Clouds of Sils Maria
Spoiler Alert: This review contains spoilers related to a plot point that occurs late in the film. You have been warned.
Thematically, The Clouds of Sils Maria is a close cousin to Birdman, although the former is weaker in both narrative thrust and execution. Both movies are concerned with the push-pull relationship between art and commerce in the performing arts (film and theater) and both focus on an aging actor who is increasingly uncomfortable with how the passage of years has limited artistic freedom. Although The Clouds of Sils Maria is in English, it's the epitome of what many people think when they consider the stereotypical "French film": slow, sometimes meandering, focused on characters and dialogue instead of plot, and featuring an elliptical structure. There are times when these elements serve this movie well but they also prove to be its undoing. In the end, there's a sense that director Olivier Assayas is more concerned about making a point than telling a story.
The Clouds of Sils Maria introduces us to 40-something actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) who has somewhat reluctantly agreed to appear in a stage revival of the play that made her a big star. At the dawn of her career, she played the young seductress in a production of "Maloja Snake." Now, decades later, she is being asked to portray the aging target of the 18-year old. She is uncomfortable about the role, still on some level feeling a proprietary interest in the character she previously portrayed. She spends much of the film rehearsing lines with her personal assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart). They clash over Maria's interpretation of the play to the point where the conflict chafes a close relationship. Meanwhile, Maria meets the actress she will be playing opposite, bad girl Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), who brings a pack of paparazzi everywhere she goes.
Everything accomplished by Assayas works from a thematic perspective, but that's not necessarily the same as working from a cinematic perspective. The Clouds of Sils Maria spends an inordinate amount of time conflating the "real" people (Maria and Val) with the characters in "Maloja Snake." As they rehearse lines, Val (the younger, more forceful personality) becomes the seductress and Maria (the older, more vulnerable personality) becomes her victim. The screenplay delights in confusing the lines in the play with the dialogue between these two and, although it's an admittedly clever conceit, it doesn't work for one simple reason: the material we get from the play is too little for us to fully understand it and too much to avoid the onset of boredom. Assayas' approach to the Maria/Val relationship is artistically satisfying but undercuts the humanity of the characters. Then there's the issue of Val's fate
This, in my view, is the movie's biggest misstep. Narratively and thematically, it might make sense to remove Val from the movie with about 30 minutes remaining, but Kristin Stewart's absence leaves a vacuum that nothing fills. Intellectually, we may understand Assayas' reasons for doing this but it is a fundamentally unsatisfying choice. Stewart, with her natural, unforced performance, provides us with a window into the bubble of Maria's artificial world. We feel her absence when she's gone. This is Maria's story, to be sure, but in many ways she's the least interesting character on screen. There's something regal and cool about Juliette Binoche's performance. Stewart, having put the unfortunate Twilight series behind her, reminds us why she was so highly regarded in productions like Adventureland and Into the Wild. Although Chloe Grace Moretz brings energy to The Clouds of Sils Maria once Stewart has departed, Jo-Ann is little more than a caricature of a troubled-but-talented starlet.
Parts of The Clouds of Sils Maria play like a confessional. Assayas betrays an inner conflict about the divide between pure popcorn movies and cinematic art. At times, he's dismissive of the former. On other occasions, he makes apologies and excuses for it. The movie is at its best when it asks questions about the function of film in modern society and the role of actors. His "recreation" of a scene from a sci-fi blockbuster plays like satire. If The Clouds of Sils Maria has an obvious point, it's that no one has resolved the art/commerce question, least of all those involved in the industry.
© 2015 James Berardinelli