Youth Wasted on the Old: Legacy and Ageism for Noah Baumbach and Olivier Assayas

In their latest films, Noah Baumbach and Olivier Assayas abnegate their artistic relevance to ravenous millennials.

Movies Features Noah Baumbach
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Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young kicks off with dialogue from The Master Builder, one of the most significant works of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. The text details an exchange between Halvard Solness, the architect of the play’s title, and Hilda, a young woman from Solness’s past who has arrived to assert herself in his present. He expresses to her his fear of the younger generation, who he believes will come to “thunder at [his] door,” while she rebukes his crotchety anxieties and recommends that he “open the door to the younger generation.” Solness responds to her advice with incredulity. “The younger generation,” he tells her, “it means retribution, you see. It comes, as if under a new banner, heralding the turn of fortune.”

If you’re familiar with Ibsen’s play (or if you caught Jonathan Demme’s 2014 film adaptation), then you know well enough that Solness’s words are eerily portentous. That’s exactly why Baumbach prefaces his own movie using Ibsen’s text, of course, and while it’s a bit on the nose, the quotes provide a clean summation of the conflict that develops between While We’re Young’s dueling married couples: gen-X’ers Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), and millennials Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Josh and Cornelia are enamored of the lifestyle led by their twenty-something counterparts, who—per standard hipster taste—reject modernity for the retrograde (which they non-ironically fetishize via, among varied accoutrements, their cracked and busted iPhones), archaeologists (or vultures) learning about past lives by picking over graveyards littered with vinyl and VHS. Ultimately, Josh and Cornelia just can’t resist the allure of nostalgia: The two couples become friends; mid-life introspection ensues.

But The Master Builder captures such a broad perspective of generational dread that French auteur Olivier Assayas could have just as easily used it to preamble his latest picture, Clouds of Sils Maria. Here, Assayas examines the career of Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), an internationally renowned actress whose career path has led her back to the beginning of her days as a star. She’s given an opportunity to appear in a contemporary production of the play that vaulted her to notoriety, a fictionalized piece called Maloja Snake, in which a middle-aged woman falls for her younger female protégé and winds up destroyed by her obsession. Once upon a time, Maria portrayed the latter, but in the present she’s asked to step into the older role, and she balks at the offer before eventually accepting.

There are two foils to Maria’s story of aging. The first is her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), who wields smart phones like fencing sabers and has a talent for turning aside her boss’s kvetching without ruffling feathers. The second is Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a Lohan-esque tabloid disaster whose classical thespian training remains invisible in the press courtesy of her much more widely publicized freak-outs and tantrums, each captured on camera and immortalized through YouTube. Jo-Ann is courted to play opposite Maria in Maloja Snake, much to Maria’s chagrin (and to Val’s intrigue). The resulting deconstruction of both art and artist is a whirling confrontation with personal and professional ennui.

At a glance, Clouds of Sils Maria and While We’re Young don’t bear much of a family resemblance. Maybe it’s the contrast between Clouds of Sils Maria’s European locales and While We’re Young’s Brooklyn backdrops; maybe it’s the refinement of the characters, relative from one movie to the other; maybe it’s that Clouds of Sils Maria looks like a much less outré version of the movie Birdman aspired to be, while While We’re Young is an expansion on Baumbach’s own Greenberg, and therefore the natural progression of his oeuvre. But as much as Baumbach’s film looks so different compared to Assayas’s, together they make for an unexpectedly cogent double feature, all thanks to Ibsen’s implied question: What happens when you open the door to the younger generation?

Both films seem to answer: They usurp your existence, taking everything of yours that’s bygone and making it frustratingly novel. In Clouds of Sils Maria, the threat of the young isn’t explicitly made to Maria herself, but to her personal outlook. Throughout the film, she and Valentine engage in repeated debates over their respective interpretations of Maloja Snake. Valentine, introspective, thoughtful and unpretentious, suggests that Maria approaches the play from the mindset of her 18-year-old self. “The text is like an object,” Valentine tells us. “It’s going to change perspective based on where you’re standing.” But Maria won’t budge. She’s stuck on her reading of the play, incapable of accepting any of the analyses Valentine proffers. The story is what Maria says it is; Valentine’s attempts to change her boss’s mind fall on adder’s ears. No wonder the veteran leading lady bristles at the thought of Jo-Ann taking over the part she made famous—like Valentine’s thoughts on the “stuff” of the material, having a young person replacing Maria on stage means putting her paradigm’s sanctity at risk.

