Clouds of Sils Maria
Directed by Olivier Assayas
A veteran actress comes face-to-face with an uncomfortable reflection of herself when she agrees to take part in a revival of the play that launched her career 20 years earlier.
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★★★★★ review by Auteur on Letterboxd
You can tell after the first ten minutes of watching Clouds Of Sils Maria that it is not a Hollywood production; one, because Juliette Binoche's character Maria is still alive, and two, because Kristen Stewart is actually allowed to act, and she's pretty great at it by the way.
In yet another year of middling roles for women, Sils Maria is a dream come true. Masterfully directed by Olivier Assayas, the film centers on an aging actress preparing to play the older, more pitiful female role in a revival of a stageplay that made her famous years ago when she played the younger, sexier role. Life imitates art, as it so often does, and an admittedly shallow conceit is given tremendous depth of feeling and humanity when the text of the play begins to comment on the text of the film, and vice versa, bringing all of Maria's personal demons to the foreground, and putting strain on her relationship with her assistant Valentine (Stewart), who makes the mistake of helping her with line readings. Watching the two of them traipse through the Swiss countryside arguing, and never quite knowing if they are still "in character" or not is thrilling and beautiful and inspiring all at the same time.
I'll admit I had to warm to Stewart, as her aloofness and transactional nature at first seemed mannered. But then Moretz appears as a Hollywood ingenue fresh from a superhero movie, playing, you guessed it, the younger role, and Valentine is given room to express her opinions through post-modern analyses of contemporary cinema and she immediately becomes the intellectual version of the physical threat the young actress poses to Maria. Let's just say It takes a great actor to be behind a character who can convincingly win an esoteric argument with a character played by Juliette Binoche. Beyond that Assays does not allow her to be defined by Maria; he instead gives her a pretty important solo moment that serves as the catalyst for the rockiness that soon surfaces in their relationship.
Clouds of Sils Maria might come off as pretentious to some. Who cares about the mid-life crisis of some rich actress, and so forth? But the film is about so much more than that. For me, director Assayas' deft maneuvering back and forth through the different layers of text and meta-text, made me realize, or at least come away with the feeling, that art is inextricably linked with ontology, and can open pathways to understanding things about ourselves we might not otherwise care to see, or not know where to begin looking to satisfy curiosity. And that not only makes the film worthy of a rewatch, but also of a spot among the best fims of the year.
★★★★★ review by davidehrlich on Letterboxd
A heady psychosexual drama that’s steeped in dense anxieties and rich European glamour (the film was partially funded by Chanel), Olivier Assayas’s latest finds the French auteur at the very top of his game. Combining the acute professional paranoia of All About Eve with the existential crisis of Persona, Clouds of Sils Maria stars the remarkably accomplished Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders, a fading star who’s agreed to be in a revival of the play that made her famous as a young ingenue. This time, however, Maria isn’t performing the part of the seductive teenager awakening to the power of her sexuality; she’s playing the older woman who’s wrapped around the girl’s finger. Retreating to the Swiss Alps with her unfailingly honest assistant (Kristen Stewart, a deadpan revelation), Maria begins a rehearsal process that will force her to grapple with the presentness of her past.
★★★★½ review by Melissa Tamminga on Letterboxd
"The text is like an object. It's going to change perspective depending on where you're standing."
And as the director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger) tells the journalist, the experience of the play, Maloja Snake, will be different for every audience member, each bringing his or her own personal subjective weight to bear on that elusive textual object.
So, I have to ask, would this film have played differently for me were I 20-something, instead of 40-something? Would I, perhaps, be more interested in Valentine (Kristen Stewart) or Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz), than Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a woman confronted by youth - as something startlingly distant from herself - at every turn? I am drawn to Valentine, particularly, of course, and Stewart's performance is as good as they say, but in her, I am startled, like Maria, to see a projection of what I thought I was, not what I am.
I am confronted, week to week, in my capacity as a professor, by 17-22 year old college students, living a moment in their lives that I remember so vividly: that passion for new ideas, that excitement in throwing off perceived tradition, that confident sense of self and one's own "barbaric yawping." For them, the Transcendentalists make the most sense: "Trust thyself"? Of course. "Speak the rude truth"? What other way of speaking can there be? "Absolve [me] to [my]self"? Oh, yes, indeed, they know they shall "have the suffrage of the world."
It is, truly, a thrill to watch such bold living and speaking, but there is, too, as time crawls every more quickly on, an increasingly bitter sting at the end of each quarter, when these bold young beings leave me without a backward glance. Some, it is true, stop to thank me, to wish me goodbye, but most do not think the life of a 40-something professor is truly of much interest - not with their own lives, stretching before them. They simply cannot imagine what mine is and can't really care. And it is right that it should be so. I cannot, as Maria does of Jo-Ann, ask them to pause, for just a few seconds more, as they walk out the door. The poignancy in those seconds would be only for me. No, it is a "little life," after all, "rounded with a sleep," and I see, more and more, as only one of the "players," I cannot take more than my fair share of "exits and . . . entrances."
I am not of their moment, not anymore. Someday, they shall be in mine though that is not really a thought that brings much comfort. They, surely, just as I am now, will be looking backwards to their own youth, not forwards to wherever I am.
Maria, so viscerally and vulnerably performed by Binoche, for me, then, embodies, with an almost unbearable truth, something of the journey of age I feel and resist and give in to and resist and give in to every day, the "rag[ing] against the dying of the light" and the sighing in acquiescence taking almost equal turns. She is someone learning that the narrative isn't really about her - or at least, it is her narrative, she is in it, but her part may not be very important to anyone else. She may cry out in excited questioning, as the rolling clouds and mist stream into the distant valley, "Is that the Snake? Is that the Snake?" but as she turns to the expected audience, she'll find no one is watching, no one listening. Only the still, looming mountain remains, unmoved by the little drama.
I wonder. Next time I watch this, will Rosa Melchior, mostly off-stage, forgotten by most, be the figure who inhabits my mind?
★★★½ review by Mike D'Angelo on Letterboxd
Second viewing, no change, though I moved Kristen Stewart from Supporting Actress to lead and her performance is now officially my favorite of the year (so far) across all four categories. What cinches it is how little acting Valentine does when she's running lines with Maria—her register doesn't alter in the slightest, yet she's still clearly giving a performance rather than just providing cues, which only serves to wind Maria up further. I'd like the film considerably more if I could find a coherent place for Jo-Ann Ellis in this dynamic of vulnerability and power, or if Assayas seemed to even vaguely understand Hollywood celebrity culture. (One can charitably interpret the superhero movie as parody, but I honestly have no idea what the hell is going on with the talk-show appearance that has a laugh track straight out of Happy Days.) And I'm still fuzzy on the meaning of the double-exposure rock video that exists on its own aesthetic island—if it's intended to foreshadow Valentine's disappearance, it's less effective than is the identical walking-up-the-ridge shot early on with Maria and the widow, which escaped my conscious notice the first time. But every moment that Stewart is onscreen fascinates. Somehow, she manages to come across as subtly Machiavellian without visibly doing anything; it's as if Pinter and Losey had made The Servant naturalistically.
★★★★ review by davidehrlich on Letterboxd
um, did Olivier Assayas just make a sapphic spiritual sequel to IRMA VEP starring Juliette Binoche gallivanting around the impossibly gorgeous mountains of Switzerland?
Tommy Callahan just sold HALF A MILLION BRAKE PADS!
definitely need to re-watch before unpacking... if only to reconcile the text with the meta-text and get a better grasp of how the PERSONA refractions fit into the greater shape of things. a gift horse into whose mouth i'd like to stick my whole head.
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