Seymour, Clouds of Sils Maria, Grandma, The Assassin: the best day yet

by David Larsen / 26 July, 2015

Many film-makers of my acquaintance would say the simplest way to drive a film reviewer mad is to recognise that nature has done the job for you. But to drive a film reviewer more mad than they were to start with, the simplest approach is the one you use to starve a donkey. Plonk them down between four excellent films, and watch them try to pick the one to talk about first. Yesterday was my best day yet at this festival, and I am feeling the most ridiculous variant on parental guilt: whichever film I praise first, it's going to be unfair to the others.

Seymour: An Introduction

So we'll go with order of viewing. This allows me to start with Seymour: An Introduction, which unsurprisingly drew the smallest of yesterday's crowds, being a profile of an elderly piano teacher by someone with no particular reputation for knowing the first thing about documentary film making, let alone classical music. Ethan Hawke appears briefly before the camera to explain that he made this film because he just wanted people to know about Seymour Bernstein: "I met him at a time when I was struggling to understand why I do what I do, what my motivations were, how to be authentic..."

I swear, sometimes Hawke seems like he really is a character in a Richard Linklater film. But before I could get my cynicism properly warmed up, Bernstein had disarmed me. He's a quiet, twinkly-eyed New York aesthete, gentle and generous, and he has the quality each of us would wish to have in our sunset years: he's the still waters that run deep. He's wise. You can't fake this. We mostly see him giving music lessons - expertly edited, so that many lessons with many students fold seamlessly into long composite scenes, with each student's problems and strengths reflecting on the others - and if you've never seen a great music teacher drawing out the ways in which musical excellence depends on exacting craft married to an understanding of things beyond music, you have a lot to look forward to here. (Pianist, musician, or not.)

"Get off your beaten pathways and open some new doors."

But he also reflects discursively on his long life, and it's a pleasure to be in his company. I haven't had a chance yet to write in this blog about any of the films I saw in preview screenings, none of which I'm going to at the festival itself, because there are so many other films to fit in; but one of them was the excellent New Zealand documentary Crossing Rachmaninoff, and it struck me, watching Seymour, that the two films make perfect bookends. One is about an old man at ease with himself, a former concert pianist who gave up performing to teach. The other is about a young man coming to terms with himself, a popular teacher just breaking out into the beginnings of a performing career. Both are about the roots of music in lived experience. And in fact, there's a brief scene in Seymour where we watch a young man learning to play the second Rachmaninoff piano concerto - the same piece Flavio Villani performs in Crossing Rachmaninoff. Neither of these films is an obvious first pick for non-classical-music film-goers, which is exactly why both of them ought to be. Get off your beaten pathways and open some new doors.

Clouds of Sils Maria
Clouds of Sils Maria

Clouds of Sils Maria. Okay, I knew this would happen: I am running short on minutes, and this is a film that deserves and demands the most searching and careful appreciation. Of all the films I've seen at this festival, it was the one I knew, well before it ended, that I wanted to see again and again. From its opening moments - Kristen Stewart talking tensely on the phone, in a moving train car - every aspect of this film's pacing, framing, writing, and acting is simply excellent. There's a constant tension between the schematic intellectual pleasures of a deliberately artificial scenario - a famous actress is preparing to perform a role that resonates deeply with the circumstances of her own life - and the pleasures of seeing richly complex characters brought to life by great actors. Part of my enjoyment was continually bouncing back and forth from "these ideas are way too overt" to "this is so bold!"

"It respects and rewards your willingness to lean in and engage your brain"

There are perfectly lovely films that demand nothing of you. This is the kind of film I love because it respects and rewards your willingness to lean in and engage your brain. It isn't afraid to have Kristen Stewart, famously the human corner of a YA blockbuster franchise's human-vampire-werewolf love triangle, announce to her actress employer that a film script she ought to look at "involves werewolves, for whatever reason". It isn't afraid to rely heavily on Stewart's widely underappreciated acting talents. It knows, in fact, precisely what its assets are, and it wastes none of them. Juliette Binoche is Stewart's employer, and the two of them are magnificent together. Chloe Grace Moretz plays the rising starlet who stands exactly where Binoche's character did 20-something years ago; she has very little screen time, and she's pinpoint perfect. (Two characters following the same career arc, a generation out of synch: the musical way of representing this concept would be a canon, where a single theme repeats a handful of bars out of synch with itself. I only mention this because the film closes to Pachelbel's Canon.)

There is really only one thing the film gets wrong, and it's something a friend of mine pointed out: in the brief, ironic scene we're shown from the superhero film Moretz's character has just appeared in, two women face off and have a charged conversation. No superhero film, as it happens, has ever given two women this much time alone together on screen. Clouds of Sils Maria is ground zero mainstream film festival gold, the kind of substantial, serious drama Hollywood has largely given up making. If you want to know what gets lost when major film studios become reluctant to let women anchor major films, look no further.


Actually, you should look a bit further, because you should also look at Grandma. This is the perfect counterpoint to Clouds of Sils Maria, being lightweight, female-centric, easy to watch, and hard to resist; seeing the two one after the other felt like a gift. Lily Tomlin, you cranky goddess. Please, universe, give her more roles as good as this one.

I will not say much more than this, time being short and this film requiring very little description. Tomlin's character is an aging poet, still grieving for her wife of many years, and estranged from her only daughter. Out of the blue, her granddaughter turns up, needing help. Needing, actually, an abortion, and unable to pay for it. Grandma is broke. But Grandma is also an unstoppable force of nature. Wryness ensues. Everything about this film, from the casting on up, is a delight.

The Assassin
The Assassin

And finally The Assassin. I am so impressed that the festival chose this for its centrepiece time slot, because as sumptuously gorgeous as it is, it is not an easy film. I will be watching Clouds of Sils Maria again because great art is great to watch; I will be watching The Assassin again to work out what the hell happened. Though also because it is, in fact, sumptuously gorgeous.

There is an extended scene early on in the film - every scene in this film is extended, which eventually rewired my sense of duration, with the result that the 105 minute running time ended just as I thought the story was moving into its second act - in which we see several characters through multiple layered gauze curtains. The curtains blow in a mild breeze, shifting back and forth across our sightline, with the result that we can see clearly only every now and then, to an unpredictable rhythm. The hazy softened images we see the rest of the time are exquisite; it's vital to underline this, because otherwise the scene would merely be maddening. There is no frame in this film which is not exquisite. It will rewrite your definition of high-end visual design.

But equally, there is no scene in this film which is not in some sense a prolonged process of straining after elusive clarity. The narrative method is very far to the more obscure end of the part-implies-the-whole methodological spectrum. It reminded me - oddly but inescapably - of The Wire, a TV series many people rave about, myself included, but which hardly anyone gets hooked on until well into its first season, because it's so very relaxed about letting its story accumulate from bits and pieces of under-emphasised information. This is intended as recommendation and fair warning both. I would have been sorry to miss this film.

I am off now to a documentary about the history of Iraq, and then an Iranian vampire film, a pairing which delights me more than I can easily express. A brief highs recap first, this being the halfway mark of this series of blogs. My top recommendations from the films I've seen so far:

  • Song of the Sea (for all audiences),

  • The Lobster (consumer warning: it's dark and strange)

  • A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence (consumer warning: it makes The Lobster look like Love, Actually)

  • '71 (consumer warning: it's a thriller, but the thrills have emotional weight)

  • Clouds of Sils Maria

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