier, Juliette Binoche and Charles Berling in "Summer Hours"

Summer Hours is like a miniature, a small film of small dramas in the scope of large lives. Mortally once again hangs over the story of a family estate and the rich treasures of art history that goes with it. Family matriarch Helene (Edith Scob) has preserved the country home of her famous painter uncle as a tribute to him, complete with unpreserved works by French masters on the walls and rare pieces of furniture and glassworks as household items, and she drills in her eldest the list of valuables that need be accounted for and, if necessary, sold off when she dies. Frédéric (Charles Berling), who lives nearby in Paris, can’t bear to see the home broken up and sold off, but with his sister (Juliette Binoche) thriving in New York and younger brother (Jérémie Renier) settling in China, the holiday family home no longer has the same meaning to them all, let alone their children. The film moves from one decision to another and the arguments that inevitably ensue and it’s not all that subtly engineered. What Assayas brings is a generosity of understanding and a warmth of character to the siblings who love one another enough not to let disagreements change their feelings. It’s a gentle look at the way the ties to the past lose their hold on the next generations, and it closes with a pair of sequences that alone would recommend the film: one that takes you through the Musee D’Orsay from the workshops through to the galleries, and a final scene that recalls his brilliant (and still unavailable on DVD) early feature Cold Water, but with the angry, rebellious destructiveness of the earlier film replaced with a warm communal celebration. Plays Friday, May 22 and Sunday, May 24.

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