Clouds of Sils Maria makes you believe that a world-famous actress played by Juliette Binoche once did time as a villain in the X-Men movies. Not just any villain, either, but one who sounds like Doctor Nemesis, a lean gentleman in a fedora who, in every way, is Binoche’s opposite. The movie makes you believe that Kristen Stewart, playing the actress’s assistant, is Binoche’s equal as a performer, and that she’s perceptive and wise while Binoche is flighty and self-consumed. Their tandem is as much as you could ask for from acting that is subtle but not too subtle. Binoche and Stewart spend most of the movie in a two-way conversation, and each woman seems to bring out something new in the other. That Stewart can keep up with Binoche is impressive, but that she can think alongside her is exciting.
The movie, which Olivier Assayas wrote and directed, is a world of wonders, most of them cerebrally twisty and emotionally hallucinogenic. He’s thinking about youthfulness and age and self-reflection. The title refers to a rare sort of cloud that snakes through the valleys of the Swiss Alps, portending rocky weather. The druggy way that cloud is presented here, slithering toward the camera, engulfing another character until she’s sick, is like a ghostly exhalation of something brewed in a bong. Here, the turbulence is psychological.
Binoche’s character, Maria Enders, is on her way to present an old Swiss playwright friend, Wilhelm Melchior, with a literary prize. On the train to Zurich, her assistant, Valentine (or Val), gets a call telling her the friend has died. The timing is strange, since Maria has just been invited to join a revival of Maloja Snake, a play by Melchior about a younger woman named Sigrid who fills her older boss, Helena, with suicidal lust. It seems like a terrible show. But as a younger actress, Maria had made an artistic breakthrough playing Sigrid. Now, she’s reluctantly going to play Helena. In any case, the role would be a creative risk. She’s had enough of acting with wires, as she puts it, but has reservations about acting without nets, too. Returning to this play, opposite the role that made her reputation, means accepting that she’s no longer an ingenue.
That sounds like tired, old actorly vanity: Am I too old? And the situation raises some cinematic concerns: Is this too Bergman? But it feels as if Assayas’s movie wants to rethink Bergman’s X-rays of toxic intimacy in order to put Maria in battle with herself. The movie compounds her sense of vulnerability. She’s in the middle of a divorce. Her grabby old costar (Hanns Zischler) is back on the scene. And the actress playing her old role is a popular young American hothead named Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz, having a sneering blast), who also comes to this play hot off a superhero movie. Maria gives in to the temptation to Google her. She and Val find bratty Jo-Ann press conferences, naughty talk-show appearances, and an amusingly inane clip from one of the comic-book films. (One thing Assayas can’t make you believe is that the hottest young actress on the planet is named Jo-Ann.)
Running the play’s lines with Val, who does Sigrid, provides confusion where clarity is presumed. They hole up in an Alpine bungalow and go over the scenes, unpacking meaning. All Maria does is defend the play’s essence, but even for her it’s unfixed. Val can’t understand why Maria won’t simply accept what she’s become: older. This is vertiginously European, and yet Assayas doesn’t overdress it in formalism. If he had shot this like a Bergman movie, with the conjoined-twin blocking and the suffocating and uninflected sharing of frames, Sils Maria would be unbearable. It’d be karaoke. Instead, Assayas plants the claustrophobia in Maria’s head.
For the line-running scenes, Maria gets a rather amazing haircut that doubly corresponds to masculinized femininity and Peter Pan delusions. Indeed, contrary to her misgivings about the phoniness of superhero movies, she flies around the house and the backyard like a woman happily acquainted with wires. The text of the play brings out the subtext of Maria and Val’s relationship, which carries a current of attraction. They debate the meaning of it all until they reach a credible intellectual impasse: Val doesn’t feel that Maria respects her reading. Maybe Maria doesn’t. She’s too caught up in her neuroses to value a second opinion.
How can such a bad play — one that loosely sounds like the plot for 2010’s Love Crime, a lousy psychosexual thriller with Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier — bring out such smart screenwriting and instinctive acting? It turns out that, as characters and actors, Binoche and Stewart are unexpectedly ideal scene partners. Binoche is the sort of star who can find harmony with almost anyone in any language. She’s luminous in everything — but she’s the only star I’ve ever seen who can so specifically adjust the wattage. For Flight of the Red Balloon, she was luminously unstable. For Certified Copy, she was luminously romantic. For Assayas, she turns herself inside out so completely, so contradictorily (and, yes, so luminously) that you wonder whether Binoche herself is looking for the same answers as Maria. She’s weary, vital, angry, warm, exhilarated, engaged, and aloof. I think that brightness blinds people to the brilliance of her actual talent. Light upstaging light: Most actors should be so lucky.
