Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas. Films reviewed: Something in the Air, Cold Water, Late August, Early September

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1990s, Drama, Experimental Film, France, Politics, Protest, Romance by CulturalMining.com on June 23, 2017

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Olivier Assayas is a leading French filmmaker in mid-career whose current work is some of his best. He was born in 1955 and came of age amidst the violent uprisings of 1968.  Assayas is a devotee of Guy Debord,  whose Situationist International, which combined avant-garde art and architecture with revolution is said to have been instrumental in 1968.

He was born in the business of movie making. His father, Jacques Remy, was a famous screenwriter. I first heard of Assayas in the 1990s, but somehow never saw his movies until recently with Clouds of Sils Maria (review here) and Personal Shopper (review here). Both star Kristen Stewart as a young woman working among ultra-rich celebrities. In these films the characters are introspective and detached, more apt to observe events than participate in them.

Now there’s a comprehensive retrospective playing through August that lets you see his lesser-known works. They totally change how I thought of him. This week, I’m looking at three of his movies showing at Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas. Two of them are based on memories of his adolescence and one about family and friends in their forties.

Something in the Air (2012)

It’s the late 1960s/early 70s in France. Gilles (Clément Métayer) is an upper middle class high school student in a town where chickens still peck on the street. His father adapts scripts for Inspector Maigret movies. But Gilles feels more at home on the streets of a Paris, where student protesters are violently clashing with police. Gilles has two passions: Art – he wants to be a painter – and politics — he’s a non-communist leftist, inclined toward anarchism. His third passion used to be a beautiful woman named Laure, also an artist. They would meet in the woods off country roads to smooch and read beat poetry. Until she dumped him.

His teachers want him to read French classics, but Gilles craves direct action. So he and some friends crank out sexy posters on a gestetner, grab some spray paint and set out on a graffiti trip in the middle of the night. But something goes wrong. As they run away they injure a security guard who falls into a coma. Does he know who threw the rock?

Gilles and his friends decide to get the hell out of there, and drive off to Italy in a VW van with a film collective. On the way, he debates China’s Cultural Revolution, and whether films should shock the masses with experimental, new techniques or educate them with “things they’ll understand”.

Meanwhile he smokes hash, and falls for a young woman named Christine but refuses to commit to everlasting love. Will he remain true to his artistic and political ideals? Or follow his father’s profession?

Cold Water (1994)

It’s the late 60s/ early 70s in France in a small town outside Paris. Christine and Gilles (Virginie Ledoyen, Cyprien Fouquet) are young lovers both from divorced parents. He comes from an upperclass family with a Hungarian housekeeper and a frustrated dad. Christine lives with her Scientologist mom, her Egyptian soccer playing stepdad. Her birth father owns a corner store. Gilles and Christine hang out and do daring and impulsive things together, like shoplifting from a record store. She makes a commotion and is tackled by security guards while he runs away with the loot. But the scheme falls though. The police get involved and hand Christine to her despised father who immediately commits to a mental hospital called Beausoleil. Gilles meanwhile is physically thrown out of class by an angry prof. And for some reason Gilles secreteky buys ten sticks of dynamite. What is he planning?

Gilles and Christine manage to meet again with friends at an outdoor party by an abandoned house, listening to loud radio music, smoking hash and dancing like Wickerman devotees around a huge bonfire. But can they stay together despite all the forces set against them?

Cold Water and Something in the Air are both semi-autobiographical works about Assayas’s adolescence, but made 20 years apart. I watched them in quick succession which is a mind-blowing experience. The two films have a lot in common. They both feature Gilles and Christine as young runaways but with very different results. In both films Gilles deals with a disapproving school teacher and a disappointed father, which suggests they are based on important events in his life. Bonfires, beat poetry, and period American music also play crucial roles in both films.

Maybe because Assayas is so much older now, Something in the Air can look back at the politics and visual details of the era with a cynical eye. Of the two films, I found Cold Water much more passionate, more gutsy. It’s imbued with a nihilistic punk streak, missing from the later film.

