Around this time of year, a young man’s thoughts (cinematically speaking) will turn to huge, special effects laden blockbusters, as the US “summer” movie season gets into full swing (this year so far we’ve already had Fast & Furious 7 and Avengers: Age of Ultron). While those movies definitely have their place, sometimes it’s good to have a film that swims against the CGI tide. Clouds of Sils Maria is one of those films.
This English-language production is from French auteur Olivier Assayas, a favourite of the film festival circuit. As is often the case, he works from his own screenplay here, although apparently the original idea came from the film’s star, Juliette Binoche. In fact, there’s a lot about this film that’s meta – it becomes not so much a set of nested dolls as a hall of mirrors with reflections bouncing in all directions.
The film opens on a train between Paris and Zurich, as renowned French actress Maria Enders (Binoche) travels to the Swiss city to accept an award for her mentor, William Melchior, a famous writer. Twenty years before, Maria had starred as the ingenue in one of Melchior’s plays. The role, and a film adaptation, had shot her to stardom. Meanwhile, Maria’s personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) is constantly on the phone wrangling media inquiries and sorting Maria’s ever-changing itinerary. Then word comes that Melchior has died.
On arrival in Zurich, what was meant to be a celebration has turned into a wake. At the reception after the ceremony, stage director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger) puts a proposition to Maria. He wants to direct a new production of the Melchior play. In the play, a powerful businesswoman is seduced by her youthful protege. Maria had played the protege 20 years before; now Diesterweg wants her to play the businesswoman. To play the younger woman, he casts American actress Jo-Ann Ellis (Chlöe Grace Moretz), a “wild child” who’s just starred in a sci-fi blockbuster. After some initial reservations, Maria agrees to do the role. When Melchior’s widow offers the use of her house near Sils Maria (a resort town in the Swiss Alps), Maria and Valentine find themselves in the magnificent isolation, with only the characters in the play for company.
Assayas’ layered screenplay makes a lot of demands on the audience – particularly toward the end when several events occur that are left to the audience to process. Then again, if you want everything spoon-fed to you, you probably won’t be seeking this film out. The script also plays with the audience’s head as much as it does with the characters’ heads. For instance, is the Jo-Ann character a thinly veiled version of the real Kristen Stewart? Is Maria really the mature one here, or simply an older Jo-Ann with Peter Pan syndrome? Is Valentine something more to Maria than a personal assistant, and if so, what is she to her? Is Jo-Ann really as she’s depicted in the media, or is she really a sophisticated manipulator?
The film was largely shot on location in the Alps, and Yorick Le Saux’s naturalistic cinematography lends itself to both authenticity and an air of mystery. The soundtrack is largely naturalistic, though music (mainly classical pieces) is used to effect. The pacing is deliberate without being slow, but once you’re “in” the film, it envelopes you.
At the heart of the film are two wonderful performances from Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. It might come as some surprise to learn that Kristen Stewart won a César (a French Oscar) for her role in this film, making her the first American actress to be awarded such a prize. The two actresses spark off each other as the apparently refined star and her more pragmatic PA. They tend to circle each other at a distance for much of the time, but when the blows land, they land with a thud. Chlöe Grace Moretz is also excellent in the smaller role of Jo-Ann and makes every post a winner for her character.
While some will find Clouds of Sils Maria frustratingly obtuse, it offers plenty of rewards to those prepared to take the deep dive into its complex waters. You’ll certainly struggle to find a more well-acted film this year, but it’s also one of those films that provokes questions and discussion, rather than easy answers.
Director: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz
Release Date: 7 May 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television