Clouds of Sils Maria is an interesting and intimate film about an aging actress who must grapple with a potentially emotional offer and the fact that she is no longer young. Maria (Juliette Binoche) has been offered a role in the play she was cast in decades before that made her a star, called Maloja Snake. Only this time instead of playing the youthful and powerful Sigrid, as she did the first time, she must not play the older and weakened Helena, whom Sigrid seduces and eventually drives to suicide. Maria’s young assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) thinks she should do it while helping Maria cope with the death of the playwright who wrote the original play and cast her in the film adaptation.
I saw this movie on a whim and while I’m happy I did, it took me a while to really digest the film and get a good understanding of what it was about. The story is a simple one; it’s really just watching a actor get ready for a role that they have serious misgivings about. Maria, channeling the ghost of Sigrid, hates Helena and hates the idea of playing Helena. For the most part Maria has handled her aging and the changing nature of Hollywood well; she’s even starred in a big budget superhero movie (as many older and respectable actors have of late). But her revulsion of Helena is interesting and fun to watch. Even though it’s a fictional character talking about an even more fictional character, the years of a weird meta relationship between Maria and the characters of the play are really well done. Her relationship with Valentine is also very interesting. These are two women from very different age groups and social classes and yet they have a very real and dynamic relationship. They have good times and they have bad times and it all feels true and strong. This is a friendship that has been built through work and play and that has persevered past being just an employer/employee relationship. You don’t often get female friends as the center of a movie, much less one where one is in her 20s and the other in her 50s (40s maybe) and that unique dynamic greatly improves this film. Watching them argue about the original movie version of Maloja Snake or the virtues of superhero movies is fun and revealing. I like that Maria might just be a little too old and set in her ways for her to really get what Valentine is trying to tell her while Valentine is just a tad to young to truly convey her feelings and viewpoints on cinema.
In a movie like this, the actors have to do all the work and they really kill it. Juliette Binoche is great. Obviously. I’m not surprising anybody by saying that. I don’t know if it’s difficult or easier for an actor to play an actor, but she nails it. She channels the emotional spectrum a woman like Maria must feel after loosing the man who made her career and being asked to come back to a story she thought she was done with. Binoche slips between public acting, like when she is out in a hotel and paparazzi are taking pictures of her, and the more private Maria who is still just a person. It’s a remarkable switch and it’s all the weirder when you realize it’s an actress playing an actress playing a role.
So look, I only ever saw Kristen Stewart in a couple of the Twilight films and didn’t think much of her. I don’t blame her for the role of Bella, the role is what it is, but I also kind of just skipped over her in my head. I may have made a mistake because she is fantastic in this film. She bubbles with energy and life in a way that only young adults can. Her character has a great combination of maturity and immaturity that plays well off of Binoche’s Maria. Much of the middle part of the film involves the two of them reading lines from the play back and forth and watching Stewart act the part of an assistant who isn’t an actress acting is great. She holds her own with Binoche throughout the film. All of a sudden, I’m a Kristen Stewart fan.
While those two are the main characters, Chloë Grace Moretz plays the hot young actress who will become the new Sigrid and she is good as well. She’s not in the film nearly as much as the other two but she’s great when she is. The movie adds a subplot for her and her boyfriend whom I guess serves to throw more chaos into the film, but I was underwhelmed by it. The ending of the movie is a little disjointed I think, but the final shot is a great one. It conveys the idea that time passes us all by really well. And that’s what I think the film is really about. You could watch it and think that it’s attacking the Hollywood of today, that it’s pining for a bygone era of film when sophisticated actors like Juliette Binoche and Maria Enders ruled the box office and pop culture scene, but I don’t think its really about that; partly because that era probably never really existed. It’s much more about the mere fact that things change. Maria is older; the world is no longer solely hers. Other people have come up in the world with their own visions and sense of what cinema and art are. Near the end of the film she tells a young director who wants her to star in his android, cybernetic action film about the nature of man and humanity that it’s simply not for her, that she doesn’t get it and that’s true. I don’t’ think that’s such a bad thing and I don’t’ think the movie thinks it is such a bad thing either.
Next Movie: Mad Max (2015)
Next Book: Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie