‘Certain Women’: To Connect on a Vast Landscape

The common denominator is the landscape: Montana. Open country, clear, fresh air. The expanse of space could mean the freedom to roam. As we look into the four female characters, however, the vastness of the landscape and the cold winter could infer separateness and the need for connections. In the internal landscape, an assertion of self.

Director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, 2008) has chosen three short stories by Maile Meloy to form a cinematic triptych. Meloy’s stories are lean and succinct. Correspondingly, Reichardt’s style is minimal as with her previous works. She brings together three loosely linked stories that can stand on their own. To review them in a succinct way, I’ll use three words as my focal point for each.

Certain Women.jpg


Laura (Laura Dern), a woman lawyer in Livingston has to deal with a disgruntled client, Fuller (Jared Harris), who was injured in his construction job. As he has accepted a settlement, he can have no further claim for tort. Laura has explained this to him time and again, but he refuses to believe her until one day, they drive a few hours to another town to seek a second opinion from a personal injury lawyer, a male. As Fuller listens to the lawyer stating the same reason as Laura has been telling him all along, he just says ‘Okay’ and seems to accept the fact. Laura laments: “If I were a man, I could explain the law and people would listen and say ‘Okay.’ It’ll be so restful.”

A few days later, a hostage-taking incident occurs in the middle of the night, and Laura is called by the police. It’s Fuller taking a security guard hostage at a government office and wants her to go in to read him his file regarding compensation. Laura goes in and calmly diffuses the tense situation. The incident sends Fuller to prison. He seems content when Laura visits him. Laura finds a changed and much calmer Fuller. He appreciates her visit, and just wants an occasional letter from her to keep in touch. Laura does have authority after all, albeit may not be as she has hoped in the professional front. Her influence rests on her considerate demeanor making an impact on a personal and human level. And for this, Fuller learns to appreciate.


A city woman Gina (Michelle Williams) wants to build a country dream house, not to move in but as a weekend home. She has her eyes on a pile of sandstones that belong to long time resident of the land, Albert (Rene Auberjonois). The sandstones hold the history of the area, for they are from the original school house. We see the cracks in Gina’s relationship with her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) as they try to smooth-talk Albert, Gina seemingly caring but assertive in what she wants, while Ryan is apologetic and conciliatory. Why would a city woman want a pile of old sandstones for her country home? For authenticity, Ryan tells Albert. Ouch, is that supposed to be helpful or is he being sarcastic? Further, their daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier) seems to be harder to placate as she is dragged along to the country reluctantly. The crevice in the mother-daughter relationship looks to be a tough fissure to fix.


The most moving segment comes last. A young lawyer Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) has to drive a few hours several nights a week after work from Livingston to Belfry to teach a night course on school law, a prior commitment before she found her present job. At the night class, she encounters a ranch hand, Jamie (Lily Gladstone), who drops in out of curiosity. The short moments of sharing as she accompanies Beth to a diner after class for a meal before she drives back home stir up deep longings. Gladstone’s restraint is particularly moving. Nuanced performance from both.

While she may be adroit with horses, it’s a human connection that Jamie yearns for. She comes to every class until one night, the students are told that the class will be taught by another teacher as Beth has quit due to the long drive. Eager to look for her, the ranch hand drives to Livingston to search for a lawyer named Beth Travis. What follows is an aching attempt to reach out towards an unrequited end. The last scene of the same horse-tending routines Jamie gets back to speaks poignantly. Life goes on despite…

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


Source materials: Short stories by Maile Meloy “Tome” and “Native Sandstone” from the collection Half In Love, and “Travis, B.” from Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it.

Clouds of Sils Maria Movie Review

Clouds of Sils Maria is an intricately conceived rumination on the passage of time, ageing, being female, being famous, and for that matter, being gradually becoming obsolete. The newest film from the prominent, Paris born, French director Olivier Assayas, it was nominated for numerous awards at film festivals, including the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014. I watched it at TIFF last September, and gladly again at the indie theatre when the film came to our city a few months ago.

Clouds of Sils Maria

A middle-aged celebrated screen and stage actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is on a train to Zurich with her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to attend a tribute to the playwright Wilhelm Melchior, who had cast her in her breakout role in one of his plays Maloja Snake some twenty years ago. At that time, Maria played a manipulative young office girl Sigrid who had an emotive relationship with her older office boss Helena, driving her to commit suicide.

