Criterion Sunday 513: L’Heure d’été (Summer Hours, 2008)

I am an enormous fan of Olivier Assayas’s films, which is why I’m willing to entertain the fact that I must have missed something to this. After all, outwardly it feels like any number of middlebrow films about families exposing the fractures in their interrelationships as they squabble over an estate. Actually, “squabble” is rather too active a verb for what plays out as a series of gentle disappointments and misunderstandings, and indeed perhaps it’s the subtlety which elevates it, for this is a film about people coming to terms with what they had hoped for their futures and what actually transpires. There’s also a strong theme in there about our subjective responses to art and the value it has in daily life, along with some fairly pointed remarks about how lifeless items look when placed in a museum context, which is both expected and also bold given this is part financed by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Still, at the heart is that familiar family drama of a bunch of privileged kids coming together at the fancy estate of their recently deceased mother to talk about what to do; Binoche has top-billing but it’s Charles Berling who holds things together as the linchpin of the family (and the only one living in and committed to France). I suspect I’ll find more to like with this film as I allow it to sit with me, but for now it feels underpowered.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Olivier Assayas; Cinematographer Eric Gautier; Starring Charles Berling; Juliette Binoche, Jérémie Renier, Édith Scob; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 20 February 2022.

Sils Maria (Clouds of Sils Maria, 2014)

Aside from the pre-scheduled Criterion posts, there’s been slim pickings on this blog in recent weeks as I’ve been on holiday in the States and Canada, which means I’ve largely not been seeing films. However, I did catch up with one while over there. UPDATE: It has since been added to the Criterion Collection, so you see just how far I’ve strayed.


I’ve always had the sense from the infiltration of celebrity gossip into news coverage that Kristen Stewart has been underrated as an actor, apparently on the basis of, I don’t know, her lack of a sunny Californian disposition? It’s obviously a shallow criticism, as even if you’d only been aware of her since her turn in Twilight (2008), she’s already proved her acting mettle many times (my favourite being the 2010 musical biopic The Runaways). Clearly French director Olivier Assayas has been attentive, as he’s cast her alongside acting heavyweight Juliette Binoche, and Stewart very much holds her own (though perhaps it helps that Binoche is called upon to deliver much of her performance in English). It’s a classic self-reflexive European narrative about actors and acting, about ageing and egos and a sort of psychic transference between the older (Binoche) and younger generations (Stewart, as well as Chloë Grace Moretz in a small role). Stewart plays Valentine, the harried but largely unflappable PA to Binoche’s Maria, a well-known theatrical actor who is travelling to Zürich to deliver a tribute to the (now-deceased) director who discovered her when she was a teenager. There’s something about the way it all unfolds with its narrative ellipses, its teasing character linkages and its self-reflexivity about the craft of acting and cinema, not to mention the mountainous Swiss setting (the film’s title is taken from a notable cloud formation), which reminds me of the Swiss auteur Alain Tanner and a 1960s/70s tradition of this kind of story. Clouds of Sils Maria hints at the boundaries between the real and the fictive in a playful, literary and engaged way, but leaves us on a questioning note, unsure of exactly how much has changed for its title character and those women around her.

Clouds of Sils Maria film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Olivier Assayas; Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at Cineplex Forum, Montréal, Wednesday 15 April 2015.

Après mai (Something in the Air, 2012)

For a story about the sometimes angrily confrontational, sometimes wilfully naïve student activism of the 1970s, this is a remarkably warm embrace of a film. Possibly that’s because it feels like an autobiographical take on the era from director Olivier Assayas. I don’t know whether its story — of a young tousle-haired art student Gilles (played by newcomer Clément Métayer) trying to find his métier while watching his friends move off in various directions (geographical, emotional and spiritual) — is based in Assayas’ life, but it feels like something that is at least close to his heart after his previous multi-part epic Carlos (2010).

The title (at least in French, where it means “After May”) alludes to les événements of May 1968 which started with riots amongst university students on the edge of Paris and spread across the country to provoke further riots and strikes, convulsing all aspects of the French workforce, not least the arts and cinema. A new more politically-engaged consciousness was reflected in the 1970s films of, for example, Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker, and in the film criticism of such influential standard-bearers as Cahiers du cinéma (where Assayas started his career in the 1980s).

Après mai is set in 1971, amongst a group of students who are just finishing their final year of high school. There are plenty of teasing hints at the volatile new factions which opened up after May ’68, as we see the students at the start of the film engaged in street riots broken up by police violence, and at fractious meetings in which subsequent action is debated and competing leftist points of view are aired (though nobody seems to like the Communists). When the students, seeking an outlet after the brutality of the police, vandalise their school with graffiti and post breathlessly accusatory fliers, the school authorities are shown scratching their heads as to the meaning or relevance of it all. A subsequent ill-judged attack on a school security guard sees the group, now out of high school, disperse to various parts of Europe and further afield.

There’s humour too in all this revolutionary fervour. Gilles’ friend Alain is involved with an earnest American girl who’s been studying sacred dance in India; he himself is seen creating right-on artwork for the lightshow to a psychedelic hippy band (think early Velvet Underground or Pink Floyd). Meanwhile his on-off girlfriend Christine (the lovely Lola Créton) has hooked up with some older filmmakers taking their agit-prop workers’ rights films on the road to Italy, and Gilles is clearly shown to be underwhelmed by their simplistic praxis (in this regard, there’s also a nice scene at a public screening where one crowd member, channelling Jean-Luc Godard, asks these filmmakers why they don’t present their revolutionary message with a revolutionary film syntax).

However, in all of this there’s pathos and and an underlying generosity. Driving all the characters’ actions is a real earnestness of belief in the cause (whatever precisely this may be) and in the power of art to reflect and champion that cause. However detached Gilles may be shown at times to be, these beliefs are never ridiculed by Assayas. His cinematographer Eric Gautier’s camera captures something of an idyll, languorously and in sometimes long, fluid takes moving amongst the characters. The soundtrack is dominated by the wistful, elegiac sounds of contemporary English singer-songwriters like Nick Drake, Kevin Ayers and Syd Barrett, and groups like Soft Machine and the Incredible String Band. These aren’t just deployed (as they might be in advertising) as a shorthand to creating a mood, but seem more like hard-won accompaniments to Assayas’ sensitive characters — characters who may be confused about what they want, but who are trying throughout the film to figure it out.


CREDITS
Director/Writer Olivier Assayas; Cinematographer Eric Gautier; Starring Clément Métayer, Lola Créton; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, Brixton, London, Sunday 26 May 2013.