There are quite a few reasons to visit the old village section of Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Art (Michener Museum), music (Puck), historic curiosities (Mercer Museum), restaurants (too many to mention) all make Doylestown a worthy destination. And movies too, which are to be found at the County Theater.
Recently my wife and I drove with friends to Doylestown for dinner and a movie. Dinner took place at Chambers 19 Bistro & Bar. The four of us enjoyed our meals. It’s a good spot in the center of the old village. After dinner, around the corner we went to the County, which has been on site since 1938. The present theater is a reinvention of the earlier County, a mainstream theater whose fortunes began to decline in the 1970s. Since the early ’90s the County has been a two-screen art movie house, and has helped secure Doylestown’s status as a fine place.
The movie that we watched is Clouds Of Sils Maria, a hyper-wordy character-driven drama set mostly in Switzerland. Now, some people have a gift for understanding nearly every movie that they see. Film critics for sure, or so it would seem, and some laity too. I don’t have that gift. How many times has a movie (at theaters or on television) caused me to scratch my head intermittently? Oodles, thank you. Clouds is a challenge and makes me appreciate what professional critics do for a living. Dialogue and plot details fly by quickly in Clouds. If you aren’t in Sherlock Holmes’s league, plenty of both will elude you. Despite all of that, I think I came away with some understandings, in a broad sense if nothing else. And I wasn’t the only semi-lost soul. My wife and our friends weren’t certain about what they’d seen either. Each of us recalled scenes differently, or maybe didn’t recall them at all. I believe that the writer and director, Olivier Assayas, would have beamed at our struggles, as I don’t doubt that he had in mind to create an open-sided movie elusive to pinning down.
Clouds Of Sils Maria revolves around the morphing relationships between a famous actress in mid-career, played by Juliette Binoche, and two far younger ladies. One is her personal assistant (played by Kristen Stewart) and the other is her co-star (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) in a play, a revival, being readied for the London stage. The play headed for revival is Maloja Snake, in which Binoche’s character, Maria Enders, had starred about 25 years earlier as a young woman involved professionally and apparently romantically with a much older lady. In the revival Enders has graduated to the older person’s role and fantasy/action movie star Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz) takes on the young lady. Enders’s personal assistant Valentine (Stewart) helps Enders prepare for the play, reading and discussing the script with her. But all is not easy or simple in Maloja Snakeland. For our three protagonists, real life and the stage play uncannily and surreally seem to intertwine. Where does reality lie? Art, after all, reflects life. Binoche, Stewart and Moretz do fine work in this dizzying stew, playing off one another with panache and believability.
Well, like one of my friends said after the movie, this one is not for everybody. Plot offshoots overstretch its length by at least 20 minutes. And getting back to those pesky details . . . This morning I read the New York Times review of the movie, which is where I learned that the younger woman in the play has a sexual thing going with the older. Was this actually mentioned in Clouds? I sure don’t remember hearing about it. Maybe the Times reviewer had been given a crib sheet by the film’s producers before he saw the movie. Maybe I’m just slow. Probably both. I could mention many other such puzzlers. But that’s enough.
Yet, you know, I liked Clouds Of Sils Maria. It made me think, usually a good thing. My ultimate take on the movie is that the Binoche and Stewart characters were emotionally close but not quite right for each other, and needed separation in order to move on with their lives. Separate they did, though the circumstances and motivations involved are ripe for long discussions. I’m betting that as years went on, Enders and Valentine ended up just fine. Not so sure about the quality of Ellis’s fate down the road, though.
If you are wowed by nuanced acting, beautiful scenery and swirling dialogue, I recommend Clouds Of Sils Maria to you. I also recommend that you read at least two reviews, other than my mediocre effort, before you head off to view it. I should have done some advance reading myself. The Times review will be helpful. The New Yorker’s too. Like me, Anthony Lane, The New Yorker critic, seems to be more than a bit unsure about what the heck was going on. Which makes me feel better about my own perceptual shortcomings.