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New Release Review - Clouds of Sils Maria

A middle-aged actress reluctantly agrees to take on a role in a revival of the play that made her famous in her youth.


Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Olivier Assayas


Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Angela Winkler, Brady Corbet



"There's a lot wrong with Clouds of Sils Maria, but its deficiencies, of which there are many, are overshadowed almost entirely by the enthralling performances of its two leads."



Few stars have taken as much flak, from the public and critics alike, as Kristen Stewart. Her breakout role in the much derided Twilight saga would seem to be the source of this contempt, given the intense disdain many feel towards the young adult saga, though oddly enough her male co-star Robert Pattinson seems to have escaped such ire. making Stewart the latest in a line of pretty actresses to fall victim to both jealousy and sexism. "She's the same in every movie," is the reductive accusation usually levelled at Stewart, but this speaks more of the roles she's opted for. It's true Stewart has played a few too many meek teenage waifs, but earlier this year we caught another side of the actress in an impressive supporting role in Still Alice, holding her own alongside Oscar winner Julianne Moore. The promise of that small role is fulfilled in Clouds of Sils Maria, which may not provide her with her best role, as the script is problematic to say the least, but it has resulted in her finest performance to date.
Stewart excels as Valentine, the young personal assistant of acclaimed actress Maria Enders (an equally great Juliette Binoche). Valentine keeps Maria's life ticking along, organising public appearances, advising on which photo shoots to take part in, lighting her cigarettes, rolling her joints and acting as a sounding board for the actress's neuroses. She's as much Maria's boss as her underling, a friend and a fan.
While travelling to the Swiss Alps to take part in a celebration of playwright Wilhelm Melchior, whose play 'Maloja Snake' made Maria a star aged 18, the news comes in that Melchior has passed away suddenly at his home. Maria agrees to deliver a tribute at the event and afterwards is approached by theatre director Klaus (Lars Eidinger), who plans to bring Maloja Snake back to the London stage and wishes to cast Maria as the elder of the play's two female characters. Having originally made her name in the younger of the two roles, Maria is reluctant to agree, but does so out of respect for Melchior. At the behest of the playwright's widow (a thoroughly endearing Angela Winkler), Maria moves into his alpine home where she rehearses her lines with Valentine. This leads to friction in their relationship, with both women interpreting the play in a different manner.
Olivier Assayas made this writer's blood boil with his previous film, the '60s set Something in the Air, in which he made his disdain for what he would likely call 'low culture' all too clear, snootily dismissing TV detective shows and Doug McClure monster movies as garbage. With Clouds of Sils Maria he seems to be grappling, through the character of Maria, with his cultural snobbery. Maria dislikes modern cinema, but has a very narrow definition of the term, reducing it to Hollywood superhero movies, oblivious to the fact we're currently enjoying the highest volume of great movies arguably foisted upon us since the '70s. This would seem to reflect Assayas' views, but it's all too clear he has little knowledge of the 'low culture' he so easily dismisses. At one point in the film, Maria and Valentine visit a cinema to watch a superhero movie starring the young actress who will co-headline Maloja Snake (Chloe Moretz), but the film within a film Assayas has assembled bears no resemblance to a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, rather a porn parody of such productions. Late in the film however, Assayas gives us a moment of humility when Maria reluctantly meets the young writer-director of an upcoming sci-fi movie (Brady Corbett, who seems to turn up in every European production as though he spends his life backpacking from one movie set to another), who calls her out on her cultural bigotry.
Contradictions are everywhere in Clouds of Sils Maria. The play Maloja Snake takes its name form a unique cloud formation, in which clouds snake their way through the alps, and early on the protagonists watch a silent movie that presents us with stunning footage of this phenomenon. "The black and white creates a distancing effect," one character remarks, but later in the movie Assayas foists his own digital colour footage of the Maloja Snake on us, and the effect is nowhere as impressive as that of the earlier example (it doesn't help that Assayas scores his version with Pachelbel's Canon, reducing it to the level of a crass wedding video).
Maria's mid-life crisis seems largely based on her fear of becoming irrelevant, but she appears to willingly pass up high-profile job offers. After a few days of script rehearsals, Valentine accuses Maria of treating her with contempt, yet prior to this the film gives us no evidence to support such an accusation.
The greatest source of contradictory confusion concern's Maria's age. We're told several times that she made her stage debut aged 18, 20 years ago, which of course makes her a mere 38. Binoche is a beautiful woman, but nobody would mistake her for 38, and everything about the character suggests Maria should be closer to Binoche's real age.
Assayas mocks the conceit of superhero movies, but the plot of his own film - an actress finding her own life echoed in the text of her work - is equally clich├ęd. The conflict between the two women - cultural and generational - is crudely handled, glaringly so compared to the recent gem The Duke of Burgundy, which explored this idea with substance, grace and panache.
There's a lot wrong with Clouds of Sils Maria, but its deficiencies, of which there are many, are overshadowed almost entirely by the enthralling performances of its two leads. Despite the hackneyed dialogue they're asked to deliver, the mesmeric Stewart and Binoche make this movie their own, transforming Assayas' awful script like the yellow-gloved presenters of How Clean is Your House tearing apart a rancid bedsit. We find ourselves lost in the dynamic between these two, basking in a rare chance to see two great female performers essay a simple friendship (for much of the film we fear Assayas is about to spring a tawdry lesbian plot upon us, but it becomes clear that Binoche's sneaked glances at Stewart's young body are driven by pangs of jealousy rather than lust). Stewart's harshest critics will be lost for words here; if she can pull off a performance like this from such a poorly conceived script, I for one look forward to what lies ahead from this young talent.




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