TIFF 2014: Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
Greatly influenced by Arnold Fanck, pioneer of the mountain film genre, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and his film, “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.” Oliver Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria” can’t help but keep its glamourized mindset floating amongst the thin, cool, moist air. Whether it’s the altitude, a life of fame, or a last-ditch attempt at recapturing dissipated youth, the fleeting, ungraspable nature of the film’s gaseous metaphor leaves little to sink one’s teeth into. That’s not to say there isn’t redemptive qualities about having one’s head in the clouds, literally and figuratively.
The Swiss Alps, ripe with greenery and dusted with snow at their dizzying peaks, provide a heavenly backdrop for this supremely meta drama. Yet, the promise of a Maloja Snake, the result of ideal atmospheric conditions, clouds drifting north from Italy and slithering their way through the distant mountain scape is the scenic treasure we, along with our leading ladies, can’t help but ache for.
We arrive at the remote, sparsely populated town of Sils Maria via a spectacular train ride through central Europe’s vistas and some fine vehicular maneuvering brought on by our heroine, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her passionate assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart). Enders, a well-renowned actor, has dragged her lovely and devout second in command Valentine to the middle of nowhere to accept a rather prestigious award on behalf of Wilhelm Melchior, the author/director who’s play had a significant role in launching Maria’s career when she was 18.
We’re now 20 years down the road from her big break and Enders is dealing with a rough divorce, a tragic loss, and an up-and-coming co-star (Chloe Grace Moretz). All whilst struggling to grasp the opposing role in a reimagining of the same play from her youth that landed her in the spotlight. Alienating herself in Sils Maria to rehearse with her assistant, Enders inability to comprehend and execute her latest part slowly dissolves everything around her.
“Clouds of Sils Maria’s” intertwining narrative is a tough code to crack. Touching on a slew of themes with relevance to both the lives of the film’s characters and the actors who portray them (Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz). This makes it exceedingly nerve-wracking to decipher the film in its entirety upon a single viewing. It’s quite easy to see that Assayas’ intentions were to infuse a sense of realism into his characters, a sort of funhouse reflecting multiple vantage points on age, immediacy, choices, power…and he achieves a level of theatrical meaning and importance unlike anything I’ve witnessed.
In addition to the intersecting paths of Assayas’ characters and cast, the dialogue between Maria and Valentine rapidly shifts from rehearsal of Binoche’s character’s source material, which the two constantly run-through, and genuine, wholehearted conversations…seamlessly I might add. These prolonged isolated interactions Maria and Valentine find themselves in often descend into visceral altercations, envy, and sexual meddling, curiosity on Maria’s behalf, akin to that of the two characters in Enders’ source material, making the origins of their discussions almost indecipherable.
Typically, a film of such self-reference and intertextuality would be better off leaving hints, subtle clues throughout to assist the viewer in the process of decoding. Yet “Clouds of Sils Maria” benefits greatly from the shroud of mystery and is surprisingly quite rewarding, like the satisfaction that accompanies the solving of an intellectual recreation puzzle. Assayas does a phenomenal job structuring and carrying through his latest as the experience will greatly attest.
The uncanny similarities between the cast and their characters makes it relatively easy for the ensemble to invest, explore, and portray their respective roles. Chloe Grace Moretz, a serious talent with an extremely bright future, does what she can in the limited screen time given. She adds a much-needed comedic element to a rather bleak, intentionally monotonous picture. Not to mention the hilarious, yet oddly depressing connection to modern starlets.
Juliette Binoche is everything Assayas could’ve hoped for when scribing the role of Maria Enders. She’s encompassing, stunning, complex, and there’s rarely a moment when she doesn’t command the screen. Her character might not demand that significant of a stretch, but there’s no room for error. If a hint of disingenuousness or indifference seeped, the rest of the film would crumble. Thankfully this is not the case.
With little hesitation I conclude that Kristen Stewart’s performance in “Clouds of Sils Maria” is a career-best, ‘On the Road’ being the only evidence to the contrary. Stewart has always chosen interesting, emotionally driven roles and that doesn’t change. As she matures, Stewart has ditched the mannerisms that plagued her early on and has really become comfortable acting outside of the ‘Twilight’ series. With Valentine, there isn’t much on the surface, but there is a hurricane under the skin. Clearly producing the stoic surface and hidden treasures of emotional vulnerability and honesty, Stewart is brilliantly transparent.
Easy on the eyes yet incredibly intricate, Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria” is beneficiary of strong performances and striking panoramic views…
Clouds of Sils Maria: 9 out of 10.