How a French Film Showed I Lost My Edge
I haven't walked out of a movie theatre so upset since Superman snapped the neck of General Zod in Man of Steel.
My wife and I had just seen an advance screening of The Clouds of Sils Maria, an English language film created by the French. It's one of those movies that has five minutes of cool logos before the credits finally roll. Juliette Binoche plays Maria, a middle-aged actress who had the role of a lifetime in a play 20 years ago. Through the prodding of her assistant, Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart in the role that deservedly won her Best Supporting Actress at the Cesar Awards (French Oscars), she revisits the play in the opposite role while a Lindsey Lohan-type actress, played by Chloe Grace-Moritz, takes on the character that made Maria famous two decades ago.
Parallels between the the play and reality begin to form, frustrating the characters and causing the audience to wonder what is rehearsal for the play and what is conversation between Maria and Valentine. The women debate, laugh, and work. I thought it was all going to lead to something dark and dramatic, a la Birdman, but it never does. It's just a two hour long conversation that's too clever and meta for its own good. When the inevitable ambiguous ending hit, I raised my hands up angrily.
I think my wife thought I was upset with her because, unlike me, she liked it. But really, I hated the way the movie made me feel: dumb. It felt like the director was talking down to me about his feelings on film, Hollywood, and the wisdom and stubbornness that comes with age. If his feelings on these matters were even remotely clear, I could at least know where to stand. Instead I struggled to find a foothold.
There was so much to like in the film but at the end, I reacted in the same way my parents did whenever I dragged them to art films: shaking my head feeling like I wasted two hours of my time. After 10 years of living in small town Illinois watching the cult horror films and the canon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I had apparently lost my edge and I was frustrated as a result, much like the frustration Maria feels when she can't get inside the head of her new character.
The kid who once looked forward to David Lynch movies and felt he understood Cronenberg's take on Naked Lunch had been taken down by the condescending tone of director Olivier Assayas and his French sensibilities. I'll still be heading to the art theatre because that's where Best Picture nominees nowadays usually start, but I felt my understanding of the cinema slip away that night.
As I write this piece, my wife is watching Boyhood for the first time. She points out that the film, which I appreciate more with repeated viewings, has no real plot and no real ending. It's a motion picture experiment that marks the passage of time much like Sils Maria does, but in a vastly different way.
She asks me what I think makes Boyhood different from the movie we saw the other night. For one, we all can relate to the characters. If they're not like you and I, they're certainly someone we've met. We can tell immediately that director Richard Linklater is using many of his own experiences to form the narrative, whereas Assayas and Binoche are clumsily telling us their cloudy opinion on age, film, and art. Both films are attempting to make a statement, but Boyhood does it in a way we all can connect with and Sils Maria does it in the most condescending way possible.
Looking back, maybe I overreacted. I still might have my edge after all.