Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
Editor’s Note: The following review is a re-print from our coverage of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Clouds of Sils Maria opens in limited release this Friday, April 10th.
With Clouds of Sils Maria, the Official Competition featured another film that can be described as a backstage drama, looking behind the scenes of the film business through the eyes of the aging Hollywood actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her personal assistant Val (Kristen Stewart). Twenty years after her breakthrough role in “Maloja Snake”, a film based on a play by Wilhelm Melchior, Maria is offered a part in the staged revival of that said film. While she once portrayed the young, seducing Sigrid who eventually drives her boss Helena into suicide after abandoning her, she is now supposed to appear as Helena, the older woman who falls for the alluring Sigrid. At first skeptical, she accepts the offer and departs to the striking but remote mountainside of Sils Maria to rehearse with her assistant.
In the director’s notes of the press release, Assayas raises the question of Maria’s personality: “Is Maria Enders the young girl who once played Sigrid in Wilhelm Melchior’s film, is she the adult, the mature woman that other people see her as being; or perhaps is she still one of the characters she embodied (…)?” Clouds of Sils Maria explores the answer to this question by presenting Maria with her opponents more similar to Sigrid; on the one hand her close assistant Val and on the other hand the scandalous Hollywood actress Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz) chosen for the role of Sigrid.
Although Stewart’s facial expressions are often limited to the occasional stares including the typical lip-biting, she nevertheless shines in quite a number of scenes, proving that this role could be one of her best so far.
At first Maria is convinced that she is capable of once again transforming into Sigrid because she believes that she is still the same person. She slowly comes to realize however, that with time passing by, the world, in particular the industry, has changed around her and she has also grown as a human being. This is especially highlighted by contrasting her character with Jo-Ann, the rebellious Hollywood newcomer, defined by the media in terms of her scandals and impulsive behavior accessible to the whole world on the Internet.
Maria’s change is also further emphasized when she is rehearsing the script in Sils Maria with Val reading out and playing Sigrid’s part. Since Maria is still reluctant regarding her character’s meaning, her assistant pushes her boss into accepting and understanding the importance of both characters. Through their various interactions it becomes clear that, consciously or unconsciously, each of them embodies the figures of the play. Therefore, their staged and actual dialogues intertwine into a blur, challenging the audience to unravel the character’s actual thoughts on the subject matter. Assayas’s thoughtful script plays with fact and fiction and often opens a rehearsal scene in the middle of an ongoing dialogue, making it more difficult to figure out whether or not this is a scene between Maria and Val or Helena and Sigrid.
Although Stewart’s facial expressions are often limited to the occasional stares including the typical lip-biting, she nevertheless shines in quite a number of scenes, proving that this role could be one of her best so far. This can mainly be seen in the scenes where she faces and challenges Binoche’s character and turns their encounters into lively conversations and discussions about the nature of human beings and life itself. Some of their interactions also feature interesting discussions on the film industry and the behavior of certain celebrities. With Val’s cultural comments it almost feels as if Assayas’s script refers to Stewart’s own personality in a way. In one of the scenes, Val discusses blockbuster movies and defends the work of Jo-Ann when Maria criticizes the films she had been acting in. It seems like Stewart is justifying her own engagement with the Twilight Saga, which is again picked up in a comment about the fact that teenage films and blockbusters seem to be obsessed with the unnecessary werewolf plots, another hint related to Twilight. In addition to this, Clouds of Sils Maria mentions the scandalous life of newcomer Jo-Ann by including a subplot related to her affair with a married man. This could also be seen as another reference to, not necessarily just Stewart, but the hardships and consequences of actors and actresses living in the spotlight of public life.
Clouds of Sils Maria offers a general behind the scenes point of view of the business by exploring the preparation and rehearsal period for a role, the overlap of fact and fiction as well as providing a number of cultural references made by the characters working in the industry.
At times a bit monotonous, Clouds of Sils Maria is carried by the performances of Binoche and Stewart during their rehearsal exchanges and the smart and thoughtful script of Assayas.