DVD Review: Clouds of Sils Maria

clouds-of-sils-maria-2014-02Directed by Olivier Assayas

Starring Kristen Stewart, Juliet Binoche & Chloe Grace Moretz

Kristen Stewart won the French Oscar.” That’s the sentence that will probably pull the most people to this film, and there’s nothing wrong with it- although it’s the Cesar, if you want to be precise. Stewart gets the first line, and in a sense, she gets the final say; everything else about the film is sort of up for grabs.

The film follows Juliette Binoche as Maria, an ageing actor who has built a huge career from a small but world-renowned play and film. She’s en route to an award ceremony to collect the award on behalf of the director, Wilhelm Melchior, when he dies. Later that evening, she’s invited to star in the same play that made her famous- but as the older character, not the young seductress. The bulk of the film then follows Maria and Valentine (Stewart) as they escape to the Alps to study the play, and focuses in on Maria’s journey through understanding how her own life and performance has changed since she started in the same play at 18.

Assayas storms through the first part of the film- it’s a whirlwind of press engagements and paparazzi. He’s aided in part by the physical setting of the first few scenes, a train en route to Zurich- as the vehicle moves inexorably forward, so does the plot, and right from the first shot (Valentine answering a phone call between carriages), the camera sways with the motion of the train, carrying its energy through scenes that could otherwise be maudlin.

There is a constant switching of silence and rushing; phone-calls get through but we only hear one side; information trades hands quickly as people try to process their grief while maintaining a grip on the real world. Meaning is traded as much in stares and shrugs than in barbed positioning- although there’s a lot of that as well. Assayas also expects a lot of his audience; the film is in 3 languages, and no subtitles provided for French or German- you won’t miss out on anything, but if you do speak a little of those, you gain something.

Once the second part of the film begins, however, the film takes on a pace and style best described as continental. Assayas is obviously deeply in love with his film, as is the right of any director, but he insists that you enjoy it the way he wants it, like a wine snob at a dinner party. There are endless (admittedly beautifully photographed) shots of the Alps, set to classical music- in fact, at one point we get a montage of archive footage of the Alps, for about 2 minutes, ostensibly because Wilhelm liked it but really because Assayas likes it. And the whole film seems geared towards making us appreciate him: he shot on 35mm because he had always yearned to, his characters spend most of their screentime discussing textual interpretation, the plot has a tired metafictional aspect, and every scene ends in a fade to black. He wants us to see his film as an intellectual exercise, to situate it in a tradition, but really it’s just a tradition of bloated passion projects.

It’s lucky for the viewer that at the real heart of the film is a stunning two-hander, held together by two great actors- Juliette Binoche and, dare I say it, Kristen Stewart. (She won a French Oscar, don’t you know?) The viewer might be more charitable to the film if they view it as a portrait of Binoche than as a real story in its own right; as a high-class European actor who got her start in auteur French cinema and occasionally does big blockbuster roles, but does as much theatre as possible, there’s very little to separate Binoche and Maria, and the film’s the better for it. But Stewart’s performance is the stand-out here, possibly just because it’s so unexpected. She plays a fully millennial young woman, three mobiles on the go, laughing at her boss’ inability to use social media, and entertaining brief flings with other distant creatives. As the movie wears on (and unfortunately it does wear), her character is drawn out through line readings and disucssions about the play, rarely escaping a realistically closed emotional state but revealing flashes of humanity along the way. This is the stuff of great character work.

It’s a pity for both actors that their characters are limited by the stunted story they appear in, but in future this film won’t be remembered for the directing or themes. Its real contribution to cinematic history is the understated appeal of its natural leads – and that, of course, is why “Kristen Stewart won the French Oscar.”


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