Clouds of Sils Maria (NYFF Review): An Obvious Character Study

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French director Olivier Assayas gives us an insider’s look at the life of an established actress, but lays far too many of his cards on the table.

There’s a common tendency for filmmakers to make films about, well, making films. From recent Oscar winners like The Artist, to classics likes Singing in the Rain, the movie making industry has always liked to point its lens introspectively. After all, in a business that’s all about creating an interesting story, there’s often a lot of behind-the-scenes drama.

One thing that doesn’t often get dissected, however, is the actor’s process in creating a role. We’ve seen films that show the various stages of production, the business negotiations actors have with their agents, and, of course, the media frenzy that surrounds any major movie star, yet never the work an actor must do to get into character. I suppose you could count that one plotline on Entourage where Vince desperately tries to please the director of his firefighter movie as role research, but it’s a bit of a stretch. With so much talk of method acting and stars who don’t even read the script, it’s a wonder that this aspect of filmmaking isn’t usually examined.

Clouds of Sils Maria, in that regard, is fairly original. Though the film closely relates to the 1950 classic All About Eve, it takes the idea of an actor’s journey and makes it all its own. Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, a veteran actress who’s found success in both critically acclaimed dramas and major blockbusters. While staying in the Swiss Alps, she’s offered a role in a new production of the stage play that made her famous. The only catch is that she’s now being asked to play the older woman’s role; a task that she finds increasingly daunting over the course of the film.

Joining her in the mountains is her personal assistant Val (Kristen Stewart). She’s loyal and hardworking, and seems to know Maria better than anyone. The opening scene of the film sees Val juggling calls between two different phones without a moment’s hesitation. She also does research on any potential directors or script offers that might come their way. Most importantly, the two spend a lot of time discussing Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a reckless teenage celebrity who’s taking on the younger woman’s part in the play.

Maria and Val spend a majority of the film discussing the play’s implications and rehearsing scenes together. It’s here that we see Maria’s fears and anxieties about taking on an opposing role in a show that kickstarted her career. Performance-wise, these scenes are fascinating. Binochet is a radiant presence, infusing a mostly pragmatic performance with exciting flashes of emotion. Stewart gives her usual stark, ultra-naturalistic delivery, but it works for her character very well.

The two play off each other quite nicely, using the rehearsal sequences as a chance to express their feelings and further develop their relationship. It’s one that’s very intriguing, given its simultaneously professional and personal nature. There’s even a few moments of meta-humor when the two discuss the woes of the paparazzi and TMZ, or the current state of sci-fi/superhero/fantasy blockbusters. These are clearly subjects that both actresses are familiar with.

The problem with a film like this, however, is that when so much focus is put into the meaning of a film project, it often becomes easy for the story to tell instead of show. The script, written by Assayas, doesn’t do Maria or Val any favors. We get that Maria is concerned about aging, and that Val is hindered by her willingness to give into her boss’ whims simply by watching the two have a conversation over dinner. We don’t need overly verbose scenes where the two discuss the meaning of the play and how it makes them feel in explicit detail. Had Assayas decided to go with a subtler approach, the film’s themes would’ve been wholly more effective.

Additionally, the film drags on far too long in certain parts. Moretz’ character is mentioned early on, but doesn’t actually show up until over an hour later. The scenes of Maria and Val’s practice sessions take up so much time, that by the time we get to the actual play, it’s during the film’s epilogue. This would be fine, if not for the fact that there are several side plots—Maria’s ex-lover, Jo-Ann’s scandalous affair with a married man—to distract us from the central relationship at hand. These detours in the narrative cause the film’s emotional climax to feel rather underwhelming.

Still, the untapped nature of this film makes it largely compelling. The title refers to a phenomenon called the Maloja Snake which occurs in the town of Sils Maria, where mist and fog gather to form a large snake-like formation that wades through the river. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux recreates this expertly, along with some truly gorgeous shots of the Swiss Alps. Watching Maria and Val interact in such a lush environment is visually breathtaking, especially with such intelligent performances.

Clouds of Sils Maria is certainly a unique piece of work, drawing its dramatic focus from a very specific type of relationship. Though the film is visually striking and features impressive turns from both its leads, it spells out its message far too clearly, leaving the viewers with little to ponder after the credits roll. With a tighter script and some more nuance, this could’ve been an excellent examination of starpower and artistry. Instead, it’s far too on-the-nose. Grade: B-


By Mike Papirmeister

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