film review: clouds of sils maria
Clouds of Sils Maria displays the best of what French cinema can offer – the ability to tell a multi-layered story through the leanest of means. This is not a fast paced film; it is a thoughtful, complex story that shows rather than tells its takeaway messages.
This film tells the story of a love affair – of a kind – between two women, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), an accomplished actress in her fifties and Val (Kristen Stewart), Maria’s perceptive and talented assistant. On their way to Switzerland to attend a tribute for Wilhelm Melchior, the playwright who gave Maria her first role and launched her career, Maria learns of Wilhem’s sudden and unexpected death. Whilst musing on her deceased mentor Maria speaks of her first role as a young temptress who deliberately and cruelly manipulated an older woman into falling in love with her. Subsequently Maria agrees to take part in the play that launched her into the stratosphere of film and theatre. However, this time, she will play the role of the vulnerable middle-aged woman who is entranced by the manipulative seductress.
For the bulk of the film Maria and Val rehearse lines from the play in a beautiful cottage in the Alps. An unsettling feeling of not knowing where fiction ends and reality starts slowly seeps into the film as Maria’s discomfort with playing a vulnerable older woman becomes apparent.
Juliette Binoche in this film is as exceptional as always. However, the person who shone the most in this film was Kristen Stewart. I found Stewart’s performance in the Twilight franchise to be wooden and slightly aggravating, but it seems now that she was making the best of bad source material. In Clouds of Sils Maris her reserved mannerisms are reminiscent of Bella but this time with subtle overtones. When Maria gives in to another emotional outburst Val patiently watches her, allows her time to be volatile and then gently but firmly yanks her back to the present with her dry manner.
It becomes clear that this relationship goes far beyond that of employer-employee, however it is unclear who is overstepping what boundary. During a scene where the pair go swimming, Maria unapologetically strips off and dives in, whereas Val very deliberately leaves her underwear and bra on. Modesty perhaps, or the deliberate move on Val’s part to hold something back while Maria bears her soul daily.
The film’s overarching themes of this film are the inevitability of age and the struggle of the two women to stay relevant. In an emotionally naked scene toward the conclusion of the film Maria is attempting to workshop a scene with her younger counterpart Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz). Jo-Ann dismisses Maria’s ideas with a few patronising remarks, the implication clear: no one cares what you think dear, you’re a has-been.
This clever film has a meta layer. On top of rehearsing a play within a film that had direct parallels to reality, Val expresses admiration for Jo-Ann, an actress that frequently gives the finger to the press and unapologetically lives her life as she likes. This bears a stark resemblance to how Kristen Stewart is portrayed in the media. She has been labeled many times as a sullen bitch but I tend to think she doesn’t concern herself with the opinion of the masses and instead concentrates on her craft. Amongst all the cooing over Hollywood starlets posing for the cameras, Stewart’s approach is refreshing.
Clouds of Sils Maria is a provocative and gorgeous film with excellent performances all around. Most striking – and oddly comforting – is the idea that art lives on after youth. That alone is enough of a reason to see this film. However I enjoyed this film largely for Kristen Stewart – her nuanced performance in Clouds of Sils Maria displays a honed talent that will keep developing, as Binoche’s has. A fantastic film about complexities of female friendship and the subtle art of manipulation.