Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for a suggestive comment
Running Time: 110 min.

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, Angela Winkler
Director: Olivier Assayas
Screenplay: Olivier Assayas

Review published April 30, 2015

Juliette Binoche (Godzilla, Words and Pictures) stars as internationally famous actress Maria Enders, whom we meet on a trip to Zurich, Switzerland with handy and very trustworthy personal assistant and confidante, Valentine (Stewart, Still Alice), in tow, asked to accept a major career tribute, on behalf of Wilhelm Melchior, the playwright and screenwriter who gave her a big break early on (and perhaps a bit of romance).  En route, she receives word that he has died, which derails the spirit of the speech she has been preparing.  Meanwhile, Maria is approached by a respected young director looking to cast her in a juicy role in the very play that brought her fame, "Maloja Snake", except this time, she's slated to play the older romantic counterpart to the young seductress she had played in the original production.

Set in large part in the beautiful nook of the French Alps where the title gets its name, Clouds of Sils Maria has famous characters, but subtle ideas, to the point where many viewers may find its thematic intent to be elusive.  It's a movie more about its characters than its plot, about roles people play, and the roles that change as one gets older in life and more entrenched in standing, as well as what's at stake when you achieve greater heights on the ladder to the top of your profession.  It's also about how the past of irreverent youth often comes back to haunt one's present in ways many of us are prepared not to accept, especially when it comes to the complications of romantic entanglements that linger far beyond their fruitful time in the sun.

Incredibly strong performances by Binoche, who reportedly pitched the original idea of this movie to Assayas, and Stewart, solidify this ponderous work from writer-director Assayas (Paris I Love You, Irma Vep).  The best actors are not the ones who successfully deliver grandiloquent orations, but rather, those who tell you so much more through a look, a glance, or a furrowed brow, saying far more when they're saying nothing at all.  These actresses are among the best working today; Stewart would go on to be nominated for the highly coveted Cesar Award in France for her efforts, only the second American actress to earn such an honor, and the first to win. The two leads play their parts on multiple levels at once, as Val assists Maria in running through her difficult lines, though the way the film bounces back and forth between written dialogue of their script and their actual conversation between the reading is sometimes difficult to detect, as some of the sexual politics between the fictional lovers seems to be remarking upon the one that has no dialogue whatsoever because the participants never dare to bring it up.

Clouds of Sils Maria is rife with ambiguity, and connections that aren't always drawn very ostentatiously, but which makes it absorbing and rich underneath the story that is anything but pat.  Fitting for a film about the value of things assessed wholly in the way each person chooses to interpret them to be something that will run the gamut of interpretations among those who view it.  This will especially be true about several story threads that are left intentionally unresolved to us as viewers, though those who are confused might have missed a few of the parallels drawn forth earlier.  Boring, fascinating, aimless, or acute -- how much you come away from Clouds of Sils Maria is precisely governed by the same reasoning attributed by the main characters in how they react to the various roles they're asked to play themselves, both in public and in private.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo