Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)

With my 2014 Top 10(ish) list basically set in stone, I was pleased to finally be able to see Clouds of Sils Maria, hoping it would be the film to make me rethink my list. Unfortunately, it’s not the bracket-buster I was hoping it would be; it’s full of good ideas, but none of which are pushed far enough to actually break waves on the movie’s smooth, beautiful surface.

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Juliette Binoche is Maria, an aging actress who is on her way to Switzerland with her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to publicly present an award to her notoriously reclusive mentor Wilhelm. While on the journey, Maria and Valentine are hit with the news that Wilhelm has died, turning the celebration into an impromptu wake. While Maria is resistant to the idea, and wants to return home immediately, Valentine convinces her to stay and pay tribute to Wilhelm. While at the accompanying dinner, Maria is introduced to a director, Klaus, who wants to remake Majola Snake, the film that made Maria famous twenty-odd years ago; only this time, Maria would be playing the older, broken woman, while It starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) will be playing the role that originally made Maria famous.

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Much of the film takes place at Wilhelm’s estate in Sils Maria, where Maria and Valentine retreat so Maria can learn her lines, and prepare her psyche, for the stage version of Majola Snake. The scenery is breath-takingly gorgeous; the isolated nature of the place plays into the seemingly isolated lives of both Maria and Valentine. While the play Majola Snake is about a conniving young woman and the pathetic older woman who is in love with her, Maria and Valentine’s relationship doesn’t play as an analogue to that – I’m not sure if that was supposed to be the idea, but Valentine never seems much more than an impressively loyal employee to me. She’s not devoted to Maria – she disagrees with her often (which contributes to the film’s climax) and goes off to party with friends she meets along the way. In the same vein, Maria needs Valentine, and tells her as much, but never takes an unseemly interest in her. They both have secrets that they will not reveal to each other. Both women are an island, which takes away the kind of Persona/3 Women-esque psychological codependency this movie honestly could have used.

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The ending (spoilers in this paragraph) is unsatisfying, to say the least; Valentine abandons Maria as they are finally about to see the mythical snake of mist, and then she is never mentioned again. I’m not necessarily a person who needs closure in every film I see, but the final third of the film doesn’t feature, or even mention, Valentine once. Valentine’s presence can be felt in Maria’s decision to go ahead with Majola Snake, and in Maria’s refusal to run lines or discuss the play with her new assistant, but there’s a sense of loss that isn’t even acknowledged. But perhaps, it’s as Moretz’s Jo-Ann tells Maria: once the audience knows something is over, they want to move on. No point in dwelling on the past.

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The meta-texual elements of the film are the most interesting to me. I don’t see Binoche in English-speaking films very often, so her accented English and short hair reminded me very much of Asia Argento (who I recently gushed about here), with a softer edge. And it must really have been strange for Kristen Stewart to do this movie, when Jo-Ann Ellis is a weird mashup of Stewart’s public persona/career choices, with a bit of Lindsay Lohan thrown in for good measure. Moretz gives my favorite performance of the film; she’s very young, insecure, in love, sure of herself, blase, scared, and very used to fame, all at once. It’s a difficult balance to get right, and I think she nailed it. Binoche and Stewart are also solid in the film, but their characters have so little depth, ironically enough, that it’s hard to engage with them on a deeper level. I found it very unbelievable that a lauded, experienced actress like Maria would find it so hard to dig into Majola Snake and find the relatable pieces of Helena, even if she is still connected to Sigrid. She’s not a woman who seems stunted in any other way, so why this stubborn resistance of the character of Helena?

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The film is unequivocally beautiful, using Sils Maria as a perfect backdrop for the characters’ personal dramas. And I absolutely love seeing a mature film about strong women with great performances – it’s one of my favorite things! I do recommend the movie, but I was really hoping it would knock me out of the park.