Clouds of Sils Maria Is a Master Work, Floating High Above

By  · Published on April 9th, 2015

by Sam Fragoso

IFC Films

Editor’s note: Our review of Clouds of Sils Maria originally ran during TIFF 2014, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited theatrical release.

A searing satire of an antiseptic Hollywood system, a meta-commentary on “Celebrity” culture, a melancholic evocation on the impermanence of youth, a pensive portrait of clandestine love, Clouds of Sils Maria is all of this and more. And yet, to simplify or contextualize its intelligence into precise, aphoristic themes feels wildly inappropriate. Olivier Assayas’ latest masterwork transcends superlatives – too daring and damning to be labeled. Its beauty is ineffable.

Seamlessly divided into two chapters (plus an epilogue), the film opens with the passing of Wilhelm Melchior, a lauded writer/director responsible for jumpstarting the career of Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche). Twenty years since playing the lead in Melchior’s beloved lesbian drama “Maloja Snake,” Maria is headed to the Alps to pay her respects at a posthumous retrospective. At her side is Valentine (Kristen Stewart), Maria’s devout personal assistant responsible for essentially everything in her life.

Once the initial pretenses of the festival subside – the press, the photo shoots, the pseudo sentimentality – Assayas’ introduces his first question: how are we supposed to behave in the wake of death? Maria is understandably distraught upon hearing the news of Melchior’s death – so much so that she’d rather not attend the “posthumous homage” of his work. In the age of Twitter and the twenty-four-hour news cycle, how we grieve, publicly and privately, seems to be actively changing. When someone we’ve known and loved (or even someone we never met, but knew of) ceases to inhabit the same space we do, how do we appropriately respond? There is no proper etiquette in reacting. No formal protocol. It seems Clouds of Sils Maria contends that death is simply too painful for protocol.

No matter, life must proceed, and Assayas avoids the typical trappings of depicting death by continuing onward with his story.

By the beginning of the second chapter, Clouds introduces what is to become Maria’s next project: a revival of the aforementioned play that made her famous two decades ago. Only now the roles are reversed. At the age of forty Maria would be assuming the role of Helena, the boss driven mad by Sigrid (Chloe Grace Moretz) the seductress.

Maria vehemently voices her reservations about the part to Valentine – convinced she’s unable to play this character. But we know it’s not a matter of if she’ll do the play, but when. To prepare, Valentine and Maria rehearse in the Swiss town of Sils Maria. The delicacy of practice sequences puts Stewart in an interesting position where she must act as if she can’t act, while still conveying the underlying emotions of character. More interesting is how the “Maloja Snake” runs parallel to their relationship – a youthful, sexual 20-something caustically pulling at the heartstrings of an older woman. And the attraction between Stewart and Binoche is palpable – their playful rapport subtly signifying a relationship that extends beyond the professional.

Under the different circumstances, this central relationship would be a film’s undoing. But Stewart is magnetic, devoid of the amateurish affectations that have plagued her in the past (the nail and lip biting, the hair twirling). In “Clouds” she’s sexy, confident and articulate, with oversized rims and enough vulnerability to draw you in. Binoche too is superb, slipping into the skin of a woman with perceptible regrets and fears. Her ability to simultaneous display a longing for and resentment of her youth is uncanny.

And that seems to be the terrain Assayas is working in here: the grey area between romance and friendship, art and consumerism, an obsession and a vocation. The characters, like anyone, grapple with these uncertainties. This is excellently explored in a scene where Maria and Valentine discuss the artistic merits of a superhero film they just watched. Both offer up their sound and coherent arguments, one thoroughly impressed by the iconoclasm of its protagonist, the other unable to see past the inherent stupidity of a cartoonish blockbuster set in space. Rarely do we see this sort of serious consideration for both points of view – and by extension, thoughtful conversations about the value of cinema.

The Upside: Everything.

The Downside: The first ten minutes of the epilogue, later redeemed by a devastating final shot.

On the Side: French fashion label Chanel supplied the actresses with clothes, jewelry, accessories and makeup, along with adding to the budget, which allowed Assayas to film on 35mm.

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