NYFF ending highlights: Part I

ScreenerBlog

A number of movies featuring prominent, popular directors and actors screened during the final days of the 52nd New York Film Festival, which concluded Sunday. Below are a few highlights from the event's last batch of showings:

Clouds of Sils Maria

Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart headline Clouds of Sils Maria from Olivier Assayas of Summer Hours. Binoche is Maria Enders, an aging actress who agrees to star in a modern staging of the play that furnished her with her breakout turn several decades ago. As a teenager, Maria assumed the role of Sigrid, a youthful and manipulative beauty. Now, an ingenue no longer, Maria is tasked with playing Helena, the middle-aged employer driven mad by her desire for Sigrid. Kristen Stewart is the assistant who helps Maria run lines, vet offers, and provides companionship upon which Maria, in a storyline that runs parallel to the plot of the film's fictional play, is complexly dependent.

Leading women and their director attended a press conference after Maria screened Wednesday morning. Assayas discussed the meta considerations that informed his casting choices. Although Stewart revealed she was initially asked to read for the part that would go to Chloe Grace Moritz, that of Jo-Ann Ellis, a trainwreck of a talented young actress who plays the new Sigrid, Assayas insisted he always wanted the Twilight star for Maria Enders' assistant, Valentine. Stewart, a frequent target of gossip rags and websites, said she enjoyed embodying her industry-savvy character. A sequence in which Valentine informs Maria of Jo-Ann's tabloid exploits was a particular treat.

The celebrity culture surrounding the two actresses is an important element of the film, Assayas explained. The audience is not supposed to lose itself in the narrative and forget Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, rather than Maria and Valentine, are onscreen; instead, the director expressed his easily realized hope viewers would remain aware of the actresses playing the characters as they followed the characters themselves.

The conceit is a bit heady, perhaps, but works well in context. Unfortunately, not every idea dramatized, or, more accurately, expressed in Clouds of Sils Maria lands so squarely. Writer-director Assayas has much he wants to say concerning celebrity, aging, and desire, among other themes. As his characters talk and talk, these ideas are repeated in sometimes interesting and novel, but increasingly and eventually redundant ways. It is a film whose impact is undercut by the number of grand ideas it wishes to address, and then, by its circuitous and circular means of addressing them. "Uneven" seems the best word for the beautifully shot Clouds of Sils Maria, for the very ambition that resulted in its surfeit of ideas is admirable.

Listen Up Philip

The third feature from indie writer-director Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel) screened as the first showing last Thursday morning. Its titular Philip is played by Jason Schwartzman, who frequently displays laudable breath-control as he spouts his character's densely worded invectives. Philip is a self-involved author awaiting the publication of his second novel. He's drifting apart from his photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) when his literary idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a man whose narcissism rivals Philip's near-sightedness, offers his country house as a summer retreat away from the distractions of New York. Philip leaves Ashley behind in their Brooklyn brownstone without hesitation, and happily, or as happily as a misanthrope can ever act, decamps to chez Zimmerman. The aging and creatively blocked writer is very pleased with his new housemate; less so is the daughter he neglects to inform, Melanie (Krysten Ritter).

Philip is an irritating character, but Perry's script is so well-written his obnoxiousness is made palatable and then entertaining by his cleverness. This script includes a number of unconventional elements, including a large section that leaves protagonist Philip behind, much as he does Ashley, to seemingly rectify the shafting of Ashley and focus on her. It's a choice that lends some needed emotional weight to Philip's tendency to make poor personal decisions, as, the more we grow to like Ashley, the sadder, rather than merely annoying, Philip's egoism appears.

Perry addressed the charge of "annoying characters" during the post-screening press conference Thursday, pointing out the film's female characters were not nearly so reprehensible: They were strong, together, with-it. This is true, and their presence often adds an appreciable sense of grounded-ness to the proceedings. They give Philip and Ike those satisfying dressing-downs the guys are, and the audience is, wanting so badly.

The problem, however, is one of character "types:" That of the wise female vs. the emotionally stunted guy. That of the female who dresses down. Of course, someone in the film ought to be together and with-it, in order to provide tension with the foundering protagonist, in order to offer viewers some breathing room. But did each one of the three central females need to assume grounding duties to both of the central males? That, more than Philip's pretentious patter, is rather annoying.

That being said, Listen Up Philip concludes on a realistic note that shades more deeply the character of Philip. For all that the characters may, if inadvertently, adhere to certain "types," they are not lacking in humanity. This fact, combined with a clever script that includes a fun Philip Roth-ian voice-over narration, helps the film end strong.