Cannes Film Review: ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’

Clouds of Sils Maria Cannes 2014

Contrasting styles between stars of two different generations make this Cannes competition title a rich study of actorly insecurity.

French director Olivier Assayas likes his leading ladies unpredictable and punk, crafting wild pipe-bomb thrillers to suit the feral energy of muses such as Maggie Cheung (“Irma Vep”), Connie Nielsen (“Demonlover”) and Asia Argento (“Boarding Gate”). But does he really understand women? After collaborating with Assayas on 2008’s perfect, albeit ultra-safe “Summer Hours,” actress Juliette Binoche challenged the director to write a part that delved into genuine female experience. Though deceptively casual on its surface, “Clouds of Sils Maria” marks his daring rejoinder, a multi-layered, femme-driven meta-fiction that pushes all involved — including next-gen starlets Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz — to new heights.

Binoche plays Maria Enders, a 40-ish movie star approached about appearing in a fresh staging of the play “Maloja Snake,” a film adaptation of which launched her career two decades earlier. This time, she’s being asked to interpret the older role — a burnt-out, middle-aged businesswoman manipulated by her young female assistant in a daring lesbian dynamic. Maria has always identified with the other character, the one she played at age 20, whereas the role of the has-been is haunted by her previous co-star, who died in a car accident a year after they shot the movie.

All performers are superstitious to some degree, which supports those who choose to read “Sils Maria” as a ghost story of sorts. Certainly, its principal theme is the passage of time, which seems to affect actors more intensely than anyone else on Earth — especially female ones, who are typically put out to pasture early. Nearly 30 years ago, Assayas co-wrote Binoche’s first starring role in Andre Techine’s “Rendez-vous,” and now, just as Marie feels threatened trading places with a hot young up-and-comer, Binoche has been asked to star opposite an actress far more consistent with Assayas’ “type.”

As the film opens, Maria is traveling with her assistant Val (Stewart) to accept an award on behalf of her close friend and mentor, playwright Wilhelm Melchior (a provocateur loosely inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” echoes below the surface here). En route, while dealing with the particulars of her in-progress divorce, Marie receives word that Melchior has died, dredging up an unpleasant figure from her past, an old co-star named Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler) whose stage-hoggy desperation provides a horrifying glimpse into where her own career could be headed.

For this and her myriad other insecurities, Marie has Val, the hyper-reliable young woman who serves as her minder, mother, therapist and rehearsal partner. It is Val who talks her nervous boss into doing the “Maloja Snake” revival, dragging Marie to a studio-produced superhero movie just to see Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz), the edgy young actress tapped to play the other part.

Running lines from the play, Marie and Val may as well be describing their own sexually charged codependency, so perversely does the dialogue fit the pair’s own increasingly unhealthy dynamic. At times, Val excuses herself to visit a photographer boyfriend (although a weird mountain-driving montage suggests she may simply need to get away when the connection becomes too intense), until finally, she seems to disappear altogether, just one of the many mysteries woven into this rich and tantalizingly open-ended psychological study.

SEE ALSO: Kristen Stewart in ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ Trailer

Moretz is fine, scoring laughs in a series of paparazzi-documented public outbursts, but not nearly as exciting in the fake “X-Men”-style movie-within-the-movie as Val believes. Ultimately, Stewart is the one who actually embodies what Binoche’s character most fears, countering the older actress’ more studied technique with the same spontaneous, agitated energy that makes her the most compellingly watchable American actress of her generation. Heightening the effect still further, Assayas uses the inescapable “baggage” of Stewart’s offscreen persona — from broken-marriage tabloid drama to a tossed-off eye-roll over the ridiculous rise in werewolf projects post-“Twilight” — to slyly alter the movie’s pH.

By sheer coincidence, “Clouds of Sils Maria” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in the same competition lineup as the Hollywood satire “Maps to the Stars.” Assayas’ bespoke homage to the art of acting feels like the antidote to David Cronenberg’s toxic takedown, which skewers Hollywood hangers-on and their screwed-up priorities. Though keenly satiric in its own right, “Sils Maria” loves actors and seeks to appreciate the strange alchemy they weave.

