I want to write on this great film in the greater length it deserves. But for now, in the absence of time and to encourage as many people as possible to see it: Kelly Reichardt is the great poet of contemporary American cinema. The West, the poor, marginalised or oppressed; a loneliness and ache lived against wonders of nature are some of her themes. Here, three interlinked stories of four women in Montana, framed through windows, or from outside the windshields of their cars, always near but always separated by something, at a distance, some trying to help, some trying to cheat, some oblivious to the passions they incite; all doing their best in difficult and often lonely circumstances. From the beginning, when you see Laura Dern framed in a circular mirror on the edge of the frame whilst the back of her adulterous lover occupies a larger portion of the rest, their looking at each other fractured for us through peeks at mirrors, the compositions are superbly expressive. Certain Women is so beautiful, visually and narratively, and the actors so superb: it will be a long time before I forget the image of Lily Gladstone’s beautiful face, stars in her eyes as she gazes longingly at Kristen Stewart. What a great film.
A cinephile’s dream movie. The sparse lettering of the opening credits begin, that 30s version of jazz standards start on the soundtrack, and one’s spirits lift. One knows one’s in safe hands. One knows one’s in a Woody Allen world. Café Society glows with a kind of nostalgia for how romance should be, how it used to be in classic movies. The great Vittorio Storaro bathes all the early scenes in a soft yellow light, as if this world is seen through a piece of amber. The palette will turn bluer, if never dark, as the film unfolds and the protagonists discover the glamorous lives they once dreamed of and now enjoy have come at a price.
Café Society is a film buff’s movie: we get to see the houses of Joan Crawford and Spencer Tracy’s. All major movie stars are mentioned as within the radar and reach of agent Phil Stern (Steve Carrell). We get to see Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy and William Powell in Riffraff and Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman. Characters tell anecdotes of how proper Irene Dunne is and of Robert Montgomery’s palazzo in Venice. Romance blossoms in Malibu frolicks. The air is thick with Ginger Rogers being unsatisfied and searching for new representation.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby, Phil Stern’s nephew, sent by his mother (Jeannie Berlin) to Hollywood so that he could get a job and benefit from some nepotism. He is Woody Allen’s best ever alter-ego (and it seems that for several decades now every young star who could possibly pass for Jewish (Jason Biggs) and even those who can’t (Hugh Grant) has now had a go) Everything Eisenberg does does is interesting, and the self-criticism that comes across more as an assertive condence in Allen is more gentle and believable coming from Eisenberg. He and Kristen Stewart are a dream couple, both glamorous and gauche. She wears jewellery like she doesn’t care for it, as if Louise Beavers or one of those big saucy black maids of 30s movies plonked it on her head whilst lazily dropping cigarette ash into the soup. The setting, the music, the family, even the tone, recall Radio Days (though the family is not as sharply delineated here as there).
The film is structured as two triangles centred on Kristen Stewart (Vonnie). She’s Phil’s secretary and is having an affair with him when he asks her to show his nephew around Hollywood. Phil’s always promising to divorce his wife and marry her but they’ve been married for twenty-five years, they’re Jewish, and it looks like it’s never going to happen. As Vonnie shows Bobby around, they fall in love and Bobby proposes; and that’s what spurs Phil to tie the knot with Vonnie. The theme of the film is that timing is everything, and how when it comes to love these lovely people, who really are meant for each other, their romance is simply mis-timed. They’re out of step even though they’re longing to dance together.
The film gets its title from the group of aristocrats, celebrities, politicians and gangsters who are precursors to the jet set of the 60s and who met up in glamorous upscale bars in Manhattan. This is where Phil goes, backed by his gangster brother ,to make a success of himself, find another Veronica to be happily married to and start a family. And yet….If Phil-Vonnie-Bobby form one triangle, when the setting turns to New York, Bobby-Vonnie-Veronica becomes another.
Café Society asks you to keep in mind the differences between the two Veronicas, the differences between New York and Hollywood, London and New York, that it is all driven by a kind of gangsterism and that it is all imagined through a 30s lens (there’s even a Catholic conversion scene in jail that is a nod to Angels with Dirty Faces). It tells is story through a differentiation of knowledges, who knows what, when, though here played for suspense and farce rather than melodrama and tears. Though tears, or at least a welling of them, overhang the last part of the movie without fully being expressed.
