Clouds of Sils Maria
Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz explore celebrity, womanhood and ageing.
May 11, 2015
Juliette Binoche stars as an actress adapting to the expectations of her age, Kristen Stewart argues the merits of mainstream entertainment, and Chloë Grace Moretz arrives as the next big thing. In Clouds of Sils Maria, art may appear to imitate life — and it does, and it knows it — but there's more to Olivier Assayas' film than that. Much more.
Binoche plays Maria Enders, a screen veteran who first came to fame in the play Maloja Snake by Wilhelm Melchior. Twenty years later, she's poised to pay tribute to the writer and director at an event in Zurich; however, mid trip, news arrives of his death. Supported by her assistant, Valentine (Stewart), she reluctantly agrees to participate in a new staging of Melchior's production, co-starring rising starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz). Once Maria was the hot young ingénue of the piece; now she's the obsessed older woman.
The film may spend much of its time in the titular region — one known, yes, for cloud formations that weave through the mountains like a serpent — yet where Clouds of Sils Maria clearly resides is in the space between then and now in the abstract sense. The past and the present clash furiously before Maria's eyes, as she copes not only with her friend's passing but with saying goodbye to her youth.
In scenes between Binoche and Stewart, this couldn't be more apparent, even though the latter is her employee rather than her rival. As Valentine helps Maria run her lines, as they argue over whether Maria should do the play, and as they debate the state of modern filmmaking, they're discussing the gap between the old and the new over and over again. Their interplay also mirrors the tension at the heart of Maloja Snake in its power struggles, its flitting between closeness and distance, and its undercurrent of yearning.
Clouds of Sils Maria is a conversation-heavy movie, and not all of that conversation works, particularly anything that stems from the play (the dissections of the material within the material are much more effective). Instead, it is savvy casting that helps Assayas' point come across, and not just in reflecting Binoche, Stewart and Moretz's off-screen realities, but in their talents. The savviest stroke of casting, and the film's best performance, belongs to Stewart. She won a César Award for her role — and became the first American actress to do so in the process. It's not that the Twilight star is a revelation, more that her skills are just so perfectly suited to the part.
When the camera isn't focusing on the film's three leading ladies, it has plenty of location eye candy to rove over, and rove it does. Assayas creeps and sweeps through the setting just like the clouds lingering above, the frame — and the feature — always seeming like it is floating. Perhaps that's why Clouds of Sils Maria feels like it washes over the viewer, instead of just being watched. As it uses nature to comment on authenticity and well-known stars to comment on celebrity, perhaps that's why it also feels immersive yet just out of reach, as well.