Having begun his career as a film critic, Assayas spent years judging performances in strictly technical terms. Actors don’t see their work like that, relying on intuition and emotional identification to connect with their characters in the most honest way possible. Moviegoers relate on yet another, more impressionistic level, affected by their mood, what they had for breakfast that morning and whatever personal experience they bring to the table. As the film acknowledges, “The text is like an object. It’s gonna change perspective based on where you’re standing.”

Given the amount of subjectivity involved, acting is by far the hardest aspect of filmmaking to evaluate. It’s easy enough to object when the work feels false, but so much of the process remains a mystery, and in trying to unlock its secrets, “Sils Maria” reaches for the stratosphere — which incidentally, is where most of the film takes place, high in the Swiss Alps, above the clouds. From this celestial vantage, Maria and Val are free to observe the real “Maloja Snake,” a seething meteorological formation that sends clouds winding serpent-like through a valley lined by mountains on either side.

In addition to documenting this spectacle afresh, Assayas unearths an old 1924 silent movie by German director Arnold Fanck, the sort of relic that makes one grateful someone thought to capture this mesmerizing phenomenon on film. Binoche leaves audiences with the same exhilarating feeling here — of having witnessed something precious and rare — answering the challenge of Assayas’ script by revealing a character incredibly close to her soul.

Cannes Film Review: 'Clouds of Sils Maria'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 23, 2014. Running time: 123 MIN.

Production

(France) A Les Films du Losange (in France)/Sundance Selects (in U.S.) release of a CG Cinema presentation of a CG Cinema, Pallas Film, CAB Prods., Vortex Sutra, Arte France Cinema, ZDF/Arte, Orange Studio, RTS Radio Television Suisse, SRG SSR, in association with Ezekiel Film Prod., with the support of Eurimages, with the participation of CNC, Arte France, ZDF/Arte GEIE, Canal Plus, Cine Plus, with the support of MDM, DFFF, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, FFA, Office Federal de la Culture, BLS, Alto Adige. (International sales: MK2, Paris.) Produced by Charles Gillibert. Executive producer, Sylvie Barthet. Co-producers, Karl Baumgartner, Thanassis Karathanos, Jean-Louis Porchet, Gerard Ruet.

Crew

Directed, written by Olivier Assayas. Camera (color, widescreen), Yorick Le Saux; editor, Marion Monnier; production designer, Francois Renaud Labarthe; sound (Dolby SRD), Daniel Sobrino; associate producer, Antoun Sehnaoui; assistant director, Dominique Delany; casting, Antoinette Boulat, Anja Dihrberg.

With

Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, Angela Winkler, Hanns Zischler, Aljoscha Stadelmann, Luise Berndt, Gilles Tschudi, Benoit Peverelli, Brady Corbet, Claire Tran, Stuart Manashil, Peter Farkas, Nora Von Waldstatten, Ricardia Bramley, Caroline De Maigret, Arnold Giamara, Ben Posener, Sean McDonagh. (English, German dialogue)

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  1. Zena says:

    Kristen must have very powerful people on her side because she is sooooop overrated. She can barely express an emotion besides the normal angst and awkwardness She so easily conveys on screen and in her real life.

    • lmp says:

      Kristen’s “powerful people” must verge on the supernatural, as they seem to have influenced all of the more than 90 critics on Rotten Tomatoes to give her glowing reviews for this movie—critics from Boston to Dallas to LA. LOL.

      What she does have is one obsessive hater. She earned the name Roboposter, by posting the same forty hate-Kristen posts every day under multiple names, cutting and pasting in spurts, at the rate of one every two minutes. Hollywood Life finally banned her, and now she spreads her baddies all over the web. Her favorite argument is that all Kristen’s achievements and awards are unearned–the result of bribery or “powerful influences”.

