The Last Outpost 

Watching Olivier Assayas’ (2014) The Clouds of Sils Maria the day after Carrie Fisher died, it seemed to throw a poignant coincidence and reminder that only the world of the screen can offer. It almost felt as if I had meant to leave watching this film, not going to watch it in the cinema even though I had wanted to, and knowing that it was on a streaming service, and delaying watching it until now, just like I had with all of the Star Wars films. But the coincidence wasn’t because Assayas’ film was about an ageing actress worrying about her standing in the world and cinema, instead, it was the odd way that it made me think about Carrie Fisher when I had no connection with the films that made Fisher famous – Star Wars. Yet here I was thinking about her and what her death possibly meant.

2016 was a year that seemed replete with deaths of global stars. Rickman, Prince, Bowie to name a few, names synonymous with fans around the world, and now, Princess Leia had joined them. Social media is flooded with outpourings of adoration at times like this, and these are people who have inevitably figured in the lives of millions, immortalised in their roles and their personas. They, unlike the rest of us, have the opportunity to live on, through their art and performance, but it as at these moments of passing that we realise these people who we invest our time and attention to via watching or listening to , are only made of the same stuff as we are. Perhaps then this is why we’re fascinated with celebrity deaths. At first it strikes in us the crippling fear that these people are not just fantasy, they are ‘real people’. It’s as if one moment these events allow us actually to consider for a moment that death happens to us all, but at the same time we’re still participating in the unreality of the media and still rejecting the truth of the matter by participating: namely, that we all die.

Clouds of Sils Maria didn’t particularly ‘tell’ me anything about this, but it was strangely correlating with the world now, both mine and globally. It stars Juliette Binoche as Maria, an actress who has been asked to play a role in a stageplay that she has already been in before. This time however, she has been asked to play the role of the older person rather than the younger one she previously played. She stars opposite Kristen Stewart (Val) who acts as her PR manager, and has a remarkable ability to deftly balance all the screens that mediate Maria’s life; text, phone, email, voice-call, video call, Val is the person who connects Maria with the world. In the opening scene on a train, Maria is seen reading a newspaper which seems a representation of Maria’s way of being informed about the world, archaic compared to Val’s wizardry with the screens.

Maria initially though is on the way to give a speech about Wilhelm Melchior, the reclusive writer of the play, and has yet to be asked to play the older role. Melchior dies and it is after the speech she is approached. The young role has instead  gone to Jo-Ann  (Chloe Grace Moretz) a brattish child-star who has appeared in a major Hollywood franchise. Maria sets to find out about her new co-star watching videos via the internet of her pugnacious interviews with the press. Val and her then watch Jo-Ann in the franchise film and Maria (quite predictably) derides it whilst, Val sees its qualities (when they actually meet her, she is extremely polite).

While the film may appear to be oozing self-referentiality, the fact that Melchior dies, I think propels it beyond that. Now, this is more than the, as Hamlet says, ‘the play where-in we’ll catch the conscious of the king’. We see Maria and Val rehearse for the play in Melchior’s home which look like lucid moments between acting and rehearsal and for a moment you’re wondering if they are rehearsing for the play or actually acting as the characters Assayas assigned them as in his film. Val says to Maria ‘an interpretation of life can be truer than life itself’; indeed it can and often is, but that ‘truer than itself’, is an exaggeration, and exists within a realm, out of time with reality, like all fiction is. The realist paintings of the 19th century, were depicting real life, but that reality was only realer than life itself.

