Clouds of Sils Maria
2015, R, 123 min. Directed by Olivier Assayas. Starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, Angela Winkler, Brady Corbet.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 1, 2015
Maria Enders (Binoche) is a seasoned French actress who, as Clouds of Sils Maria opens, is traveling to Zurich by train with her assistant Valentine (Stewart) to accept an award on behalf of her mentor, a writer who had given Maria her first break in a play called The Maloja Snake, which served as the young actress’ launching pad to fame. Our first introduction to the two women finds Valentine deftly juggling calls on a couple of cell phones while crouched in the corridor of the moving train, and Maria self-absorbed in her partially written acceptance speech and details of her impending divorce. Then news arrives that the honoree has suddenly died and Maria shifts into a more reflective and morose tone as it becomes clear the gathering will be more memorial than celebration. While in Zurich, Maria is approached to play the role of the older woman in a revival of The Maloja Snake, the play in which she originally performed the role of the lesbian ingenue who drives the older woman to self-obliteration. Obviously, it’s a role that Maria seems destined to play, but also one that causes her great consternation.Maria and Valentine hole up in the dead playwright’s chalet in Sils Maria, a village near St. Moritz. As Valentine runs lines with Maria, the boundaries between the fiction on the page and the present reality grow porous. Binoche performs brilliantly, shifting imperceptibly between the two dimensions, and Stewart is every inch her equal as she lends the perspective of youthful insouciance and serves as a faithful but authentic counterbalance to Maria’s self-absorption. (Stewart earned a well-deserved César, France’s equivalent to the Oscars, for her performance.) The introduction of Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz), a wild-child actress selected for the ingenue role, lends a whole other level to the refractions taking place in the film.
Clouds of Sils Maria hasn’t many plot points to chew over; its action resides in the conversations and reverberations that take place among the story’s women. Although there are shades of All About Eve here, the resonances lean more toward the fluid identities of the actresses in Ingmar Bergman’s work or even Assayas’ own Irma Vep. The nuances of the women’s interactions are a splendid thing to observe, and the beauty of these layered conversations makes the general absence of women’s unmitigated voices in film more keenly felt than ever. Assayas has a way of thrusting viewers into scenes already in progress that enhances the vibrancy of the material, and though the film might occasionally seem as distant as the Alps to some viewers, there is no getting around the thrills of these women’s verbal and emotional slaloms.