Clouds of Sils Maria

May 4, 2015 at 9:42 am | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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This French movie, filmed mostly in English, can be a bit hard to grasp, not because its plot is silly or poorly written, but because it’s so dense. Taking place mostly in the Swiss town of Sils Maria, it covers the story of an aging actress (Juliette Binoche) who has been woo’d into co-starring in the play that made her famous two decades earlier. The play is called “Maloja Snake,” which is the name of the thick fog that regularly rolls down the Alps onto Sils Maria (it is the “clouds” of the film’s title). We are told early in the film that the fog portends the coming of bad weather. The play is about a young, ambitious woman who is the assistant of an older woman who is the CEO of a company. She seduces and ruins this older woman. Binoche’s character, Maria, originally played the younger woman and is now returning to play the older one. In the intervening years, she has become a huge star. Now older, insecure and self-doubting, she is living in Sils Maria with her own personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). Together they run through various readings of the play. So, you have Maria and her personal assistant rehearsing a play between an older woman and her personal assistant and it becomes repeatedly unclear when Maria and Valentine are rehearsing and when they are speaking for themselves. This is deliberate and deliberately jarring and dizzying. To drive that home, we have Valentine driving along winding roads so fast, she literally makes herself dizzy at one point. Director Olivier Assaya also makes brilliant use of cutting to black, giving a sense of the house lights dimming while the set is being rearranged. Add to this story within a story, the meta-commentary about fame: Chloë Grace Moretz plays Jo-Ann Ellis, the young superstar who will be playing against Maria in the play. Her life is a scandalous mess that fills YouTube and TMZ. Maria struggles to understand this scandal-ridden girl. But Valentine get’s her, allowing for several conversations where Kristen Stewart eloquently defends the young actress’s talent. One scene deals with the implications of Jo-Ann’s affair with a writer and his subsequent bitter divorce, reminding the audience of Stewart’s own affair with one of her directors, costing him his marriage. These layers within layers spin endlessly in on themselves, making the story sometimes too dizzying to follow. The film, for me, reached it’s natural conclusion at the end of “Part II,” when Maria and Valentine climbed the mountain to watch the Maloja Snake roll down the valley. On the way up the path, they discuss and debate the end of the play, as they have been debating the play’s meaning (and, really their own relationship) throughout the film. The scene ends by acting out the final scene of the play. This is an effective and nebulous ending and I felt the film should have ended there. It did not. We are treated to a final section that made little sense to me. The primary energy of the story seemed to be gone and I was unclear where we were trying to go. The story seemed to want to give us some sort of resolution, or at least insight, but Binoche’s Maria seemed no more settled. Through all the spinning, I felt that I had managed to hold on (sometimes just barely) until this ending; this was one turn to many and I left the theater feeling a drift. This is a real shame because we have a film that is so brilliant on so many levels and one that really showcases its women actors. Binoche is luminous as Maria. In her strongest performance in years, she is both fearless and terrified all the time; her passion and pain, exuberance and exhaustion are spell-binding to watch. That Binoche is a brilliant actress is no surprise but Stewart was a revelation. It’s easy to dismiss her after her own antics and films like “Twilight.”  But this film (in conjunction with last year’s “Still Alice”) serves to remind me that the biggest difference between her and someone like Jennifer Lawrence, is that Lawrence is much more Hollywood savvy; she has learned to play that game. The best part of this film is watching Binoche and Stewart together. They have some fantastic chemistry; there seems to be genuine tenderness in how they look at each other and when they laugh (which they do often) it’s warm and infectious. These are two women it’s impossible not to like. For them and their performances alone, I would recommend this movie.


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