Thursday, May 07, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (Olivier Assayas, 2014)

In CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA middle-aged actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is en route to accept an award in Switzerland on behalf of the reclusive playwright and filmmaker who provided her big break at the age of 18 when news comes of his death. The occasion provides cause for reflection on her life’s work and faded youth, especially when a director (Lars Eidinger) wants Maria to commit to his restaging of the career-making play but in the older woman’s role. Opposite her in the part she made her name on will be 19-year-old tabloid regular and Hollywood ingenue Jo-Ann Ellis (ChloĆ« Grace Moretz).

In the play within the film Maria broke through as an intern who seduces, uses, and dumps the 40-year-old married businesswoman who falls for her. Now she’s being asked to switch positions to the part that more closely reflects her age yet still identifies with the younger character. Writer-director Olivier Assayas layers CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA so that the script being rehearsed and parts being played within it explore the similarities between the characters doing the reading and the roles they are taking on. When Maria and Valentine are deep in a scene, they could just as well be discussing the dynamic between them. Assayas also introduces a meta level in which comments about the industry, image-making, and gossip could just as well apply to the lives of Binoche, Moretz, and especially Stewart. This blurring of the lines isn’t a cute postmodern trick but a profound means for looking at aging, power, and celebrity.

Binoche is predictably great. As Maria she makes clear how to strive to stay viable in a business that probably gives her a shelf life of twenty years tops before brushing many like her aside. Binoche handles the dialogue-driven portions with incomparable artistry, but the greatest pleasures are often found in seeing her react. Whether it’s the unforced nature of her laugh or fiddling with 3D glasses at a banal blockbuster, she lives in the character’s skin. Stewart matches Binoche’s intensity and technical skill with an affectless performance that her highest profile role in the TWILIGHT films never tapped. She hides her character’s ambition in her attentiveness to Maria, almost like a child to an elderly parent, yet Valentine is willing to push back when she feels unheard or unappreciated. CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA offers complex gratification as the story snakes along and enjoyment as a superior acting showcase.

Grade: A

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