VOD film review: Clouds of Sils Maria
Mark Harrison | On 15, May 2015
Director: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn
We’ve had a few films that travel the inside track of acting lately, from Ari Folman’s psychedelic Robin Wright odyssey The Congress, via David Cronenberg’s incestuous satire Maps To The Stars, through to this year’s Best Picture, Birdman. Olivier Assayas’ Clouds Of Sils Maria has a vibe that might lump it in with this recent trend, but it’s not as high concept and certainly less eventful.
Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is an actress who’s fed up with Hollywood and wants to go back to the stage, where she made her name. Having escaped a comic book franchise contract, she holds high hopes for a mooted sequel to Maloja Snake, the play in which she broke through 25 years earlier, playing a young and vivacious girl who seduces an older, embittered woman and eventually drives her to suicide.
When the playwright, Wilhelm Melchior, passes away unexpectedly, a new director instead pitches the idea of redoing the play with Maria now playing the older woman and Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) taking on Maria’s part. In Jo-Ann, Maria sees an uncanny reflection of herself, which only makes it more difficult for her to accept the opposite role.
The film has echoes of All About Eve, but bears far more similarities with Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Oscar winner – in particular, the sniping at superhero movies, right down to a shamelessly patronising spoof of “artless”, convoluted sci-fi blockbusters, starring Moretz’s character as a lovelorn, leather-clad mutant.
The first part of the film serves as an overture for all that follows. It’s the passage in which Maria is most self-assured. “Spare me the gloom, I’m not the one who died,” she says, on her way to pick up an award for Melchior. Of course, by the time the second part has rolled around, Maria has only accepted the role of the older woman on a contractual level, not a personal one.
But aside from foreshadowing the existential turmoil that is to follow, it neatly sets up the ambiguous bond between Maria and her invaluable young PA, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). There are parallels here between the sapphic May-December relationship in Maloja Snake.
Stewart steals the show, in another role where Twilight’s Bella Swan will be the furthest thing from your mind. Here, she’s sparky, quick-witted and utterly comfortable with Binoche, despite her occasional exasperation with Maria’s insecurity. There’s a palpable psychosexual tension between them, muddled further by Valentine’s unfailing candour.
We arrive in scenes where they’re running lines and it’s sometimes hard to tell if they’re trying to address some unspoken part of their own relationship, rather than reading as the characters. Things only become slightly clearer when Valentine interjects with a stage direction. This is where the film really shines, because it hinges on the two leading ladies.
The major drawback is that Assayas takes an awfully long time getting to the heart of his subject – it’s a full hour before Jo-Ann makes an appearance and a while after that before she and Maria meet. The film feels a little bottom-heavy as a result, and the endless, languorous establishing shots of the countryside (including a brief straight-up Sound Of Music-style interval before the extended “epilogue”) serve to fill out the two-hour runtime more than build atmosphere.
The ambiguity between the star and her assistant characterises much of Clouds Of Sils Maria, but for all of its geographical scale, it only ever looks inwards. This makes for a beguiling yet slow-paced character piece about different eras of acting, bolstered by terrific female characters and particularly good turns from Binoche and Stewart. In the scarcity of screen time for Moretz, though, the script misses ample opportunities to play Jo-Ann off against the others. The result flirts with an interesting premise, but may leave just a little too much to the imagination.