The song list, all from the great American Songbook and most (all except those from the nightclub scenes) heard in their original versions by the likes of Count Basie and Benny Goodman tells the story (and what a songlist!): Jeepers Creepers, My Romance, The Lady is a Tramp, Zing, Went the Strings of My Heart, Out of Nowhere, This Can’t be Love. It’s glorious, as is the end, which seems adult, realistic and romantic at the same, achieving the same rueful tone, a wise loving in an acknowledgment of what cannot be, that echoes so many of the songs. Do you have to be conversant with 30s and 40s culture to appreciate it fully? Maybe, but if so, get cracking. I loved it.
Can a film be both fascinating AND dull? In The Clouds of Sils Maria Juliette Binoche is Maria Enders, a celebrated actress and star, who first became famous in Maloja Snake a work about an older woman, Helena, who falls in love with a much younger girl, Sigrid, and is driven to suicide. Then, she played Sigrid; now she is asked to play Helena. Kristen Stewart is Valentine, Maria’s super-efficient, smart and cool assistant. The relationship between Maria and Valentine is the opposite side of the coin of that of Helena and Sigrid but as Valentine is helping Maria with her lines, one often can’t tell where the boundary lies between the real and fictional relationship between them; and the film creates an interesting tension between the layers of fictional worlds in which this tension gets played out and in doing so complexly dramatizes questions on the nature of acting and being.
The interplay between Stewart and Binoche, and the differing styles in which the act it out, also adds an interesting twist on this. Everything people claim for Streep, I feel for Binoche. I simply think there’s no one of her generation better, and layers of conflicting emotion are conveyed absolutely transparently. In this film she’s beautiful and plain, feminine and masculine, flirtatious and castrating; she runs through the gamut and it’s all clearly understandable as coming from one character. Plus, she is also a star and one can’t take one’s eyes of her, at least until Kristen Stewart comes in to split our gaze. She’s not transparent at all but she is mesmeric. You don’t know what she’s thinking really but one keeps on looking intently in the hope of finding out. They’re great together. From their interplay, interesting ideas about the connection between age, desire, and vulnerability are played out, with Stewart forcefully making a claim for the desirability of Maria/Helena and the desire and vulnerability of the much younger Sigrid.
The film is fascinating on acting, performance, performing, stardom, aging, celebrity culture and on debates on the nature of cinema and cinematic art in our time. It gets even livelier when Chloë Grace Moretz, playing Jo-Anne Ellis, a star of X-Men type sci-fi action films and active participant in paparazzi-infused internet celebrity culture, gets cast opposite Maria in the role of Sigrid. Jo-Anne will contradict all of Valentine’s interpretations, whilst Maria, who has learned form Valentine in the process, will start to think about ways of asserting them. This is a fascinating film on the nature of acting, its relation to being, the thin line between them, and how that thin line is made even thinner when the unreality of celebrity culture is thrown in the mix.
The Maloja Snake, a cloud bank that winds its way through the alpine pass like a river or a snake by a twist of nature, thus providing the illusion of winding and forward movement whilst observing it from the top of the mountains but obscuring that which is below, is used as a metaphor for the film. Excerpts from Arnold Fanck’s 1924 film, Cloud Phenomena of Maloja, are used in the film.
The Clouds of Sils Maria is a much more fascinating film to think about then to watch. But one has to undergo the latter in order to engage with the former.
The story is what you’d expect but with maybe more of an accent on the magical. The film is visually dazzling, with dgi here used expressively to create a magical world, damply dark or sinister, or life-giving, unfolding whiteness. The scenes of the transformation of the forest, or indeed any transformation involving Charleze Therzon are astonishing. Therzon herself looks the part better than she acts it but gives a serviceable performance. Chris Hemsworth is rugged and gorgeous. Kristen Stewart has both a transparency and also a kind of awkwardness that is now an integral part of her star persona. She never seems at ease, is always awkward but somehow true. Here she’s astonishingly beautiful, a beauty made amazing because you initially don’t quite notice, it catches you by surprise in particular shots and then hits you as breathtaking. Girls will love her in armour at the end. There’s something that stops this film from quite working and yet I would like to see it again.
Directed by Rupert Sanders, a first time director.