Pilgrimages – MVFF37, Day 1 – Beauties and the Beast

0I was not able to make it to the first night of the 37th annual Mill Valley Film Festival, which opened with the Tommy Lee Jones-directed western The Homesman, introduced live by star Hilary Swank.   Although I had already screened about a half dozen films that will be playing over the course of the 11-day festival, my MVFF37 experience began in earnest on Friday night.  Both films I watched last night debuted over the summer at Cannes, and both played to packed houses at the sweltering Sequoia Theater in downtown Mill Valley (although I overheard several people claim that the temperature was even more oppressive the previous night at The Homesman).

First up was Mr. Turner, starring Timothy Spall as the famous 19th century British painter J.M.W. Turner.  Spall won an acting prize at Cannes, and his performance is a tour-de-force in every sense of the grunt.  He turns the slovenly and secretive Turner into a Victorian era version of the Beast, a combustible mix of proper manners and guttural selfishness, with a teeming inner life of desire and self-loathing.  Director Mike Leigh has never been famed for his proficiency with visuals, but Mr. Turner is flat-out gorgeous – Leigh and his cinematographer Dick Pope beautifully recreate the fog-smeared landscapes and subdued colors of Turner’s paintings.  The effect is like watching J.M.W. Turner stomp and growl and furiously sketch his way through the contours of his imagination, an effect only slightly diminished by Leigh’s tendency to over-encourage broad performances in character parts.index2  Mr. Turner is scheduled to release in major cities around Christmas.  It’s a prime candidate for my year-end top 10 list.

Next was Clouds of Sils Maria, Oliver Assayas’ “women’s picture” starring Juliette Binoche as an aging and insecure actress who agrees to appear in a new production of the play that made her famous, only this time as the older woman instead of the ingenue.  Although this is essentially a three-woman picture, with Kristen Stewart as Binoche’s overworked personal assistant and Chloe Grace Moretz as the TMZ-gen ingenue, the narrative is incredibly dense, and it takes the entire first act just to unpack it all and lay it on the bed.  It’s all still slithering through my mind like a cloud snake (one of the strange contradictions of film festivals is that you have less time to think about headier fare), but on a very simplistic level, the film is like All About Eve crossed with Persona (crossed with a talky French movie).  As Binoche and Stewart retreat to a mountain villa to prep for the role, the separation between performance and reality gets fuzzier and fuzzier – are they running through lines, or picking at the scab of their own older woman/ingenue dynamic?  The film meanders in a style typical of Assayas, but the performances are all strong (especially Binoche and yes, even Stewart), and the film explores the psychology of female role-play with depth and intelligence.

TOMORROW: MVFF Day 2, including screenings of Wolf at the Door, ’71 and The Imitation Game.