OldKingClancy posted a MOVIE REVIEW item: 5 months ago

Clouds of Sils Maria


Directed by: Olivier Assayas
Written by: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Moretz, Brady Corbet
Studio: IFC Films
Genre: Drama
Official Site:
Plot: Age Before Beauty


From the little I heard of Clouds Of Sils Maria I expected a film that examined the life of age and insecurities in a world of young and confident, and while I got that the film managed to catch me off-guard with a subtly crafted blend of reality and fiction that helped define this as one of the more intriguing character studied of the decade.

Maria Enders is a renowned film and theatre actress who broke onto the scene 20 years earlier in ‘Maloja Snake’ a play detailing the passionate but deadly lesbian affair between the older, vulnerable Helena and the young temptress Sigrid, ending in Helena’s suicide in which Maria played Sigrid in both the play and the film versions of the story. After the play’s author Wilhem dies unexpectedly, Maria is approached by young new theatre director Klaus who asks her to return to ‘Maloja Snake’ but in the Helena role while young actress and wild child Jo-Ann plays Sigrid.

Maria reluctantly accepts but the prospect of returning after so long to a character that she spent the last 20 years disliking and ridiculing suddenly hits her hard so along with her personal assistant Valentine, she takes time out to stay at Wilhem’s home in Sils Maria to rediscover the character and the play with different eyes. Throughout their time together, Maria and Valentine discuss the nature of celebrity, the changing life of cinema and how best Maria can approach the character of Helena , however as Valentine soon comes to realise, it’s not that Maria can’t look past Helena’s weaknesses, it’s that she refuses to look past her own.

I’m reminded a lot of Birdman in the sense of an aging actor struggling to come to terms with a changing world but where Birdman used Keaton as a comedy device for his out-of-touch nature, with Maria there’s a more tragic touch to the whole thing. I actually covered a fair bit of the plot’s outline above but it’s a much deeper film than I’m revealing here so there’s still plenty to chew on and the way the film manages to blend the Helena and Sigrid rehearsals into the relationship between Maria and Valentine allows for repeat viewings to catch new details with each new viewing.

While there were a few side characters to flesh out the world the acting did keep focus primarily on Maria and Valentine. Chloe Grace Moretz has a small role as Jo-Ann, one of the new generation of actresses who not only earn a bad reputation but actively seek one out. Compared to Maria’s more artful career, Jo-Ann’s focus on low-brow, often ridiculous popcorn flicks could be seen as a step down for the class of acting but as Valentine points out there’s still strong material to work with underneath the shiny coat of CGI, Moretz might not be in the film much but her presence is felt as the new, young, hot actress that’s set to replace Maria, perhaps without even realising it.

Surprisingly Kristen Stewart proves Twilight was a result of bad writing and a complete lack of giving a fuck by actually turning in a solid performance as Valentine, Maria’s loyal assistant. Being the closest person to Maria throughout the majority of the film, Valentine is exposed to a lot of emotional outpouring and at first she tries to help Maria through her insecurities by opening her to more modern ideals. Valentine has her feet in both the old style of acting and the new world and acts as the envoy between the two, she respects Maria’s class but understand the no-bullshit approach that Jo-Ann is taking and tries to help Maria see why it’s important to let someone like Jo-Ann handle the Sigrid role. It’s a strong role for Stewart who manages to essentially play the ‘straight-woman’ of the film, but rather than just being a sound-board to react to Maria she builds her character from a colleague to a friend to worrying about her friend’s emotional state to seeing that their friend is too far gone for help. We see Maria through Valentine’s eyes and the deconstruction of celebrity and of friendship can make for a harsh viewing, it’s subtle but the way Stewart is able to show her progression is impressive and helps to keep her as the audience’s viewpoint.

Juliette Binoche as Maria turns out a very strong performance, the aging actress storyline is nothing new and sadly all too real but the twist of having Maria return to her own breakout play allows both Binoche and the film as a whole add something new to the tale. Having developed and made the role of Sigrid her own twenty years ago, moving to play the role of Helena is difficult because as part of her character, Maria had to pick out all of Helena’s flaws and exploit them, resulting in a severe dislike of the character, but as the film goes on it becomes clearer that Maria is seeing too much of herself in Helena, the aging, the vulnerability, and yet she refuses to admit to anyone, even to herself, that that’s the case. Binoche shines during her rehearsals with Valentine because you have to pay attention to when ‘Helena’ stops talking and Maris starts, the emotional weight she carries is heavy but the film never makes it flashy, for either Binoche or Stewart but Binoche especially becomes such a tragic figure by building into her own worst enemy, it’s a great subversion of expectations for the character and Binoche sells the performance in the latter half of the film.

Director Olivier Assayas crafts a very interesting film here, the comparisons to Birdman are evident but unfortunate because while similar in theme both films approach the subject matter very differently. Would I enjoy this move if I didn’t see Birdman beforehand? Maybe, it would definitely feel fresher but hey if we can have two volcano movies we can have two ‘Aging Actor’ movies. Aside from the thematic approach both films do also take to blending reality and fiction, in Birdman it’s through the one-shot editing that allows the film to play out like a play to the point where you’re not sure who is playing what and where. In this there’s a little more subtlety to it, the ‘Maloja Snake’ play concerns the adulterous relationship between Helena and Sigrid while the film itself concerns the relationship between Maria and Valentine and you can see the film trying to show a mirror between the two relationships with some slight attraction being teased early one.

However Assayas doesn’t take the easy path and instead of showing us the similarities between the relationship, he shows the differences, where Sigrid and Helena was a toxic affair that led to despair and depression, Maria and Valentine is a friendly, mentoring relationship that funnily enough leads somewhere quite similar, the key is Maria and how she’s playing both Sigrid and Helena at the same time. While part of her knows she isn’t as young or as beautiful as she was 20 years ago, Maris still sees herself as Sigrid but her reality as Helena is twisting her self-image to the point where she’s blinded by herself. It’s another subversion as you expect Valentine to become the new Sigrid but Assayas refuses to let the film be that simple to figure out, there’s a breakdown of celebrity running on the sidelines, Jo-Ann is an easy spot, representing the wild-child actresses like Lindsay Lohan or Amanda Bynes, someone who stands out now but five years down the line will be a trainwreck, a flash in the pan so to speak. By contrast Maria is a lingering candle, burning brightly for much longer but now she’s starting to dim and can’t bring herself to admit it, she doesn’t represent any particular actress but rather the breed of actress who couldn’t adapt to the changing times, it’s a study of caution and evolution that occurs through the film industry on a yearly basis and offers that insight look into the reality of age and beauty that we know exists yet so rarely see.

I’m gonna be completely honest here, while I’m giving Clouds Of Sils Maria a 7.5 right now, writing everything down I feel like repeated viewings will help improve my thoughts towards the film, the meta-fictional aspect leaves a lot of details that deserve a second watch in order to catch them all and now knowing where the film leads should make for a more interesting experience. Take this review as an initial assessment and should I find myself watching the film again I’ll return to update my thoughts but for those initial thoughts I liked what the film had to offer as a strong character piece that examined aging, cinema, relationships and stubbornness with Binoche and Stewart making for a great pairing to touch on all subjects together. It is a tad slow at times, and it’s unfortunate proximity to the more visually impressive and tonally more humorous Birdman does sully the viewing somewhat but there’s enough here to let the film stand on its own merits and as previously stated, repeat viewings should improve the film’s standing.



Other reviews of this film: cerealkiller182 (9/10) , cobb (5/10) > Display all

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