In a culture so obsessed with youth, it’s a rare for any work of popular art to deal seriously with the aging process.
By Noah Gittell
In a culture so obsessed with youth, it’s a rare for any work of popular art to deal seriously with the aging process. It’s even more rare when we get two in the same month. Both “While We’re Young” and “Clouds of Sils Maria” address the same issue – the encroaching anxieties of middle-age, and the unstoppable forces of youth – with equal parts insight, compassion, and honest self-reflection.
On the surface, the two films have little in common. “Clouds” is a dreamy French meta-narrative, and “While We’re Young” is an indie dramedy. Noah Baumbach, who wrote and directed the latter, has put his stamp on the genre with “The Squid and the Whale,” “Greenberg,” and “Frances Ha.” In “Young,” he reunites with Ben Stiller for the story of a childless Manhattan couple who are rejuvenated when they befriend a pair of young Brooklyn hipsters. While their peers are sinking deeper into the dormancy of parenthood, Josh (Stiller), a well-known documentarian, and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) try on the hipster lifestyle of budding filmmaker Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfreid), an artisanal ice cream manufacturer. Together, they buy vintage hats, attend “beach days” on the streets of Bushwick, and even dabble in psychedelic drugs, but it’s not just cosmetic: Josh and Cornelia become more open and adventurous than they had ever dreamed.
Baumbach stages these early scenes with glee – Stiller does some fine comedic work trying to fit in with his new care-free pals – but he eventually takes a few bold steps into darker territory. The trouble begins, as it often does, when personal and professional lives overlap. When they collaborate on a film project, Josh soon begins to suspect that Jamie is only using him for his connections. Is it possible their entire friendship was contrived by Jamie to further his own career? Josh begins digging into Jamie’s background, and, because he has been so influenced by the young couple, much is riding on the answer.
“Clouds of Sils Maria” tackles the same subject in a very different setting. Shot mostly in the mountains of Switzerland, Oliver Assayas’ film is a narrative prism: Maria (Juliette Binoche) is a middle-aged actress grieving over the death of her mentor, a playwright who launched her career decades earlier. Again, the personal and the professional get muddled; the themes of the play, about an aging businesswoman usurped by her young assistant, play out between Maria and her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), but also between Maria and Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), a troubled young Hollywood star who has taken on Maria’s former role. They don’t meet until late in the film, but the starlet’s reputation casts a pall over Maria’s life.
When she looks at Jo-Ann, she sees her own obsolescence. It’s not just her own death that worries her, but rather the desecration of her art, especially since Jo-Ann, who does not measure up to Maria’s artistic standards, is slated to play the same part Maria was once identified with. Josh suffers the same inter-generational artistic anxiety. When Josh and Jamie collaborate on a project, an inquiry into Jamie’s character soon morphs into a discussion of the ethics of art in the age of new media. Jamie is all too willing to manipulate his subject matters for the sake of his film, while Josh feels tied to a perhaps antiquated sense of ethics. Baumbach wisely avoids taking sides; instead, we see this through Josh’s eyes, and all he sees is a new generation of artists coming to push him aside.
The prism through which Assayas and Baumbach address the issues of aging surely have a personal bent; they use protagonists who are artists in order to mirror their own lives. But it also feels right for our age in which non-fiction storytelling is increasingly coming under fire for perceived manipulations of their audience. Documentaries like “Catfish” and even HBO’s recent “The Jinx” have been fact-checked by concerned critics. The results have been inconclusive, but regardless, it’s easy to see that skepticism as part of the generational divide that Baumbach and Assayas are exploring here.
We should be glad they did. Modern cinema offers a few superficial romps through the realities of aging, but films as mature and thoughtful as “While We’re Young” and “Clouds of Sils Maria” come along just once – or perhaps twice – in a long while.
My Rating: See Both in the Theater