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Clouds of Sils Maria

In the surprisingly long tradition of wonderful films from singular and visionary male directors about strong women who find their identities doubled or made enigmatic, such as Bergman’s Persona, Altman’s Three Women, and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, one can now invoke Olivier Assayas invigorating Clouds of Sils Maria in such diverse and august company. The subtle and perceptive new feature from the French auteur could be read as a companion piece to his nineties breakthrough Irma Vepp as both center on star actresses adjusting to a changing industry. While the latter fittingly felt like the work of a brash young director with its Godard-inspired spontaneity and critical provocation, Clouds of Sils Maria is quieter and more intimate, finding the veteran director working in a vein closer to Eric Rohmer, another elder statesman of the French New Wave whose work Assayas is often compared.

The film centers on Maria (Juliette Binoche), an aging star actress who finds out that a beloved director and longtime friend has unexpectedly died while she is traveling to a tribute gala in Switzerland for him. Maria and her personal assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) then head to the Swiss Alps to prepare for a new staging of Maloja Snake the (fictional) play that gave Maria her big break many years earlier, and which the recently diseased director first staged. This time however Maria is assuming the role of a middle-aged business woman seduced and manipulated by her younger assistant, the role once hers now belongs to Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), a rising star and popular figure of the tabloids. A mere plot summary of Clouds of Sils Maria doesn’t really convey the film’s true focus, however, which concerns the relationship between Maria and Val, and how the action of the play mirrors their own. The assistants calm assurance is offset with her boss’s unstable temperament during her midlife crisis, and as the older woman’s dependence on the younger one becomes greater as the action moves forward, so too does the film’s tension and emotional resonance.

Clouds of Sils Maria, like Irma Vepp before it, also functions effectively as biting meta-commentary on contemporary filmmaking, with Assayas offering keen insights about our celebrity obsessed culture, the web media’s insatiable hunger for gossip, and how it impacts the lives of actors, doing all of this with far more intelligence and subtlety than the overrated Birdman. Most remarkable about the film perhaps are the outstanding performances. Binoche shines in the lead role which finds her able to draw upon her extraordinary range and deep reservoir of human feeling to bring Maria to life in ways that are sometimes restrained and others deeply emotional. Stewart is similarly effective, reminding audiences she’s a truly fine actress who simply got stuck becoming famous from being in bad movies. It’s also easy to imagine that the dynamic between Stewart and Binoche while filming mirrored that of the characters they were portraying in some small ways, with Stewart being the up-and-coming Hollywood star hoping to prove she’s the real deal while holding her own alongside the internationally celebrated art house darling Binoche. Niether could be more perfectly cast, and it’s just one of the many rich and unexpected ways that Assayas’ film ranks among the more engrossing studies in art imitating life imitating art in recent years.

Watch the trailer for Clouds of Sils Maria

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