By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
If superheroes and robotic violence is not one’s cup of tea this weekend, then perhaps an art film showcasing some sublime performances is in order. Starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloe Grace Moretz, Clouds of Sils Maria would actually serve well as a more serious and reserved companion piece to the Oscar winner Birdman. Both films celebrate and lampoon the art and craft of acting and the passion, insanity and sometimes silliness that goes into honing that craft. This movie definitely blurs the lines of reality and fiction and creates some beautifully constructed parallels between these two elements within the narrative.
Binoche stars as veteran actress Maria Enders. At a young age, Enders launched a successful theater and movie career with an acclaimed performance in the play Maloja Snake, where she portrayed a precocious and conniving young lady who uses an affair with an older woman to advance her status. Several years later, a successful and talented theater director approaches Enders and pitches the idea of casting her, but this time as the older, weaker woman. She reluctantly accepts, but experiences much inner conflict while attempting to prepare for the role. This inner conflict mostly derives from the fact that she must face the reality of getting older and the inability to pull off the younger roles she once did.
Written and directed by French director Olivier Assayas, Clouds of Sils Maria certain plays out a lot like the acclaimed films by Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard during the French New Wave of the 1950s and 60s. The film features long takes of dialogue and has that natural and realistic feel of cinema verite. In addition to these wonderfully executed, human moments, Assayas incorporates some gorgeous shots of the titular Sils Maria and the meteorological phenomenon known as the maloja snake. I sincerely applaud the cinematography of Yorick Le Saux which beautifully captures these magical moments. The dialogue-driven scenes are mostly superbly written and the performances of most of the cast members are quite extraordinary.
Binoche is superb as always as the talented, but somewhat arrogant and Maria Enders. I loved seeing her immerse herself into this role which has multiple layers. I marveled as she exceptionally struggles with her new character and tremendously exudes the inner conflict that plagues her. Kristen Stewart stars as Maria’s personal assistant Valentine, a woman struggling with various feelings for her job and employer. Stewart delivers a solid performance and shares a lovely chemistry with Binoche, but does struggle a bit in some scenes. Though her performance does not come across as wooden and stiff as her work in the Twilight movies, she still needs more practice and experience. Chloe Grace Moretz offers a fine turn as the controversial and scandalous ingenue actress Jo-Ann Ellis who has been cast in the role that Enders made famous. As credible and relevant her character is in the film, it takes an unfortunate backseat to the relationship between Valentine and Maria. I would have liked to have seen more scenes with Jo-Ann clashing with Maria.
These type of introspective personal conflicts, personality clashes, and dialogue driven drama do make this movie quite captivating. If one wishes to avoid the loud, explosive blockbuster landing soon “at a theater near you”, then perhaps Cloud of Sils Maria is just what the doctor ordered. I would love to watch this movie again, but as a double feature with Birdman. The exceptional writing, direction, and impressive performances in both movies would make for a great night of quality art cinema.