Clouds of Sils Maria

★★★½
Tense, complex, melancholy, and thought-provoking.
Movie Review #1,010

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Sundance Selects
Drama
2 hours, 4 minutes
Rated R (language and brief graphic nudity)
Released April 10, 2015
Directed by Olivier Assayas
Screenplay/dialogue by Olivier Assayas
Starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz

The atmosphere in Olivier Assayas’s “Clouds of Sils Maria” is so frantically busy that simply viewing the film damn near stresses us out. That’s not something you want if you look at film as escapism, but that’s not the point of “Sils Maria”. It’s not aiming for escapism. Rather, it’s aiming for art, and those who appreciate cinema as such will no doubt appreciate this film in particular.

The stressful nature of “Sils Maria” is part of what makes the film so realistic. We feel like the characters do. The film is off to the race in its first shot: Valentine (Kristen Stewart), a talent agent for Maria (Juliette Binoche), on a train, standing by the door at the end of the car, taking a phone call, trying to maintain her balance as she’s jostled by the rickety movements of the train. This is the first of many memorable shots in “Sils Maria”, all of them filmed on 35mm. It’s also our first glimpse at Stewart’s brilliant performance. I have always defended her in the face of “Twilight”, as her work has proven solid in virtually everything else. Even so, her delivery in “Sils Maria” attains a level of excellence that is surprising. Her performance as Valentine is far more lifelike than anything we’ve ever seen from the actress. Her speech patterns, somewhat rapid, fuel the film’s breathlessness. Better yet, her exchanges with Juliette Binoche throughout the film prove to be extremely captivating.

“Sils Maria” is a thought-provoking film. Assayas shows the celebrity lifestyle as a world completely separate from the one we know, altered by fame and fortune, and yet his depiction of the burdens of this lifestyle still feels accessible. This is a heavy, melancholy study of its character Maria, a veteran actress who perhaps parallels Binoche herself. She’s facing the fact that she’s now in her forties, and thus less valuable than she was in her twenties. At the age of 18, she gained recognition in a stage production called The Maloja Snake, in which she played the lead, Sigfrid. In the play, Sigfrid seduces a woman twice her age, Helena, and drives her to suicide. Maria is disappointed when she is cast as Helena in a revival of The Maloja Snake. Meanwhile, she rivals with the much younger actress (Chloë Grace Moretz) who, at the height of her fame, has been cast as Sigfrid. She accepts the role, regardless. Maria rehearses for the play by reading her lines with Stewart, who reads Moretz’s lines. These scenes are telling moments in the film, as in Maria’s mind, Stewart and Moretz begin to dissolve into the same person–the embodiment of a youth that Maria so envies.

“Sils Maria” is a complex drama. It’s not just the story described above, but also a deep, introspective contemplation of that story. I don’t want to use the word heavy-handed, but it is quite heavy-handed. The variety of themes the film covers in just two hours is perhaps too large, even taking into consideration the film’s fire-rapid pace. Were it not for this one shortcoming, I might consider “Clouds of Sils Maria” flawless. Nonetheless, it’s still a brilliant film.

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