  2. Person says:

    Kristen Stewart is so overrated. She always plays like “La Belle Personne” of art cinema, and I respect that, but sometimes it doesn’t work.

    • david says:

      Kristen was voted the Best Supporting Performance (both genders) by the Cannes Film Festival Critics. I’ll take this anyday over your comment. The poll and the results are posted in the internet so you can check it out and see the list of who she bested. This to me speaks volume for her talents as an actor.

  3. Ben Hand says:

    This movie looks to be a compelling, female dominated movie. I’ve seen a few movies Ms. Stewart has been in and love her natural, and nuanced acting style. Looking forward to seeing this.

    • The Duke says:

      I love when KStew sfans refer to her as Ms. Stewart as if everybody can’t see through what they are doing. Just say you’re a fan and you want her to succeed. Stop with the theatrics.

  4. Variety is not losing it touch. LA RULES! Variety is a very respectable magazine. You twihaters need to get a life. Stewart is not the greatest actress of all time, she is more like above average at best, same as Jennifer Lawrence. As for Shailene whats her face she is just average. Lindsay Lohan and Megan Fox below average. Stewart a has a niche that has gained her fame and lots and lots of money. What is yours?

  5. LA rules says:

    Binoche is indeed one of the most watchable actresses of our generation which cannot be said with a straight face about miss Stewrat with her usual twitching, cringing and lip biting acting stick. Variety is losing its touch.

  6. Caryn says:

    Kristen Stewart has done 30 plus movies, hardly a “starlet.”

  7. Joseph says:

    Kristen Stewart is a phenomenal actress. Anyone who catches her in something besides Twilight and doesn’t have an irrational bias can see that.

  8. ConMan says:

    Kristen Stewart is “the most compellingly watchable American actress of her generation”? Oh, my Lord. No wonder Mr. Debruge thinks the far-better Mia Wasikowska is “always wooden.”

    I officially can’t believe in anything this loon writes anymore.

  9. LOL says:

    Americans won’t be able to handle a movie with Binoche not acting alongside a Godzilla and Stewart not prancing alongside soapy vampires.

  10. Sam says:

    Clouds of Sils Maria seems more interesting by the minute even if it has weak points, which by the way, the reviewer points out in a refreshingly respectful manner. Assayas’ life-imitating-art is clever, and Stewart is brave for going for it.

  11. Daniel R. says:

    There are no nasty comments about Stewart here, but yet there are plenty of her bizarre fans complaining about such comments.

    Do you guys even read the comments? How odd. Her fans are a weird bunch, but I guess they’ll go see the film, and that’s a good thing.

  12. Caryn says:

    Before the Rpattz rush in to throw tantrums and make the comment section an embarrassment as they inevitably do, I just want to say that this film sounds really interesting and layered. A great opportunity to showcase actresses in all stages of their career. Mama Binoche is always wonderful and I am excited to read the wonderful praise for Kristen. Chloe’s role sounds lots of fun!

  13. Sam says:

    This review does make me appreciate actors a bit more especially those that are in for the love of it.

  14. guest says:

    These nasty comments about Stewart are from Robert Pattinson Fandom obsessed to hate his EX.

    • Von says:

      People hated Stewart before the Rupert Sanders debacle. Negative comments could easily be from people who don’t care for her “acting.” I certainly don’t. She’s terrible and a few acting lessons won’t hurt. She’s lucky critics go easier on women. Why do you think young men hardly ever win awards until they are 30+?

    • Dane says:

      And It could easily be said that all the nasty comments HE received on his film review articles are from obsessed Kristen Stewart fans. Just because someone doesn’t like her doesn’t make them a fan of his . Just like how people who don’t like him that doesn’t make them a fan of hers. Lol it’s truly possible for them not to be liked by everyone in the world. Calm down with your Robert vs. Kristen fight. Grow up.

  15. Lil says:

    “most compellingly watchable actresses of her generation” let’s tone it down a bit, yeah?

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