Mark Reviews Movies

Clouds of Sils Maria


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Olivier Assayas

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, Brady Corbet, Angela Winkler, Hanns Zischler, Nora von Waldstätten

MPAA Rating: R (for language and brief graphic nudity)

Running Time: 2:04

Release Date: 4/10/15 (limited); 4/17/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 16, 2015

When the conditions are right, the clouds travel through the Maloja mountain pass of the Swiss Alps in a straight line. The formation looks like a snake. In Clouds of Sils Maria, a famous playwright was enraptured by the sight. He wrote a play titled after the phenomenon of the "Maloja Snake." The actress who originated one of the play's two main roles—and later went on to star in the movie version that was adapted and directed by the playwright—spends a lot of time at the house where the writer lived to be close to his favorite sight. There, her life starts to become similar to certain parts of the play, just as she's preparing to play the role opposite of the one that made her famous.

There is a lot to take in throughout writer/director Olivier Assayas' story about an actress who must deal with unexpected grief, the inevitability of aging, the strange path her career has taken and continues to take, and preparing for a role that she hates because it hits a little close to home. That's just the core of the movie, which also deals with Hollywood's obsession with superheroes, the media's fascination with celebrity gossip, the shallowness of individuals in the entertainment industry, and the difference—if any—between what people consider to be high and low forms of art.

That doesn't even take into account that a character randomly disappears in the middle of a shot, never to be seen, heard from, or mentioned again. Even that move is foretold by a discussion about the play, in which a character's fate is ambiguous. One person believes the character killed herself, while the other imagines that she simply abandoned her life to find happiness. As for what happens in the middle of aforementioned shot, that is anyone's guess.

It's little surprise that Assayas' screenplay features at least three conversations that directly or indirectly deal with the issue of subtext—that unhelpful and oft-confused term, which basically means that any two people can see the same work of art and that both can come up with two completely different opinions as to the art's "meaning." These dialogues are a clue—in the same way that a slap upside the head is a "clue." Clouds of Sils Maria is effectively a subtext-generating machine. Every layer and point of self-reference serves as a reminder that it's upon the audience to discern significance from the material.

This is a movie that has a little bit to say on a lot of subjects. Assayas expects us to fill in the blanks as to what it all "means."

There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach. If only more filmmakers were bold enough to embrace even a little bit of mystery in their work, we wouldn't need to debate the purpose of ambiguity and the merits of answers that aren't concrete. The central question is if the movie brings us to a point of reflection on its subject, characters, and story that goes beyond the bubble of the movie itself. Here, it's a bit of a toss-up.

At the start of the movie, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a world-renowned actress of stage and screen, is on her way to Zurich to accept an award for the playwright who gave her career its beginning. She's in the middle of a messy divorce. She has turned down the opportunity to appear in the next installment of a superhero franchise. Her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) informs her that the playwright has died.

At this point, Assayas uses simple fades to juxtapose Maria's grieving process, which is hindered by a scheduled photo shoot and hobnobbing with industry folks at the ceremony-turned-memorial, with that of the writer's widow (Angela Winkler), who must identify her husband's body and return to an empty house. Meanwhile, a talented director (Lars Eidinger) wants Maria to play the older woman in the writer's play opposite of Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a rising star with a history of drug use and violence. Maria hates gossip, but she can't help herself but to look up the starlet online.

Until a lengthy epilogue, the rest of the movie follows Maria as she runs lines with Valentine in and around the writer's home. The play, by the way, is about an older woman who becomes attracted to and is destroyed by her lust for her younger personal assistant, although there's some debate as to the latter part.

There are shades of that relationship in Maria's bond to Valentine, although perhaps without the physical attraction—or maybe Maria hides it well. The two women debate the characters and the meaning of the play, and we suspect that they're talking about themselves—sometimes because they say so outright and other times because it feels that way. It helps immensely that these are two very fine performances, with Binoche playing a woman desperate for affirmation and Stewart gradually coming to realize that she cannot provide it.

Is there more to Clouds of Sils Maria? Yes, there is, and no, there isn't. As is always the case, what we see and hear is what we get, but Assayas constantly suggests that a deeper meaning lies beneath the external. We can sense it there, but ultimately, it eludes.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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