Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Clouds of Sils Maria slowly matures into its own confident work, backed by two exceptional lead performances. Juliette Binoche plays the main protagonist as a woman marked by a battle with her own past, while Kristen Stewart plays her young assistant that manages not only her daily tasks, but also her emotional distress and personal struggles. They form a striking friendship that informs the film’s confusingly dazzling narrative, one that navigates artistry and its influence on one’s personal life as well as their professional evolution. The dialogue is the most challenging part of the film: scenes that feel like genuine arguments between characters turn out to be characters rehearsing from a script, while others scream authenticity despite the expectation that they’ll turn out to be fake. Writer-director Olivier Assayas infuses the film with a keen, touching eye at the aging spotlight for women in acting, drawing on obvious inspirations like Mulholland Dr. and Syencdoche, New York. While Clouds of Sils Maria does not reach those levels of profound realization, it observes the life of its protagonists keenly and with gentility. Binoche and Stewart are sensational.
The film focuses on Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche, best known to American actors for her recent appearances in Godzilla and Words and Pictures), an aging actress that has not found proper roles in a world that dismisses women of a certain age. She struggles with offers for films that she has no interest in, mainly blockbusters that favor special effects over story and could care less about avoiding clichés if it still meant making a big chunk of change. She’s not wrong, but she also sounds like the typical elder complaining about the new age materials. Nonetheless, she is offered a role in a reboot of a play that catapulted her career twenty years earlier, this time taking on the older role while a troublesome, talented young actress named Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) steps into her old shoes. Maria’s assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), is overwhelmed with demands for Maria to speak at a late playwright’s event, in addition to Maria’s needy nature and her desire for perfection in her work.
Assayas directs the film with delicacy, often lingering on characters for their full emotional reactions. Stewart is the subject of many of these moments, reacting to Maria’s insecurities as she externalizes them onto Valentine’s dialogue and makes her feel like she’s being insulted. It makes for some riveting scenes, even if they sometimes feel forced from Maria; perhaps that’s intentional considering Maria’s fragility. Both women like to get drunk, a lot, and smoke as if their lungs can’t stand fresh air. They also combat each other often in their words, with Valentine often defending Jo-Ann’s wild public antics while Maria cannot stand her personality and how little she seems to care for the craft. There’s a sense of high class surrounding stage acting that is undoubtedly an old blood feel, but it also testifies to the personal connection Maria feels with her character. The on-stage persona, after all, commits suicide at the end of the play. Does Maria have the same fate? That mirroring of art and life is one of the many affecting traits of Clouds of Sils Maria, and helps the film triumph over its occasional dramatic hiccups.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)