What’s surprising about the combination of her and Stewart is how much the older woman (Binoche is 51) appears to enjoy working with the younger one (Stewart is 25) — not maternally, either. That could just be acting, but it seems like more than professionalism. It’s transference. Binoche makes Stewart appear to be her equal. And after seeing them act together here, you leave thinking maybe she is. For a while, it seemed as if she were going to try to get by, in every performance, on sulky attitude (that’s what Moretz does; here, it happens to work). But even in a couple of those Twilight movies — the first and fourth — Stewart has Jennifer Jason Leigh’s ballsiness. It doesn’t seem like she’s faking her way through a movie anymore. She’s building performances in smart ways — by observation and collaboration. Being good seems to interest her more than being a star.
Stewart sneaks through the back door for every line delivery. There’s a womanly husk in her voice. When she speaks, it’s with some jadedness and a bit of warmth. She has a way of communicating that she’s hearing the other person in the scene. That skill for listening is what made her so good as Julianne Moore’s daughter in Still Alice, though here the effect is different. Val and Maria are acting partners and theorists arguing for their respective understanding of the text. When Val tells Maria that theater is an “interpretation of life that can be truer than life itself,” Stewart has to say it the way certain 24-year-olds would. She makes it sound neither unduly wise nor highfalutin — just, according to her, true.
Clouds of Sils Maria is Assayas’s latest personal entertainment-industry salvo (Irma Vep, from 1997, and Demonlover, from 2002, are two others). This one has the right harmony among the different worlds and texts (context, subtext, pretext, text-text), so that it works not only as a movie but also as a running commentary on itself. It opens itself up for different readings. (I’ve heard more than one person suggest that Val is a figment.) As a filmmaker, he’s too catholic in his interests to have a single preoccupation. But thematic ambition and lack of interest in narrative convention characterize nearly all of his narrative features. (The 2010 miniseries terrorism epic, Carlos, might be the best-known project.) Clouds of Sils Maria is another movie that presents artistic integrity as a matter of life and death. Like Birdman, it stages that presentation as a confrontation between the mass commerce of superhero movies and the allegedly naked truth of the stage. Assayas’s movie is an elegant counterpoint to that movie’s caffeinated insecurities and macho poetry. You dread seeing the play in either movie. But Birdman cops out on it, anyway. It becomes an ephemeral plea for a last stroke of the ego. Assayas uses it to take stock of a woman’s soul. For him, the play’s always the thing.
The opening scenes of Ex Machina give you what you want from a movie: They hypnotize. In a perfectly edited series of dreamlike images, a software programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) discovers that he’s won a contest that gets him loaded onto a helicopter and dropped into the middle of a remote hunk of verdant lushness, where a cottage of enviable high design (glass, concrete, glass, marble, etc.) has been tucked into the landscape. The owner of the house is a billionaire technologist named Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who owns the company Caleb works for. He takes Caleb down into the vast basement, which is part bunker, part boutique hotel, part lab, and which is plagued with unexplained power outages.
We don’t know what’s going on. Neither does Caleb, really. Nathan has him sign a nondisclosure agreement, and the security card he gives his employee unlocks only some of the doors. The apprehension persists after Nathan presents his experiment to Caleb. It’s an application of the Turing test, in which Caleb is to determine whether the behavior of the robot that Nathan has devised — a shapely figure called Ava — is distinguishable from a human.
At first, the reason to go along with this is that the writer and director, Alex Garland, keeps the movie so full of doomy atmosphere that expecting the worst sort of becomes a treat. But gradually the hypnosis wears off, the mystique dissipates, and banalities take over. Nathan has a creepy-sexy housekeeper named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), for instance, and you can tell something’s up with her when Nathan berates her for breaking a dish or some glasses and she somehow fails to stab him in the neck with a shard.
Garland is the novelist turned screenwriter of Danny Boyle’s very good science fiction movies (28 Days Later … , Sunshine). This is his first film as a director. After a while, you realize that he has relied entirely on mortifying atmosphere to get him through. The red hell lighting that crops up makes you feel like you’re at one of the parties in Rosemary’s Baby. Meanwhile, something on Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s effective electronic soundtrack is nearly always throbbing. You don’t know whether to climb the walls or phone a cardiologist.
