Movie Review: Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)


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by Alan F. Zundel

If you enjoy plays you will enjoy this movie. Not that it is “stagey” and uncinematic. Rather, it has a good play’s qualities of literacy, profound themes, and dramatic suspense built upon personal interactions.

But it is also very cinematic. The acting is realistic, the location shooting is natural and often breath-taking, and the advantages of seeing through a camera (changing points of view, close ups for intimacy, quick jumps in time) are unobtrusively taken advantage of.

“Clouds of Sils Maria” begins with a young woman named Valentine (Kristen Stewart) who is multi-tasking with two smartphones on a train in the Alps. We learn she is the personal assistant for a middle-aged movie actress, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), and that they are in Switzerland so Maria can accept an award on behalf of the playwright who launched her career and was a mentor and friend to her. While still en route they learn the playwright has died, setting off a series of events which force Maria to reflect on her life.

At the awards ceremony she is afforded the trappings of a movie star, but notes that the audience is a “sea of grey hair.” Afterwards, at the reception, a young director approaches Maria about appearing in a new production of the play that was the basis for the film that made her famous.

In that film, written and directed by her mentor, she played Sigrid, a young woman who has an affair with her middle-aged female employer and drives her to suicide. Now she is asked to play Helena, the older woman. Maria is reluctant. “I am still Sigrid,” she protests, and Helena is the opposite from her. The director disagrees. The two characters are “one and the same person.”

A title, “Part Two,” designates a change of acts similar to the structure of a play. Maria has overcome her reluctance and is staying at her deceased mentor’s home in the mountains to rehearse the part of Helena for the film. Valentine stays with her and reads the part of Sigrid. These scenes form the emotional core of the film, and both actresses deliver powerful performances.

Tension builds as Maria struggles with the role of Helen, “this defeated woman,” and argues with Valentine over their interpretations of the characters. The relationship between Maria and Valentine begins to mirror the relationship between the two characters in the play, which makes Valentine uncomfortable and hints at Maria’s more than professional interest in her.

They go into town to see a science-fiction movie starring the young actress who is to play Sigrid and argue while out for drinks afterward. Maria has trouble taking the movie they just saw seriously while Valentine contends the actress, “probably my favorite actress,” has delivered a nuanced performance. The argument turns personal and the tension between them climbs during further rehearsals until it comes to a climax.

The third and final act of the movie moves Maria to the dress rehearsal of the play, where the focus shifts to the contrast between Maria and the young actress playing Sigrid (Chloë Grace Moretz). Moretz is also excellent in a smaller, albeit key role highlighting Maria’s changed position in life.

This is a movie in which every line and every scene is important, compelling you to pay attention. Writer/director Olivier Assayas deserves credit for a tight screenplay and thoughtfully staged production. The themes of aging, generational change, and the aspiration for timelessness in art are handled subtly and intelligently.

All of the performances are fine, but Binoche and Stewart are especially impressive. Binoche does a tour de force in the rehearsal scenes with Stewart in which she switches effortlessly and convincingly between emotional intensity in character and an ironic humor out of character. Stewart continues to impress me. I saw her years ago as a teenager in “The Panic Room” and just last year in “Still Alice,” and her early promise has blossomed into a confident maturity as an actress.

Their casting also contributes to the multi-layered resonance of their characters, as Binoche of course came to international fame as an actress in the 1980s and Stewart’s breakout role was in the “Twilight” series, the kind of fantasy franchise that Maria would disdain and Valentine defend.

Whichever of them was right about those kinds of movies, I am glad we still have dramas like this for viewers like me to savor.

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