TIFF Review: 'Clouds of Sils Maria'

Clouds of Sils Maria
(France/USA, 124 min.)
Written and directed by Olivier Assayas
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz
Programme: Special Presentations (North American Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.
The story behind Clouds of Sils Maria says that the film begins with a challenge from Juliette Binoche to Olivier Assayas to write a substantial and challenging female role. Assayas delivers on the test by offering Binoche the complex aging actress Maria Enders and Binoche assuredly meets Assayas’s own challenge put forth to her in such a meaty role. Clouds of Sils Maria sees Binoche and Assayas create one of the richest characters of their respected and collaborative careers.

Clouds of Sils Maria thus makes one of the more notable feminist films of 2014 even though it’s directed by a male. It’s one of Assayas’s most skillful and evocative films yet. (The cinematography by Yorick Le Saux must be praised immediately for its crisp, involving, and graceful use of the natural light and Alpine surroundings.) This complicated character study deftly plays on art and life as Binoche and Assayas find the poetry in an aging actress reinventing herself for a quality part at middle age. Maria still carries the talent, grace, and beauty of her early years, but the roles offered to her by her meticulous assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) tell a different story. Maria can play aliens, mutants, or moms, or she can hawk products in commercials for Latin American television. That’s about it unless she wants to revel in reviews from the past and collect a royalty here or there.

The meatiest offer arises, though, when Maria receives a proposal to revive the play that made her a star. The timing is curious, since the film begins as she sits on a train waiting to accept an award for the director whose play launched her career. His unexpected death, however, reignites interest in his work, and soon an offer comes for Maria to return to the stage for Majola Snake, her breakout play, but not in her famed role as the young Sigrid and instead as the elder boss, Helena. It’s a lot to ask an actress to put her legacy on the line and go toe-to-toe with someone else in her own part, but the role of a lifetime, literally in a sense, offers too much prestige and cash incentive for Maria to decline in lieu of some schlocky Hollywood garbage.

Clouds of Sils Maria offers a beautiful triangle of art imitating life as Maria relinquishes Sigrid to the current hot young thing, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace-Moretz), and lets herself be compared against the memory of her most iconic work. Binoche, who remains one of the best and most beautiful stars of her or any generation, utterly relishes the chance to confront the myth that age affects one’s ability to produce good art. Her multi-layered performance is a thing of beauty, for Maria often presents herself as acting a role within a role within a role as she plays an actress playing a scripted character, who in turn serves as an unscripted vehicle for her own fears and desires. Only a great actress can act while acting (but not make the acting look forced) and Clouds of Sils Maria puts Binoche in her most captivating, beguiling element.

Maria’s cultural and generational clash ignites when her script reads with Val provoke alternative character readings than those for which she is famous. Val, far closer to Sigrid’s age than Maria is, offers an intuitive and intelligent reading of the power dynamics and subtle innuendos that play out between Sigrid and Helena. Maria thus feels threatened in both art and life, for young minds are pushing her in and making her seem more antiquated, stuffy, and stiff as the very old-school thespians Maria herself replaced as a young upstart.

Clouds of Sils Maria really shifts the dynamics of art and life when the younger actor, Kristen Stewart, proves herself the revelation of the film whilst sharing the screen with one of film’s most acclaimed players. (Binoche remains the only actress to win both an Oscar and the triple crown of Best Actress triumphs at the Cannes, Berlin, and Venice film festivals.) Stewart attacks the role with thrilling lust for life as Val digs into Sigrid and Helena’s affair and sees her own dwindling relationship with Maria as a parallel to the play. Val ultimately proves herself the better actor of the two as she utterly loses herself in the role of the happy assistant and completely convinces Maria that all is well. Stewart gives a deep performance in Clouds of Sils Maria and, coupled with her moving work alongside Julianne Moore in Still Alice, makes her one of the top performing stars at TIFF this year.

Not quite as successful as proving herself the next Juliette Binoche, though, is Moretz in her spirited, if completely mechanical, performance as Jo-Ann. Moretz has a lot of fun playing the Lindsay Lohan-like flavour of the minute, but she still overdoes it, especially when cut in comparison to Stewart’s impeccably subtle feat. Her visibly secondary skill works to the film’s advantage, though, for Jo-Ann adds spunky naïveté to Clouds of Sils Maria to further the arguments that Val makes regarding age, experience, and the acting process in her debates with Maria.

This triangle of actors and arty types goes in an unexpected direction when Maria and Val finally take in the famed clouds of Sils Maria that lend their significance to the film’s title. Maria and Val take a walk through the serene, majestic Alps, but things go awry before they hit Maria Von Trapp territory and Clouds of Sils Maria opens up like the scope of the mountains as the significance of the play shifts meaning forever. The titular clouds crawl along the mountaintops like a slinky snake, beautiful yet ominous, as Assayas finds a stirring metaphor for the storm to come. Actresses, like clouds, fade and re-appear, but sometimes only for fleeting moments of beauty.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★

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