Although called semi-autobiographical, Something in the Air places Gilles and Christine in the student uprisings in Paris in 1968, while in Cold Water they dance to music from 1972. (Born in 1955, Assayas would have been 13 in 1968, 17 in ’72.) I guess that’s where the “semi-” comes from.

Late August, Early September (1998)

Gabriel and Adrien (Mathieu Amalric, François Cluzet) are close friends in their forties in an unequal relationship. Adrien is a famous writer committed to his craft. He once spent his last centime on a small work by Joseph Beuys. But how he’s broke and his star has dimmed. Gabriel works as a literary editor. He idolizes Adrien and everything about him even while he has a clandestine affair with a beautiful but impulsive young woman named Anne (Virginie Ledoyen). He recently broke up with long-time partner Jenny (Jeanne Balibar) who is also close to Adrien. But things take a turn for the worse.

Adrien has cancer and publishers have rejected his latest book. Gabriel, meanwhile, has risen to a high-ranked position at a magazine, high enough that he can hire Adrien to do paid gruntwork. And unknown to most of them, Adrien is having a clandestine, though non-sexual, relationship with a teenaged girl named Vera.

The film follows all of them, as well as a much wider circle of family, friends and ex-partners, each with past loves and unsettled grudges.

Like Assayas’ other movies, this is not a plot-heavy film, it’s a realistic slice of life of Parisian intellectuals. I didn’t immediately love this movie, but it’s the kind of film that gradually grows on you, leaving a lot to think about afterwards.

One remarkable thing: this might be the first movie I’ve ever seen where the biggest shock comes in the closing credits. Vera (Adrien’s much younger girlfriend) is a minor character, but crucial to the plot. The last line in the film, “On verra” (“we’ll see”, a pun on her name), is spoken by Gabriel who interrupts a conversation when he glimpses Vera through a window. Vera is played by none other than Mia Hansen-Løve, who eventually became Assayas’s own much-younger wife. This film was her first appearance on the screen; she is now a well-regarded Danish director.

Late August, Early September, Something in the Air and Cold Water are all playing through August at the Tiff Bell Lightbox in Toronto as part of the Olivier Assayas retrospective. The director appears in person at some screenings; go to tiff.net for details.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Spring Film Festival Season. Movies Reviewed: Next time I aim for the heart, Tomorrow is always too long, Clouds of Sils Maria

Posted in Acting, Art, Drama, France, Movies, Scotland by CulturalMining.com on April 10, 2015

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM. It’s Spring Film Festival Season. Cinefranco is a festival of French language movies from countries like Canada, France, Tunisia, and Belgium. Images Festival shows art expressed in the form of moving images: films and videos, showing off-screen in galleries, and on screen at the AGO. So I’m combining the two this week, shaking the pot, and adding a bit extra. A French art film in English; an English art film in Scottish; and a French crime thriller… en Francais. 269b36e876e375e05083f78293992209_S

Next Time I Aim for the Heart / La prochaine fois je viserai le cœur

Dir: Cedric Anger

It’s the late 1970s in France. Out on lonely highways and suburban streets all is not well. Young women are being shot and some killed by an unknown man in a car. The serial killer sends hand-written notes to the police after each killing. Still, the cops are stymied, no one can describe the man or the car he drives, and he always gets away. Enter Franck (Guillaume Canet) He’s not a policeman, but a member of France’s gendarmerie — the national force (much like the RCMP) that operate in small towns and rural areas across the country. Gendarmes (the la-prochaine-fois-je-viserai-le-coeur-guillaume-canetones who wear that distinctive round top hat) are controlled by the Ministry of Defence, and comes through in Franck’s formal, militaristic manner. He’s gaunt, thin-lipped, tense. Always polite, he follows the rules and catches the criminals. He’s seeing the Sophie (Ana Girardot) the gorgeous young woman who does his laundry. She is smitten by him – a true gentleman – not like the slovenly men she knows. He’s also a prized detective, praised by la-prochaine-fois-je-viserai-le-coeur-ana-girardot-1his chief and respected by his squad. And they are all on the lookout for the crazed, vicious serial killer, whose crimes are escalating, but who always seems to escape. The gendarmes need to catch him before their rivals, the police force. Seems like a typical policier, right? The good cop searching for the deranged killer. But there’s a twist (and this is not a spoiler): Franck, the gendarme is also the serial killer! Whoa!

