Clouds of Sils Maria

International director Olivier Assayas (Paris, je t’aime) has written and directed a fascinating narrative portrait of an international film and theatre actress struggling with age and relevancy in the fast-paced evolving world. When I first saw the cast list, it appeared very strange to me; however, there is brilliance in this casting, and both Binoche (Words & Pictures, The English Patient) and Stewart (Camp X-Ray, Twilight) give some of the better performances of their careers. Filmed almost entirely in Switzerland, the beautiful cinematography, the fables of the snake clouds, and Assayas’s choice in the editing room to allow this film to unfold as unpredictably as the “Maloja Snake” captivated me from beginning to end.

Maria Enders (Binoche) has been acting since she was 18 years old and cast in famous playwright Wilhelm Melchior’s seductive play and eventual film, “Maloja Snake”, about a young girl who seduces an older Lesbian. Maria has sustained her career and energy into her 40’s, even dabbling in big Hollywood comic book films. Now, with her close personal assistant Valentine (Stewart) in tow, they are headed to Zurich to accept an award on behalf of Melchior; word of his death reaches them before they arrive. The reclusive director had written a revision of his famous play, with Maria in mind to now play the older part. She struggles deeply with letting go of the young vibrant character she built a career on and accepting that she is now the older part of the story.

Binoche is brilliant in every scene.

The film opens on the train as cell phones and Blackberries chirp and vibrate. It’s the behind-the-scenes life of a famous celebrity. The motion of the train, mixed with the various narratives and players flying around—divorce lawyers, agents, news of the director’s death—it quickly thrusts the viewer into the actual life of someone like Maria Enders. Stewart, who should have lots of first-hand experience as a personal assistant really loses herself in this part. There are no unconsciously uncomfortable faces that I have accused her of in the past; her character is sloppy, but in control; she knows exactly what her boss wants and needs, usually before she does. In almost every scene Stewart commands control; it’s a type of control I haven’t seen the actress play before, and it’s the performance of her career.

The type of exposition Assayas uses between Maria and Valentine, the script and Maria, the script and Valentine, is complex. There are so many levels of framing within the story that sometimes even Maria seems to be confused about when she is playing herself or a character; and perhaps they are interchangeable. It’s almost hysterical seeing Binoche (who has never in real life been this type of self-aware persona) wear large sunglasses inside a hotel room and fuss about her importance; she is brilliant in every scene. I couldn’t help but see Clouds of Sils Maria in comparison with some sort of gender-flipped Birdman. Both are films about actors struggling to regain whatever it is they lost in their prime. Whereas both seem interested in American celebrity culture, they have foreign directors and entirely different energy. Yet, both are equally fascinating from their varying perspectives.

Final Thought

It’s Birdman, with females in the lead, a French director, and played out in the world rather than confined to a stage.


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