David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars and Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria make for a terrific double feature. Both are, in their own way, about the struggles of aging celebrity, and the relationship between an older woman and her younger counterpart/assistant.
Clouds is probably the best film I’ve seen this year. Juliette Binoche (aside from Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett, there might not be another actress I dream of working with. She’s perfect here) is Maria Enders, an older actress preparing for a role in the same production that made her famous years earlier. She and her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart, who is damn good) retreat to the village of Sils Maria to rehearse the play.
Clouds is very much a film about merging identities. It’s a play-within-a-film, and the moments that those lines blur are fantastic. In those ways there will be inevitable Persona, Three Women, Mulholland Dr, etc comparisons, but Clouds is gentler than all of those films. It’s nostalgic and melancholy and at its core, is about two younger women (Stewart, and Chloe Grace Moretz, who plays Jo-Ann Ellis, the reckless young actress cast opposite Binoche’s Maria) now occupying the same space that Maria once did – youth, potential, wild energy.
I often tell my students to stop using so many fades to black in the midst of their films. It can be pretty frustrating and stop the narrative cold. One of them could smartly show me Clouds as an example of a film that does just that, but to gorgeous success. Assayas’ film is deliberate and beautiful. Those fades (alongside chapters and an epilogue) give the film a haunting mood, where time gaps aren’t always explained or justified aside from the simple fact that time has passed and in those hidden moments, characters have changed.
If anything, maybe Clouds is closest to the recent Certified Copy, another Binoche film, by Abbas Kiarostami. Both films are very much aware of the idea that art can be more alive than real life (something that Stewart’s Valentine comments on directly in Clouds).
Assayas fills his movie with plenty of clues that will be fun to rewatch. I can’t give any of this rhythmic, evocative movie away, but, suffice to say, when Maria wears a sweatshirt towards the end of the film that only Valentine would’ve worn it answers and opens several questions.
There’s an amazingly funny takedown of superhero movies in here, with Moretz reprising something closer to her character from Kick-Ass merged with any X-Men movie. But it’s not as simple as: superhero movies suck (though that’s definitely in here). There’s a great scene where Valentine defends their depth and quality. Maria can’t stop laughing and we laugh with her – as does Valentine. But Valentine makes some valid points, and later, when Maria seriously considers a script that is just the type that she would have ridiculed earlier it justifies Valentine’s arguments just a little bit (along with doing several other things: showing Maria’s potential downslide, her inability to connect, her “becoming” another one of her identities, etc). Regardless, the satirizing scene shows a comical, derisory side from Assayas, who thumbs his nose at many conventions throughout his film.
There’s an awkwardly jump-cut scene with Wilhelm’s ex-wife. There’s an enigmatic scene film with swirling dissolves and overlays where Valentine drives as a pounding score (the loudest of the film) kicks in. Valentine vomits on the side of the road. Is she nervous about something? Just drunk? Pregnant? It’s never explicit, but the scene is scary.
I wish I had stills of this film to look closer at the blocking of a scene midway through the film. It’s when Valentine and Maria first read through the play – Maloja Snake – together. Assayas moves them constantly, using two rooms and two separate spaces of the immediate exterior. It’s so fluid and expert as they flee each other and reel each other back in, sometimes in reality, sometimes within the fictional read. It’s an amazing scene within an amazing film.
Maps to the Stars
Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is wild. It’s got a pretty inevitable arc and, if you’re familiar with the director, the ending, once you’re about 30 minutes is, is somewhat easy to predict.
That doesn’t really detract though. This film isn’t a mystery. At its heart it’s a ghost story and, as noted, a celebrity takedown. It’s also about nepotism and the insular, incestual (a pretty important work, I think, for this film) nature of Hollywood. I should’ve mentioned The Day of the Locust before. This film – more so than Clouds – is certainly indebted.
Cronenberg’s style has been pretty clinical for awhile now. I think maybe around Dead Ringers (I don’t think I’m claiming that because of the literal “clinicalness” of that film) his style started to evolve to something cleaner, not only in mise-en-scene, but also in overall shot selection. He’s very precise and, for a director so associated with sex and violence, there’s nothing gratuitous about his camera – he doesn’t waste time and space at all. That style came to a head with A Dangerous Method, his underrated 2011 film.
A lot of the scenes in Maps to the Stars begin with fairly slow push-ins. Here’s a look at part of a montage towards the middle-third.
The camera starts by dollying in behind Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) as he watches himself on TV (Weiss is a great new-age guru in this film; he feels a little bit like Elmer Gantry, updated to 2015, and having tired with age; that background of two eyes feels very Videodrome-era):
A cut and the camera dollies towards Christina Weiss (Olivia Williams) crying in the bathtub (sounds like a real spirit-lifter, doesn’t it?):
Then to another dolly forward, this time to Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) in his bed:
These camera moves are somewhat psychological, and, by virtue of the montage, serve to connect a sort of emotional turmoil/coldness of all three characters. But it’s also part of Cronenberg’s distant style: get us close to these characters at the beginning of the scene and by camera, but not really by any emotional connection.
And it’s not just the dollies-in. These are all clean and crisp looking, with white walls, and, even for night interiors, high key lighting. Cronenberg has definitely left a lot of the grime of his earlier films behind, as though tiring of it and preferring to keep it antiseptic for the sake of the narrative (no distractions).
Here’s a more detailed look at another scene. The camera again pushes in to start, this time on Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), as she gets a massage:
When the camera lands in MCU the masseuse leaves and is replaced by a new one (evidenced by the lack of sleeves and new complexion):
The camera pulls back, still in the same take, revealing Clarice (Sarah Gadon), Havana’s deceased mother now behind her:
Havana jumps up and Cronenberg pans quickly with her, framing her in a full shot:
Back to Clarice-
-and then shot-reverse again-
-before we pan with Havana into her house, landing in this CU as looks through the glass door:
A new setup gives us Havana’s POV as Clarice looks back at her:
Back to Havana at the door:
Two new frames to end. This wide with Clarice in the foreground, and then an overhead in front of her as she eerily sings:
Similar mise-en-scene, similar camera movement to start. The end of the scene is also nice. We get a tight POV of Clarice and then, via the subsequent wide from behind her, gradually start to shift perspectives.
In short: the first CU on Clarice (fourth-to-last image above) is a forced perspective, exaggerated for Havana’s shock. We then get what is justifiably – given the actual distance – Havana’s true POV. And end entirely away from Havana, now from no POV, and with Clarice only, as though her presence is more important than the reaction. This last bit is pretty crucial. It not only gives Clarice (or maybe “the past,” or “youth,”) the all-important ending beat, but also questions the validity of what Havana’s seeing by removing her agency.