Directed by: Olivier Assayas
Premise: A veteran actress (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts a role in a revival of the play that originally made her a star. She retreats to a house in the Swiss Alps to prepare for the part.
What Works: Clouds of Sils Maria tells an intelligent story about the relationship between reality and art. Filmmaker Olivier Assayas wrote the script for 1985’s Rendez-vous, which launched Juliette Binoche’s career. The writer-director and actress have reunited in Clouds of Sils Maria, and that behind the scenes history informs what happens on screen. Even without knowing that background, viewers will be able to enter into this movie and Clouds of Sils Maria is a thought provoking story. Juliette Binoche’s character plays an actress who began her career with a role in an intense lesbian drama in which she played a younger seductress who takes advantage of an older woman. The success of that play kick started her career which has subsequently included parts in Hollywood comic book movies as well as prestige projects and stage dramas. The film begins with Binoche’s character facing middle age and having trouble getting meaningful work. She is offered a role in a revival of the play that began her career but now as the older woman. The actress and her assistant, played by Kristen Stewart, take shelter in an isolated house in the Swiss Alps where they rehearse the lines. Clouds of Sils Maria is a thoughtful movie about getting older. On the one hand Binoche’s character has to accept that she is no longer a young, fresh faced movie star but on the other hand the movie makes it clear that the film industry has little use or respect for an older woman. Clouds of Sils Maria works as a character study of this woman and a critique of popular culture and the film industry’s regard for women. While spending their days in the Alps and observing nature, the effect of time is apparent in the landscape while Binoche’s character struggles with the play and what it means to her. Binoche is quite good, genuinely conveying a sense of exhaustion and trepidation about her age and the uncertainty of the future. Also impressive are Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz. Stewart plays the assistant to Binoche’s character and what might otherwise be a vacillating role is turned into a woman who is both a participant and an observer in her employer’s life. Moretz is cast as the actress taking on the role of the younger woman. Her character is the prototypical Hollywood starlet who is seen as frequently in the tabloids as she is in the movies. Mortez does the part well and the film allows her to be more than just a hot mess.
What Doesn’t: Late in the film there is an unexpected and ambiguous plot twist involving Kristen Stewart’s character. This scene is likely to be a decisive factor in how viewers feel about the movie. Depending on how the twist is understood both it and the movie could be viewed as either stupid or lyrical. Clouds of Sils Maria is smart enough and has enough depth of characterization and layers of meaning that it can handle the twist. However, Clouds of Sils Maria is a meta-textual story and these kinds of movies tend to test the patience of the audience. This film isn’t obnoxious but like all meta-texual movies Clouds of Sils Maria is at least a little solipsistic on the part of the filmmakers. Movies of this sort, such as Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Birdman, can be a little too “inside baseball” for mainstream audiences. Clouds of Sils Maria isn’t as conventionally entertaining as New Nightmare nor is it as funny as Birdman. It’s very purely a movie about movies by people who make movies. For that reason, mainstream audiences may have some difficulty making sense of Clouds of Sils Maria although it is certainly comprehensible and gives viewers a lot to think about.
DVD extras: The short film “Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja,” an interview, and an image gallery.
Bottom Line: Clouds of Sils Maria is a quiet but thoughtful film about the impermanence of life and the way art can capture a fleeting moment. It’s a pensive movie but those enjoy pictures like 8½ or Birdman ought to check it out.
Episode: #568 (November 8, 2015)