Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

Truth be told, most people don’t spend too much time re-living their own past; we certainly don’t go through the emotional turmoil of anatomizing our early lives from a different perspective. However, Clouds of Sils Maria, the latest work from auteur French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, deals directly with the past, looking at ones relationship to their own history, as events from our own lives more-or-less shape, define and form our psyche — they are the keys to our identity so-to-speak — making us the individuals we are today. It’s these moments that continue to push us forward as people, amidst the developing and ever changing world around us.

At the apex of her international career, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a well-respected, renowned stage and film actress, is asked to perform in a revival of the play that made her famous twenty years earlier; a production named ‘Maloja Snake’ written by her mentor, Wilhelm Melchior. The film opens with Maria traveling to Zurich, on her way to accept an award on Melchior’s behalf. Though, while on a train zipping over to the European city, Maria quickly learns that her mentor has suddenly passed away. Shocked, Maria still attends the ceremony out of respect, and while there, is approached by popular theater director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger) who attempts to persuade Maria to perform in a re-staging of the play ‘Maloja Snake,’ though this time around tackling the role of the older woman, Helena; originally Maria played the part of Sigrid — in her opinion, the far more interesting and superior of the two characters — an alluring young lady who disarms and eventually drives her boss, Helena, to suicide.

Kristen Stewart's out of the twilight zone!
Kristen Stewart’s out of the twilight zone!

Reluctantly accepting the role of Helena, Maria departs with her loyal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to rehearse in Sils Maria — a remote region of the Switzerland Alps — temporarily staying at her deceased mentors’ now vacant home. As Maria’s discussions with Valentine, and their read-throughs of the play’s scenes, begin to evoke uncertainty about the nature of pair’s actual real-life relationship, Maria is shaken even further — and internal psychological warfare breaks out, with Maria confronting her past and her present reality — when she discovers that Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), an adolescent Hollywood starlet with a penchant for scandal, is slated to play opposite her, taking on the role of Sigrid. While preparing for the part, residing in the extensive Swiss mountain ranges, Maria seeks to learn more about her younger co-star — via Google searches, YouTube videos and tidbits of up-to-date cultural knowledge as relayed by Valentine — yet without warning, she finds herself on the other side of the mirror, face-to-face with an ambiguously charming woman who is, in essence, an uncomfortably unsettling reflection of herself.

Written and directed by former film critic Olivier Assayas, Paris, je t’aime (2006), Clouds of Sils Maria is a provocative multilayered melancholy drama of sorts, exploring existential crisis — and our intrinsic innate need for constant reinvention — surveying the film’s protagonist, celebrated actress Maria, who reluctantly finds herself at such a prickly juncture. The feature also offers a compelling insight into the weighty groundwork an actor/actress must undergo when preparing for a role, delving into the nature of the celebrity life, and commenting on the subtle cruelty of the passage of time. A biting satire on ‘movie star’ culture, Clouds of Sils Maria is without a doubt a multifaceted affair, it’s bursting with connotations concerning themes of age, epoch and celeb status which have been delicately interwoven within the narrative; but it’s conveyed and presented in such an abstract manner that it becomes all too alienating, and far too ‘conceptual’ for my liking. Moreover, the parallels drawn between the fictional play and the close relationship the actress shares with her young assistant — largely as Maria goes through character interchanges with Valentine, reading dialogue that often blurs the lines between written word and spoken word — is considerably too vague, which in turn, may wind up isolating or confusing ‘in the dark’ viewers. The picture’s structure — the feature is divided into two chapters and an epilogue — is well-handled for the most part, and is efficient storytelling-wise, though can be somewhat daunting and overwhelming when trying to draw out its obscured subtext, rendering the overall outcome as exceedingly ambiguous and fairly self-indulgent, with the central undertone of the ‘plot’ being way too tricky to follow and much too intricate make any real sense of.

Binoche and Stewart ... at the peak of their careers.
Binoche and Stewart … at the peak of their careers.

In spite of this subtextual hiccup, the cast does a wonderful job in portraying their versatile characters as this femme-driven meta-fiction pushes all involved to new career heights, including next-gen starlets Kristen Stewart, Twilight (2008), and Chloë Grace Moretz, Kick-Ass (2010). Headlining the picture is French actress Juliette Binoche, who first worked with Olivier Assayas many years earlier on Rendez-vous (1985), in which the now established filmmaker, Assayas, co-wrote alongside director André Téchiné. Having again collaborated together on the film Summer Hours, back in 2008, Clouds of Sils Maria essentially re-unites Binoche with Assayas for a third time and, much like the film’s ‘story bound’ characters, takes both artists back to where their respective careers began. Playing Maria, an actress diving into the abyss of time, either out of professional or moral obligation rather than desire, Binoche embodies Maria with elegance and melancholic wit. Kristen Stewart’s admirable portrayal of Valentine — having won her the first ever César Award presented to an American actress — is by far Stewart’s strongest piece to date; she’s sharp and delicate, knowable and then suddenly distant, with the half-standoffish, half-affectionate interplay between leads Binoche and Stewart sustaining the picture’s energy, drive and momentum. But it’s Chloë Grace Moretz who really shines brightest; entering the picture late in the game, Moretz is a sheer delight as the dubious, extremely popular, out of control diva, Jo-Ann Ellis, reveling in the prima donna’s bad-girl image and fully overplaying her scandalous tabloid behavior.

As a vast majority of the feature was shot in the Sils Maria area of the Swiss Alps, the landscape is considerably breathtaking, with the exquisite picturesque cinematography by Yorick Le Saux, Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), bolstering the flick’s visual delicacy. For those unfamiliar with the picture’s territory, the title of the play ‘Maloja Snake’ refers to the improbable cloud formations that ‘snake’ their way through the peaks and valleys of this marvel of nature, photographed beautifully in one of the film’s key scenes. On the whole, the foreign backdrop is a nice complement to the emotional journey each of the characters endures, as writer-director Olivier Assayas untiringly attempts to bring a disconcerting feel and an intimate and mysterious truth to this vast remote location.

Chloë Grace Moretz is 'Kick-Ass' in Clouds of Sils Maria.
Chloë Grace Moretz is ‘Kick-Ass’ in Clouds of Sils Maria.

Artfully analyzing the constant refashioning of the world, the deciphering of contemporary reality and, in Maria’s case, the price one must pay to be part of it, Clouds of Sils Maria — a star-studded film about fame — is a decent enough effort despite its flaws and imperfections. All in all, Clouds of Sils Maria is confident storytelling and once again sees distinguished filmmaker Olivier Assayas exhibit assured direction and sometimes-inspired writing, but it’s the principal cast’s knockout performances that truly make this show a worthwhile feat.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by S-Littner

Clouds of Sils Maria is released through Pinnacle Films Australia