“The 123 minute film asks a lot of interesting questions about art and the societal viewpoints which surround it, but [writer/director Olivier] Assayas’ screenplay mistakes the open-ended nature of these queries with unshaped writing.”
by Ken Bakely
Twenty years ago, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) ignited the global acting scene after garnering widespread fame after portraying the lead role in Maloja Snake, a play by acclaimed Swiss writer Wilhelm Melchior. These days, Maria has a prolific career under her belt. She is world renowned, and travels with her young American assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart). Right after the unexpected death of its author, a major revival of Maloja Snake is about to open in London, but this time, Maria is playing a much older character, and feels conflicted about how her aging is being presented in such an upfront way. Confined to Wilhelm’s estate in the small mountain village of Sils Maria, the script is studied anew, as Maria learns a new role, with Val as her scene partner. After learning that on stage, she will be acting opposite a 19-year-old scandal-ridden blockbuster star (Chloë Grace Moretz), Maria becomes erratically focused on the evolution of global popular culture and the passage of time in general – and in the process, the dynamics of her relationship with Val begin to destabilize at an alarming rate.
This is the setup of Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, which is a stark, brilliantly acted piece of cinema, but also one which has trouble deciding between the ideals of small-scale contemplation and frantic soap opera. The 123 minute film asks a lot of interesting questions about art and the societal viewpoints which surround it, but Assayas’ screenplay mistakes the open-ended nature of these queries with unshaped writing, leaving its characters suspended in the middle of a proverbial scene (or for one particular character, literally). However, ample material is provided for the film’s actors – Juliette Binoche’s interpretation of Maria is fully developed but oblique, as the scars of a lengthy career in show business hide beneath the surface. Kristen Stewart shines as the bold, driven Val. The line between professional frustration and emotional fragility becomes increasingly blurred with a freewheeling showing, further proof that Stewart’s wooden acting in the Twilight movies was the fault of shallow writing rather than a lack of acting prowess. She and Binoche have wonderfully sophisticated and complex chemistry, the two shining, central beacons around Assayas’ philosophically inclined but thematically underrun tale. There’s nothing wrong with a reluctance to detonate the screen or shower the audience with metaphorical fire, but problems of both stylistic and emblematic varieties arise when one’s allocated range seems oddly limited to begin with.