Image result for the clouds of sils maria couch

In recent years there has been a trend or an emergence of fictions that have protagonists that are paired, or are reflected off another character. Elena Ferrante is perhaps the most prescient example as the first book of her Neopolitan Series My Brilliant Friend (2014) is exactly that; a young girl reflecting on a relationship she feels inadequate in, in which she reflects on her friend’s brilliance, yet she is the writer of (and there is a brilliant irony where she remarks of her friend that she is a better writer than she is, despite her ‘writing’ the novel). These ‘other’ characters seem to act as a reflection, a mirror, not quite fantasy but certainly represent what the other wishes they could be. There is a wry, but poignant moment when Maria sits above Val, as Val lays back on a couch. It almost looks like Maria trying to analyse herself through Val, explore, project, retain her youth in Val. This is the persistent irony, the younger knows more about the world than she does, and so when they go on a walk together Val, tells her to ‘follow her lead’. Val has the map, but does Maria have the territory? It would appear not, as they have a disagreement (one of many) and Val ambiguously disappears. Does she return? Or has Maria finally let go? Is this for her benefit? 

As we know, it was Val who has control of the screens for Maria– cinema is not the only screen any more – you are no longer the centre of attention in the world of cinema. Assayas’ naturally promulgates the cinematic one but he doesn’t seem to be proclaiming this to be the death of cinema. Notice the frequent fade to blacks which seem indicative of the fact that demise and disappearance, of ourselves and others, is imminent and inevitable and it is no longer dramatic. It is akin to your smartphone, switched off many times throughout the day. Instead Assayas’ film seems to be trying to teach us, in the most unpreachable way that there are actually things bigger than the screen, even the cinematic one: there is more to life than it. Maria is only learning what her younger films stars will have to learn, what we all will have to learn.

The screen promises immortality and immediacy; we can all feel touched by those stars, like they have all entered our lives and have been with us at particular moments in time. David Thomson, in what can be described as a sort-of biography of cinema in his book, The Big Screen (2012) says at times everybody felt that they had or could have spent a night with Marilyn Monroe. I think to The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955); all males who watch a film could be Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) and spend a weekend with Monroe who is only given the title of ‘The Girl’ as if to emphasise the fact. Sherman can scarcely believe it either.

Image result for tom ewell the seven year itch

Zadie Smith’s novel  Swing Time (2016) follows a similar to model to Ferrante about a girl who bedazzled by her friend’s brilliant talents ironically ends up working for her childhood pop-star idol. Here is Smith talking about the narrator’s moment she begins to work for Aimee:
“I was still a child when my path first crossed with Aimee’s – but how can I call it fate? Everybody’s path crossed with hers at the same moment, as soon as she emerged she was uncontained by space and time, with not one path to cross but all paths…”
What is living contact any more? The narrator seems more believing of the fact that she is working with a worldwide pop star than she ever does to be friend’s with Tracey. But the screen can never truly tell us how to connect; no matter how much a film tries to depict a non-fantastical, ‘realistic’ relationship, it will never be real. It is as Val says, truer than life itself. 

And so, here I was, back thinking about Carrie Fisher, made famous in a set of films that I have no real concern for: i haven’t even seen all of them. Certainly it speaks about the intrusiveness of the spectacle but I was giving it the consideration that it spoke about something much greater than that. In her last few months, Fisher had released some memoirs and spoken about her affair with Harrison Ford during the making of Star Wars. It was there for us all to see. All along Fisher along with Ford had been trying to tell us that there were things greater than the world inhabited by celebrity and the media, they had been trying to step outside of the screen. It was in that moment when Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back looks to be going to his death, and Princess Leia tells her that she loves him. The next line is apparently ad-libbed by Ford. What does Ford say? Maybe it wasn’t ad-libbed depending what side of the screen you’re on.

Perhaps my New Year’s resolution should be a simple one: watch all those Star Wars films.

#3. Lessons in Manliness

There has been a steady import of Scandinavian and Nordic television and film in recent years. We’re well acquanted with crime, thanks to dramas like Borgen and The Bridge. Along with this though, there has been welcome import of films, some of which have been standout, should you have visited your local, independent cinema (if you’re lucky to have one). This  culminated last year with Roy Andersson finishing his ‘Living Trilogy’ with A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), and there was also Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure (2015), my favourite film (beating Mad Max) of 2015. Both very different styles and subject matters, yet seem to be concerned with what goes on beneath the sultry and stylish veneer we associate with Scandanavia.

