Like Oscar winner Birdman Clouds Of Sils Maria presents a wonderfully meta example of life imitating art, imitating life and so on. From director Olivier Assayas it is a film that possesses a fascinating dynamic, hugely flawed but always-loveable characters and a tone that is near impossible not to fall in love with.
The plot revolves around celebrate actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) who found fame twenty years ago playing a callous young girl in a stage play named Maloja Snake. But with a particular upheaval in Maria’s life she is offered the chance to star in the play once again, but this time in the role of the older woman who falls for her former character. Travelling to Switzerland with her personal assistant Valentine, a genuinely sublime Kristen Stewart, the pair read lines and discuss the merits of the play. Meanwhile young Hollywood tearaway Jo-Ann Ellis, a brilliantly conflicted Chloë Grace Moretz, has been cast in the young role which made Maria famous.
Taking in ideas of legacy, time and the ways in which perspective is an ever-changing entity in our lives Clouds Of Sils Maria is an immersive and captivating film. Throughout, Assayas script echoes an almost unfiltered stream of consciousness, an outpouring of existential musings on the world we occupy versus the one we remember, be it an ideal one or otherwise.
But where the film really comes to life is in the relationship between Maria and Valentine. When we first meet them there is an assumption that as her personal assistant Maria would laud a sense of power over Valentine. Such a established idea of star and minion never arises though, instead Assayas conjures something both honest, heartfelt and frequently funny in a familiarity of seeing two people utterly comfortable in each others company.
As they rehearse the play together so the lines between their theatrical characters’ relationship and their own blurs in to a kaleidoscopic spectrum of raw emotions and unspoken affections. We become a fly on the wall as their acted drama unfolds, all the while their conflicting ideas about the play and the characters within it brilliantly, and more importantly effortlessly, commenting on both themselves and the wider ideals of the world they inhabit.
Central to this idea is that Assayas co-wrote the 1985 film Rendez-Vous, the film that, in no small part, helped launch Binoche’s career thirty years ago. And it is hard not to see echoes of Stewart’s career reflected in the paparazzi harangued world Jo-Ann exists in. All this frames the film, bringing elements of smile inducing levels of almost wry winks to the audience. But this is not Birdman, yes there is ego on display but never to aggressive levels. Instead there is an ethereal quality to the film, the Swiss landscape often brimming with unpredictable weather to infect the characters.
Binoche is typically brilliant, graceful and powerful, she is the kind of character that, upon first meeting her behind Jackie Onassis sunglasses you want to dislike. But Binoche has a disarming quality to her that forces you to smile with her as Maria proves to be so much more than the clichéd Hollywood diva. What is surprising though is Stewart’s ability to not just go toe-to-toe with Binoche but frequently surpass her. As Valentine there is youthful timidness to her combined with intelligence beyond her years that while willing to express often worries it will upset the delicate balance her and Maria share. It is no wonder that Stewart, defiantly immerging from the shadow of Twilight, won a Best Supporting Cesar Award, the French equivalent to the Oscars, for her performance.
Delicate, evocative and utterly captivating, Clouds Of Sils Maria is a vibrant and complex film.