52nd New York Film Festival Review: ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’

Written & Directed by Oliver Assayas
Starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart & Chloë Grace Moretz

Some movies are self-aware. ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ is beautifully self-aware. It stars Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in powerfully meta-roles and might be my favorite film to emerge from the festival. It’s directed by Olivier Assayas, who blends his characters with his actors, a resourceful if not fascinating overlap that slowly unpacks its rich themes of aging, celebrity and cultural perception.

In this way it’s similar to another festival favorite, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, but it’s lost all of that movie’s cynicism. Instead of playing Julianne Moore’s sleazy, narcissistic, fading thespian, Binoche plays Maria, an actress confronting her fading identity almost spiritually. Along with her personal assistant Val (Stewart), she goes to Zurich to attend a posthumous retrospective of Wilhelm Melchior, the writer responsible for supplying her first break in a play called Maloja Snake. That was twenty years ago, playing Sigrid, a young assistant, who romantically entraps an older woman Helena. During the press tour, a famous director offers her a role in his on-stage revival. This time she is to play Helena.

clouds-of-sils-maria-posterSigrid is given to a young, scandalous starlet named Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz), whose latest project is a superhero sci-fi movie. This provides some thematic backdrop and a springboard for commentary. Maria and Val rehearse in Wilhelm’s old home in the Alps, constantly confusing themselves with the characters they’re reading. They go to see Jo-Ann’s movie and Val begins defending the popcorn fare Maria is quick to dismiss. It’s really Assayas giving Stewart a platform to protect her Twilight movies, the teen attraction that garnered critical scoffs. “It’s daring. She goes deep into a darker side,” say Val about Jo-Ann’s character. Stewart is guarding the sincerity she gave to her own archetype in Bella.

If this isn’t quite as transparent, Assayas adds another window of clarity. A simple Google search yields Jo-Ann’s scandals and poor public behavior. Later Jo-Ann becomes involved in an affair between an established husband and wife. It’s almost too blatant. “You never forget you’re watching these actresses,” said Assayas at the screening’s press conference. Binoche, Stewart, and Moretz become a kaleidoscope of people jumbled with their characters, fluidly being mixed and matched.

Indeed Clouds of Sils Maria revels in its critiques and playful identities. But this movie aims higher than tongue-in-cheek humor. It’s subversive. Assayas directly confronts the American movies that rarely explore the ambiguities of their characters. Maria and Val exist in states of charming cohesion but explore their dissonance in age and perspective. Maria interprets Helena one way. Val offers her own interpretation. All this takes place above the snake of clouds that rolls through their cavernous, breathtaking isolation.

You don’t see many movies where two women just talk to each other. Their discussions aren’t about men or sex or superficial chatter. They’re focused on understanding the characters they read, the lives they take away from them. Is Sigrid just a seductive, vapid bitch? Is Helena an expiring nostalgic losing her talent? Somewhere between the film’s two acts and epilogue, these questions stop becoming relevant for the real actors.

Assayas has created something beautiful, and in effect timeless, ironically, for a movie so worried about those qualities. Near the end, Maria gets offered a movie role that lets her escape the shackles to which has been existentially chained. “To excel and to know how to show it is to excel twice,” she quotes Baltasar Gracian to the director. She’s meditating on the inescapable contemporary culture while reconciling her past. Binoche gets this movie’s brilliant last shot, right as the play begins. But it’s too late. You’re all ready to jump up and applaud.

Jake Kring-Schreifels

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