Baumbach’s film plays with similar stakes. Josh is an artistic cliché, a guy who so values the “purity” of his work as a documentary filmmaker that he’s willing to toil away for close to a decade on a single project. Compromising means polluting his work, which to him totally defeats the purpose of making documentaries in the first place. In contrast to Josh there’s Jamie, who wheedles, manipulates and even occasionally lies outright to achieve his vision as a director. He’s not as concerned with authenticity as his mentor, for whom the idea of fabricating the truth is anathema. They’re two sides of a coin, butting heads over what is or isn’t genuine—and whether or not being genuine even matters. After a point, Josh sounds like a cranky codger, shaking his cane while barking at neighborhood whippersnappers. Documentary film is his lawn. Jamie is loitering on his lawn.

For Maria and Josh, letting in the younger generation is akin to letting in trespassers. The teenage protagonist of Maloja Snake is Maria’s turf, while the realm of documentary filmmaking is Josh’s; in both cases they’re guarding their claimed territory against the young. In effect, this actually means guarding that territory against different ideas. When Jo-Ann and Maria first meet in Clouds of Sils Maria, they trade in pleasantries, with the budding performer expressing her admiration for Maria’s talents—but it’s not until the film’s climax, a mere minute before the film ends, that their badinage is exposed as a ruse. Jo-Ann spurns Maria’s suggestions for delivering a line, preferring her own approach to the scene on the basis of audience expectations. “They want what comes next,” she says, barely concealing her hauteur, but we know that she’s not really talking about the play. Maria’s hushed, crestfallen reaction tells us that she knows, too.

Meanwhile, Josh, apoplectic after proving Jamie’s deceit, causes a ruckus at a Lincoln Center tribute to his father-in-law, Leslie (Charles Grodin), who is himself a great documentary filmmaker. But Leslie doesn’t share Josh’s hang-ups about the ethics of Jamie’s methods—a great story is a great story, as far as he’s concerned—and so Jamie doesn’t get the public comeuppance Josh had planned out in his head. Instead, the kid gets a full profile in a magazine spread that pegs him as a genius. So While We’re Young and Clouds of Sils Maria end in victories for youth and decisive blows against their elders, though Josh takes Jamie’s success in stride while Maria comes to accept abnegation following her acidic tête-à-tête with Jo-Ann. (Or maybe not. Binoche’s face is marvelously unreadable in the film’s lingering final shot.)

Neither Baumbach nor Assayas is the first filmmaker on the planet to make a movie contrasting the deportment of the young with the sensibilities old. Directors have been spinning these yarns for ages: Yasujir? Ozu with Tokyo Story; Rainer Werner Fassbinder with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul; Andrea Arnold with Fish Tank; Lone Scherfig with An Education. Even Paul Weitz played around with the contradicting attitudes between generations in 2004’s In Good Company, where Topher Grace’s business school whiz becomes boss to Dennis Quaid’s seasoned advertising executive. Quaid represents the traditional way of wheeling and dealing, while Grace evangelizes the better merits of modern corporate synergy. But Weitz’s film ends by affirming the values of the senior set and maintaining the status quo, while the rest reach decidedly greyer conclusions. In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Emmi and Ali reconcile their love for however much longer it will last against the veiled xenophobia of their friends and families. In An Education and Fish Tank, the protagonists are able to move on from their relationships with married men. And in Tokyo Story, the retired Sh?kichi, having survived his late wife Tomi, simply endures. His children depart after Tomi’s funeral, leaving him and his daughter Ky?ko behind in Onomichi and returning to their own lives.

But this isn’t true of While We’re Young and Clouds of Sils Maria. They’re films about the decline of age. Looked at in softer light, they’re really about inevitability. For Josh and Maria, it was always just a matter of time before fresh faces came along to co-opt their careers. Jamie becomes the hot new thing in independent filmmaking circles; Jo-Ann’s fate is left uncertain, but the prevailing sense is that Maloja Snake will do for her what it did for Maria. Sometimes, the young are content to just ignore their sires or otherwise part ways with them. In Baumbach’s and Assayas’s movies, the former envelops the latter.

Maybe they’re growing more introspective in their maturity. But Baumbach aligns more with Jamie than with Josh by his own admission, and Assayas, who started making movies before Baumbach could legally drive, is more interested in drawing parallels between Binoche and Maria than gazing at his own navel. (He also shoots his films with the vitality of a man half his age.) Neither filmmaker needs to make room for the younger generation, yet their newest endeavors both hint at their own fatalism. Baumbach and Assayas are keenly aware that someday they will have to watch the next breed of exciting, inventive filmmakers come in and take center stage—and that it is, in so many ways, their responsibility to keep the door open.


Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently he has given up on shaving.

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