Garland also adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel about the inner lives of clones, Never Let Me Go, into a sleepy movie that thought the book was about their outer lives. Gleeson and Alicia Vikander, who plays Ava, pick up where the actors in that movie left off. In fairness, Vikander doesn’t have much of a choice. But for a creature that’s passing the Turing test with flying colors, her hints at sentient humanness cry out for their own Turing experiment. The performances stiffen further as a horror movie pools around them. Isaac is wonderful, though. He has the beard that Robert De Niro used to play Satan in Angel Heart and the swagger that Al Pacino probably uses to load the dishwasher. He’s permitted to work with abandon here. The best scene in the movie has him and Mizuno disco dancing in sync to Oliver Cheatham’s “Get Down Saturday Night,” a song that deserves to replace “Got to Give It Up” as the movies’ atmospheric party jam. Isaac is actually too wonderful. His whatever-dude insouciance takes the menace out of the movie. Garland needs the noise and lights to keep you on edge because his villain has too much creative leeway. His evil sleaziness never reaches full-on psychotic. But maybe Isaac was looking for a way out of a cliché.
I, for one, am always disappointed when all that movie nerds can think to do with their genius, their god complex, and their G’s is to take a rib and build an Ava. (Or a Kyoko — walking, talking Fleshlights.) Based on the heartless territory the movie stakes out, Garland, too, might be tired of this. But 90 minutes of male fantasy and 10 of alleged feminism are bad math. Ex Machina feels like the work of someone who felt the best way to make Frankenstein was to watch a lot of porn.
Twentieth Century Fox
Clouds of Sils Maria and Ex Machina are either entirely or partially contingent upon art. So is The Longest Ride, which is not at all about the Tour de France. It’s based on a Nicholas Sparks novel in which a North Carolina cowboy has to consider giving up the rodeo because his aspiring-gallerist girlfriend (and his physician!) thinks it’s bad for his health. Also because some sentimental old Jewish guy kind of says so. The movie lasts for more than two hours. It’s full of bunk, and even more full of flashbacks. The young lovers are anonymous-looking — she’s a perky blonde; he squints — but they’re still likable. The painter Willem de Kooning makes a special appearance, while the unridable bull, Rango, makes several (playing himself).
I like the campy judgments of these Sparks movies. They’re like having a reverend do a puppet show to explain sin. This one has that. But it’s got a sexiness that rarely comes through in these movies. Britt Robertson plays the girl, Sophia. Scott Eastwood plays the guy, Luke. (Eastwood is Clint’s son, so the squinting comes honestly.) And when he kisses her — well, he evidently knows how. At the movies, that is a Halley’s Comet–level event. Eastwood seems like he was raised by surfers, not farmers, but what’s the point in arguing? When he trudges past in a cowboy hat and boots, plaid shirt tucked into jeans and flowers in his hands, people stare like he’s also a centaur.
The plot wouldn’t pass a safety inspection. Luke and Sophia rescue a man named Ira (Alan Alda) and his letters from the car he crashed on the side of a road. They take him to the hospital and, for reasons that are inadequately explained, his vision is bad and Sophia winds up reading him the letters, which he wrote. This means the movie has to go all the way back to the 1940s and inch its way toward the 21st century.
For long passages, we watch young Ira (Jack Huston) woo Ruth (Oona Chaplin), then marry her, then fail to give her children (thanks, WWII battle injury). As a schoolteacher, she’s beatific about it, until she can no longer keep her maternity on standby. He lavishes her with art — De Koonings, Ellsworth Kellys, and a Jacob Lawrence — and she loves him for it. But that impoverished, parentless kid in her class is starting to look like a pretty good addition to the collection. Why conventional adoption fails for these nice rich people is also conveniently underexplained. If the reason is anti-Semitism, speak!
The blandness afoot is a change of pace for the director, George Tillman Jr., whose other movies include Soul Food and the Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious. (He also produced Barbershop, Beauty Shop, and Roll Bounce.) This is to say that there’s a heartbreaking honesty in Luke’s decision to serve Sophia barbecue from plastic bags and Styrofoam: Why pretend?
The plot switches back and forth until everything else is made clear enough for a series of surprises that almost choked me up. Luke learns that there’s more to life than staying on a bull at a rodeo. By “more” I mean Sophia, who has learned everything before the movie starts, which is how she has so much time for Luke. The Longest Ride has as much bull as the 10 previous Sparks adaptations. This is one of the few you can ride for longer than eight seconds.