While on the train to Zurich, Maria gets the news that Melchior has died, an apparent suicide due to a terminal illness. When arriving Switzerland, Melchior’s widow Rosa (Angela Winkler) lets Maria and Valentine stay in her idyllic house in the Swiss Alps, in the Sils Maria locale, while she tries to get away from the sad memories of her late husband. In that serene natural setting, Valentine helps Maria practice her lines for a revival of the play Maloja Snake, re-mounted as a tribute to the late playwright. But this time, Maria is to play the older character Helena, while a wildly popular, scandalous young star Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz, the rising star in real life) is to play Sigrid.

If you have the patience to read up to here, you likely can see the parallels: Maria and Valentine – Helena and Sigrid, as well you probably can guess the feelings Maria goes through in this role reversal, for now she is twenty plus years older, and the loss of Melchior could well be the foreshadow of an imminent path everyone has to trod, famous or not. The film is an intricately woven, multi-layered construct, with thought-provoking dialogues and incisive subtexts; the mirroring effect is brilliant especially the scenes when Valentine helps Maria practice her lines and accept the role reversal, from the young to the older.

If you appreciate the characterization and the superb performance of the actresses, you would not only bear with but savour the complexity of the dialogues and scenes. Instead of a litmus test for the viewer’s patience, the complications and layered meaning are a testament of some fine screenwriting and directing. Assayas’ signature realism and naturalistic style works marvellously well; in some scenes towards the end, the honesty is harsh and biting. 

Juliette Binoche always delivers. Here she is an ageing celebrity and star, her outward coolness masks tumultuous insecurities. She is totally natural in her role. Viewers may even feel she’s not acting at all.

But my highest praise has to go to Kristen Stewart. I admit I’m probably one of the few who have not watched, or read, any of the Twilight movies or books. So this is my first Stewart film, and I’m most impressed. She lives and breathes her character Valentine, assistant to Maria Enders. From juggling several smart phones while balancing herself on a moving train, to helping Maria practice her lines adjusting to the older role, Stewart has shown she has mastered the needed nuance, intelligence and sensitivity for her character. She has portrayed convincingly a complex female who, despite her efficiency and strength at her job as assistant to a famous but fast fading star, is herself vulnerable as a female with deep, inner yearnings and conflicts muffled only by her outward sensibility.

With her role as Valentine, Stewart went on to win the 2015 César Award for Best Supporting Actress this February in Paris, the first American actress to win the prestigious French acting award which is equivalent to the Oscar here.

Chloë Grace Moretz aptly plays the youthful, and bratty, rising star Jo-Ann Ellis. She embodies the young and famous, a celeb whom Valentine admires, but whom Maria can never understand as to how the young measures talent or shoots to the peak of popularity despite (or maybe because) of scandals. I’m sure what’s mind boggling to her could well be the thoughts in many a mind of the, alas, fading bunch of old school, superbly trained actors and iconic performers of our days.

The Largo from George Frideric Handel’s opera Serse is poignant, a solemn and grand diction of existential angst as Maria confronts the loss of her beloved and respected artistic mentor, and her own fading glory. Interestingly, the music reminds me of Kon Ichikawa’s The Makioka Sisters (1983), wherein this piece of music also appears, bringing out the poignancy of the passage of time, the erosion of the familiar, the end of an era, of traditions, and of treasured values.

This brings us to the very title of the film. The clouds of the Sils Maria mountain range in the Swiss Alps is famous for their sudden appearance like a snake curling and weaving around the mountains. Many have climbed the peaks only to be disappointed as the clouds may not appear while they are there. In the scene towards the end, just as Maria turns and walks away, the clouds come into view for us audience but not her, indeed, like a snake slithers silently in and in a few seconds, moves out of sight again. Ah… the ephemeral of it all. The ultimate mirroring of nature and life.

Probably the best film I’ve seen so far this year. A film that deserves – and requires – multiple viewings.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples


This is my last entry to Paris in July 2015 blogging event hosted by Tamara of Thyme for Tea.

Paris in July 2015 Icon***

Other Related Ripple Effects Posts:

Conversation with Juliette Binoche

Summer Hours by Olivier Assayas

My Old Lady 

Suite Française: From Book to Film

Flight of the Red Balloon