CIFF Review: Clouds of Sils Maria
Wenn, FameFlynet, Richie Buxo/ Splash
Clouds of Sils Maria is French filmmaker Olivier Assayas’s new film. It stars Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloe Grace Moretz. It is about an actress, Maria (Binoche), debating whether or not to take a role in the play that made her famous, but instead of playing the young ingénue, she would now be playing the older, ostensibly pathetic character. Her assistant, Val (Stewart), helps her prepare for the role while keeping her life running smoothly. Joining Maria in the play in the role that was once hers is Jo-Ann (Moretz), a twenty-first century superstar.
I am going to say one good thing about Sils Maria and one bad thing about it. If you only want to read the good thing, just read the first half of this review. If you only want to read the bad thing, skip to the end. If, however, you can entertain two conflicting thoughts at the same time, please read the whole thing.
The acting is amazing. Much of the film is a two-hander between Binoche and Stewart and they both turn in fine performances. Binoche is compelling as Maria, a woman who has survived the fires of fame and emerged with her identity and sense of humor intact. But still, she is an actress, and ego and insecurity plague her. Binoche captures both the vulnerability of an actress who doesn’t want to be replaced by the next generation and the strength of a woman facing the reality of time. She’s precocious but not flighty, self-centered but not mean. It’s a great performance from a great actress.
And Stewart, who seemed to lose something of herself amidst the Twilight phenomenon is not only back on her game, she’s surpassing it. She’s never been better. She’s natural and absorbing on screen, and her rapport with Binoche is easy and genuine. And though there is a meta-ironic element to her performance when she talks about Jo-Ann as a survivor of tabloid culture, there’s no irony in her acting. When I wrote a career prospectus about her last year, I said she needed to pick a direction and focus on it, and for the last year she’s been working exclusively in character-driven indies, and it’s paying off. She seems to have rediscovered herself as an actress.
The movie is boring as sh*t. At the point that Val literally walks off the job, I was ready to go with her. Sils Maria uses an actress with her delicate ego to examine age and relevance, and the film has plenty to say about modern celebrity culture, but none of it is new. It’s not inventive or even interesting storytelling. At first it seems like we’re going to follow Maria through a challenging moment in her career—navigating a spiky divorce as her friend, and the person who gave her the role that made her famous, dies unexpectedly—but no. It’s just a thinly veiled allegory for aging.
Using Jo-Ann to illustrate a cultural divide—the role of the celebrity has changed so much in the last twenty years, and Jo-Ann is a twenty-first century celebrity, as entertaining off-screen as she is on—would’ve been somewhat interesting. But the culture gap between Jo-Ann and Maria is just a pretext for Maria to dislike Jo-Ann because she’s replacing her.
Actors talking about acting is not interesting (neither is writers talking about writing), and that’s what 90% of Sils Maria is. Maria and Val debate the nature of performance, Maria bemoans how difficult it is to identify with the older Helena because she still sees herself as the young and passionate Sigerd, and it goes on and on until Jo-Ann cuttingly voices the only thing anyone is thinking at that point—who the f*ck cares? Assayas, through his characters, laments “antiseptic Hollywood”, but what he’s offering is no more deep or interesting. It sucks getting old, everyone gets replaced eventually, and acting is like, totally hard you guys. Who the f*ck cares?
Attached – Binoche and Stewart at the New York Film Festival earlier this month.