Review: Clouds of Sils Maria

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clouds of sils mariaYou may have already heard a few things about Clouds of Sils Maria -- including that Kristen Stewart achieved the nearly impossible by winning a major French acting award in a French movie playing opposite the French goddess (emphasis mine) Juliette Binoche

This is a fine starting point, but there is so much more (so much more) to talk about here. Director Olivier Assayas has made a film that explores the kind of relationship not usually depicted onscreen (and rarely with such grace and intelligence), while here and there upending traditional narrative and editorial techniques to great effect. 

Binoche is the star of the film, meaning she has more screen time than anyone and also plays a film star named Maria Enders. Maria is enjoying artistic success even as the inevitability of middle age -- terrifying for an actress -- starts to make its presence known.

Maria first finds fame when she plays a young, self-assured woman who seduces and destroys an older woman (who is also her boss and lover). Twenty years later, Maria has been asked to play the older character in the same play in an updated London production. This proposition challenges her heart and soul and offends her vanity but appeals to her sense of self-confidence and intellect.

She knows taking the role will be a power move. Mastering the nuances of two such different people would bring her wider fame and adoration for a little while longer, but in the wake of her recent divorce and the death of a mentor, Maria knows this exercise will be taxing, as well. 

Enter Valentine, Maria’s assistant. Played by a quietly commanding Stewart, Val follows Maria as she travels Europe and telepathically arranges her schedule, buys her cigarettes, runs lines with her and serves as a constant sounding board for whatever topic is at hand, be it movies, love or Hollywood scandals. Val is a good assistant because she doesn’t have a real life of her own, and it quickly becomes clear that her relationship with Maria is a complicated one, combining elements of professional codependence and overly comfortable friendship.

It’s not just that Val and Maria represent young and old, immature and experienced; each embodies everything at once and, willingly and unwillingly, they learn things from one another during the constant time they spend side by side. They weave their own beliefs and points of view into their debates and discussions about high art and sci-fi movies, and in the process their characters become memorable, messy and real. 

The play-within-a-play aspect of Clouds of Sils Maria is obvious but never condescending, as Assayas presents the deceptively simple setup in a way that invites cosmic understanding but never allows too much comfort to set in. Jarringly edited scenes and unintuitive timing create a sense of heightened awareness of the unrest of the characters. These might be some of the most jagged, interesting people you’ve seen lately.

Chloe Grace Moretz is the third major player in the film. As Jo-Ann Ellis, a famous actress known more for her tabloid presence than for any serious acting roles, she is cast to play the dangerous young woman originally given life by Maria. Though they share certain integral qualities, their approaches and attitudes are often strikingly different, and in many ways Maria is the more naive of the two.

Jo-Ann wants to be an artist but knows how important her offscreen life is when it comes to achieving far-reaching fame and success. She is skilled at playing the role of the explosive, unpredictable starlet, and Maria is both impressed and annoyed by this. Twenty years has been plenty of time for an actor’s part in society to dramatically change, and Assayas’ exploration of how personal lives become intertwined with a professional image over time is fascinating on its own. 

The men in the film don’t matter much; they help move the plot along when necessary but are primarily either boring or distracting. It’s the women who talk, work, think and feel their way through life, opposite each other and together. 

Luckily, at the heart of Clouds of Sils Maria is the mesmerizing and precarious dynamic between Maria and Val. At times envy-inducing and exhilarating and at others completely heartbreaking, their relationship is a strangely beautiful thing to watch unfold.