clouds_sils_maria_1Year: 2014
Director: Olivier Assayas
Writer(s): Olivier Assayas
Region of Origin: Germany, France, Switzerland
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: R
35mm, Color, 124 mins

Synopsis: At the peak of her international career, Maria Enders is asked to perform in a revival of the play that made her famous twenty years ago. Now, stepping into the role of an older character, she finds the transition difficult to accept. As she preps for the role with her personal assistant, the two women find themselves at a crossroads.

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria is like a force of nature. It’s an exceedingly layered look at art, celebrity and aging from the point of view of three complexly rendered women. As the film’s main leads, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart are electric on screen together, spinning meta-fiction into must-see drama. Assayas is a master at the way he profiles his characters and their relationship, bringing the hidden life of a megastar down to an intimate, irresistible level.

The story concerns international superstar Maria Enders and her loyal, personal assistant Val. At the film’s start, both are enroute to accept an award for revered playwright Wilhelm Melchior, who gave a teenage Maria her first big break in a production called Maloja Snake. On the way to the tribute however, the pair discover that Melchior has abruptly passed away. In the midst of this, an up-and-coming director wants to mount the same play. The story features a young ingenue who strikes up a workplace affair with an older woman – and while Maria once played the younger woman, she’s now wanted for the opposite. Maria is naturally uncomfortable with the role reversal but takes it on after much hesitation. Together with Val, the pair retreat to a secluded location in the Alps to prepare for the role. It’s here where things get interesting, when Val is called to help Maria run lines. The play eerily mimics the ambiguous and unwittingly fragile relationship of both women, causing them to question parts of themselves they’ve never encountered.

When it comes down to it, the film is incredible because it’s raw, human drama, stripped down to its very core. Maria and Val are characters that manage to feel fully formed, representing different ideas which challenge each other at every turn. With the characters isolated, the entire film is made up almost exclusively their dynamic and how the bounds between their professional relationship are blurred. Without distractions, the spectacle is Assayas playing to his stars’ strengths, mining them for all they’ve got to deliver the story’s layered subtext about our relationship with culture and time. As humans we fear change, and it’s this innate fear that drives most of Maria’s actions and her hesitancy with playing the unglamorous lead. There isn’t anything sensationalized here, instead we get some of the most realized female characters to ever grace the screen. It’s interesting to see a film about people in real situations, dealing with the mortality of their legacy without the crutch of a high concept, just good writing and execution.

clouds_sils_maria_3On par with the film’s textured script are equally elaborate performances from Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz. Binoche frankly never does wrong, and it’s the same here. She gives her all again, sinking her teeth into an analytical, sensitive character towing the line between cultural relevance and artistic integrity. She commands the screen whenever she’s on it, imbuing elegance and intelligence like no other. In any other script, her character would be a manic mess, but here, she handles her tortured struggles with grace. No doubt, the surprise here is Kristen Stewart. I can’t begin to say how excellent she is in the film. She’s a confident woman who’s headstrong in her ideals and she wears her character’s convictions well. She holds her own agains Binoche with ease, juggling the tough demands of her character and their psychological effects. Throwing a wrench in the proceedings, is Chloe Grace Moretz as the young starlet, Jo-Ann. She’s the hot up-and-comer chosen to take over for Maria’s breakthrough role, firmly planted within Hollywood’s blockbuster system yet thirsty to forge her own path and make an impact. She represents something Maria can no longer identify with and the idea scares her. Through these characters, Assayas has given us strong-willed women whose strength is in their intellect above all else.

Clouds of Sils Maria is a keen, sophisticated film that doesn’t need anything more than its no-frills performances and deep character work to get by. It’s urgent and relevant in relation to the industry that the characters take part in, and Assayas uses that to give us three incredible women each at their own crossroads. Through these fully formed characters and a tricky narrative reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, the film is an exploration of past, present and future, dissecting context and the way ideas change as our perception of them transform over time. It all results in a perfect synergy of self-aware satire and devastatingly honest filmmaking.

Crome Rating: 5/5