This is based on a true story and makes for a pretty good thriller. It has a dark and brooding tone to it, and leaves the viewer unsettled – who can you trust? And the whole story is told solely la-prochaine-fois-je-viserai-le-coeur-guillaume-canet-1from Franck’s point of view – the rest of the characters, including Sophie, are opaque. So you’re forced to sympathize with Franck – and you do – but he’s a troubled soul, and a loner/ nutbar/killer too, so how sympathetic can you be? Also, the guy’s psychotic – you wonder why it isn’t obvious to his fellow cops. Visually, the movie is great, shot in rural fields and forests, or in offices and homes, always with blow up colour photos subtly placed on the walls. Neat effect. And Canet is excellent as Franck. tomorrow is always too long

Tomorrow is always too long

Dir: Phil Collins

It’s an ordinary day in Glasgow, Scotland. People go to school, to the pub or to jail. But on a normal day, do you suddenly break into complex dance steps, and start singing wonderful indie pop sings by Cate Le Bon, accompanied by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra? This is a very strange movie, filled with ordinary people doing extraordinary things, the complex mixed with the mundane. It’s like watching TV with someone else holding the remote control, and constantly changing channels. Now you see Mindy the bored psychic touting for calls; a tawdry male phone sex line; an infomercial selling products for women who enjoy being patted down by security guards at airports; three people in sparkling glam makeup answering trivia questions; or a grizzly guy in a garish tam o’shanter buttering bread.

Huh? Exactly.

These scenes alternate with silhouette animation (by Matthew Robins) giving a stylized look at Glasgow’s underground: with nightclubs, drugs, and furtive sex in the bushes. This is definitely art, but it’s also great fun. You can tell it’s art because the performers all keep blasé, chill expressions as they dance. No jazz hands or smiley faces here. But it’s also a thoroughly entertaining portrait of one day in the life of the city of Glasgow, and a lot of the people who live there. Art you can love. 52501167-6576-45cc-a057-e4f607bf0e35

Clouds of Sils Maria

Dir: Olivier Assayas

Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is a very famous French actress, who is heading by train for Switzerland. She’s going to a town near Zurich to honour a playwright who, twenty years earlier, wrote the first play she ever performed in. The play is about a young woman who works at a company, and her older boss – actually the head of the firm. The older woman becomes infatuated with her, leading to tragic end. When the play premiered, Maria was a brash, young woman – totally unknown. Now she’s a seasoned professional. She owes Melchior, the playwright, a lot. But when circumstances change she’s asked to be in the play again… but this time as 3cc6e467-ae1e-4c7c-9f22-8fb65ae63788the older woman. This jars her. She thinks of herself as a beautiful young actress, but, while still beautiful, she’s clearly middle aged now.

All her emotions and worries are confessed to her young PA (personal assistant) Valentine (Kristen Stewart). And once Maria takes the part, she decides to stay in the Swiss town to learn her role. So Val plays the other part when the two of them rehearse. But Val senses a weird change, where Maria seems to be losing her grip – is she the boss in the play in love with the younger woman? Or is she an actress boss, obsessed with her PA? Val’s patience is also running low. 52e4e874-5796-45ed-94e1-073d90b85524

And a third woman Joanne (Chloë Grace Moretz), enters the picture. She’s the tempestuous teenaged actress playing Maria’s former role. She’s a Lindsay Lohan-type, chased by paparazzi, in and out of rehab. And all three acting out their roles against foggy, stark Alpen scenery. This is an intimate portrait of Juliette Binoche. The three actors were all convincing and absorbing. And I can appreciate the film intellectually. But it’s a bit too “meta” – play within a play, actors playing actors playing characters – to be deeply moving.

The Clouds of Sils Maria opens today in Toronto; Tomorrow is Always Too Long opened the Images festival which continues all week: go to imagesfestival.com for times and galleries. Next Time I Aim for the Heart plays next weekend at the Bloor Cinema. Go to cinefranco.com for times and locations of these and many other French language films.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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