Clouds of Sils Maria
Directed by Olivier Assayas
Starring Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart
Opens April 10
Sils Maria is a town nestled in the Swiss Alps between two long mountain ranges. At certain times, fog rises from behind them, gathers and streams down the valley like a white airborne river. The Snake draws hardy tourists and in the case of Clouds of Sils Maria, it holds the key to a disappearance that appears to be mystical, imaginary. It represents the fog of love, a blinding force of nature.
Juliette Binoche plays Maria an A-list movie star in the town to speak at the memorial of one of her frequent film collaborators. He put her in a film twenty years earlier as a young and passionate woman in an affair with an older woman. Her character was reckless, selfish, manipulative and uncaring, and ruined her lover’s life. The film was an international hit and made her a star.
Maria is accompanied by her personal assistant Valentine played by Kristen Stewart who won the Best Supporting Actress César for her work. We’ve not seen Stewart like this; detail-oriented, smart, intuitive and able to reign in the stubborn diva that is her boss. Maria decides she can’t possibly do a thing she has promised to do, and Val smoothly, subtly delivers her without emotional outburst.
A hot new director has asked Maria to reprise the role she played all those years ago, but at the other end of the stick, as the older woman desperate and blinded by love and fooled by her young lover. Maria refuses without giving a reason but later accepts the part, even though she finds it emotionally insurmountable and too close to home. She refuses the offer.
Maria is the personification of anxiety, a walking, talking nerve shredded by the fact that she is getting older in a business where it matters, that she is alone and that she is repeating destructive patterns. Her only friend is Val and she tells her everything. They spend most of the day and night together, hiking, eating, running script lines and planning the schedule. There is more but Maria’s not talking.
Eventually she is coaxed into taking the part. The younger woman, the role she once played, has been cast. Enter Chloë Grace Moretz as Jo-Ann, a smart talking, cynical American actress who looks 12 but acts 45, and dates a married man. She completely dominates Maria and pathetic ease and beings a campaign of humiliation against her. Just as Maria did once before.
Clouds of Sils Maria is a finely crafted psychological study and thriller that operates on several levels, the here and now, the past, and the future and the way our personas shift over time around an unchanging core, like The Snake.
Assayas’ elegant disturbing and mysterious tale weaves together all the things that make us human like love and hate and sex and appetites, with elements of mysticism and the emotional and technical elements of acting. There is a lot to take in in this splendid film.
And the mountains! Assayas shoots them with awe and allows nature to rule us in so many ways. It is absolutely haunting and so psychologically adept that we see ourselves in the one we choose to follow.