She Monkeys (2011) was Liza Aschen’s directorial debut. It was praised and awarded in Sweden, but didn’t receive too much attention over here. This no real surprise for a Swedish film, directed by female director that is just under ninety minutes long. Like Ostlund however, it encompasses a threatening tone beneath the clean and clinical surface of what we perceive people and ‘forms’ to be. It asks many questions and answers some of them.

It is though a film by a female director predominantly about feminity in a male world. There are few males in it; a father that even though he appears to be the single parent is given no real presence; and a couple of boys that act as potential love interests for the two female leads. In doing a film about females though, in a world and industry mostly led by males and reviewed by males inevitably means that it gets misconstrued. Andrew Pulver in The Guardian for instance wrote that it is a film ‘about lesbians’. Certainly there appears to be a homoerotic tension which sometimes does spill into actual manifested action, but we hardly call something like Zack Snyder’s 300 a gay film, despite there being half-naked males engaged in throwing of phallic looking objects . With She Monkeys being mostly about Emma and Cassandra’s friendship then, it is rather about the boundaries between comradeship,close friendship and potential eroticism, even if it is two females in a high stake society that preaches perfection.

Pulver then added that the film ‘need more passion’. Twin this with a comment on the streaming service I used ,who, on giving it two stars stated “that they didn’t lez [sic] off once”. Whether this was an ironic comment it or not, it illuminates the issue. In the hands of a male director in Hollywood, they might well have ‘lezzed off’ (like in Soderbergh’s Side Effects ? Which it feasibly didn’t need).

It begins when Emma joins an Equestian team and Cassandra immediately takes to Emma. Emma and Cassandra are two, athletic looking types, competing in a sport where girls try and exhibit perfect poses and forms on horses, and by this the film becomes about the restraint and what is withheld beneath these perfected forms. Emma and Cassandra’s friendship develop in a buddy-ish manner; it doesn’t necessarily develop with erotic tension, but a defensive one. How could they let one another see each other’s imperfections or weaknesses? It instead has to evolve in this suppressed away, as if there are ulterior passions and motives beneath the surface, and can only develop by the mutual desire to become as perfect as the other – a competition they haven’t created but are engaged. In this manner how could they ever ‘give themselves away’ to a boy when the opportunity arises?

And so we do not see any more of Emma’s life – it doesn’t matter. We see her at home (with her younger sister and father), at training and with Cassandra, and briefly with two boys. Aschen does not delve, or give a psychological reasoning why they are like they are. Take the example of the mother and how we are revealed nothing about her: is she absent or just never in the film, in the same way Emma never seems to be at school? This is why there is no lezzing off. We can infer but we do not know.

Another aspect that has been greatly missed is the development of the sister’s character. Emma’s young sister, around the age of six, gets told to cover-up at the swimming baths where she usually goes topless, clearly at an age where there is no real bodily signs of gender. She begins to cover up her top half, but wants to do it with a bikini. Her father warily buys her one, presumably cautious that it may be too mature for her to wear at such an age, but so he doesn’t break a promise to her, he buys it. It is leopard print and she wears it all the time.

Maybe it is about the sexualisation of females, but there is a great irony to it if there is by her covering herself up in a two-piece. And who is the one making all of the decisions? Her father may be seen to be, but she effectively cons him into it. Men may be making rules for women, but she finds her own way to deceive him.

All the relationships are built upon exchange however like the above. Cassandra literally ‘takes’ Emma’s virginity when she sabotages her opportunity with a boy (as if rescuing her rather than an act of jealousy) and makes the boy flee. Emma’s sister, who is enamoured with cousin, gives the money to him from her bikini pants that her dad pays him for babysitting her. She receives scratches from her father on her belly (but spurned by her cousin) a knowing sense of a incomprehensible desire to be satisfied?

And so are they she-monkeys? Aschen asks, are they more than animals? More than apes or monkeys? Again, it is loaded with irony. Of course they’re more than that. To the ignorant male they might not be, but it’s as if the film is made by a female through the lens of a males, and seems film purposefully made for and expecting misinterpretation. Is this a film really about women then? Hardly.