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Clouds of Sils Maria [AFI Fest 2014]

IFC Films // Unrated // March 27, 2015
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Fandango]

Review by Jeff Nelson | posted November 15, 2014 | E-mail the Author


Regardless of whether or not we're willing to accept it, we're all getting older by the day. One moment, we're an eighteen-year-old with our entire life ahead of us, and the next, we're a forty-year-old with responsibilities. Getting old is a very serious fear that many people have around the world, as many refuse to accept it, and cling to a youth that has left them. This is one of the many complex issues discussed in Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria. Many filmmakers have tackled such subject matter, but only a few are able to successfully interpret this very real fear on the silver screen, or in the case of the picture's context, on the stage.

At the peak of her internationally successful acting career, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is asked by a highly acclaimed director to accept the part in the very same play that originally made her famous. At the early age of eighteen, she played Sigrid, a destructive youth that takes advantage of an older woman named Helena, which drives her to suicide. Now, she's being asked to play the part of Helena, while tabloid queen Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloƫ Grace Moritz) plays Sigrid. Retreating to a remote region of the Alps, she begins to rehearse with assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart). Taking upon this role proves to be more destructive than ever imagined.

While Maria is traveling in order to attend a celebration of Wilhelm Melchior (Valery Bukreev), she hears news of his passing. This sends ripples throughout the industry, as he was seen as revolutionary to many. This brings about many unwanted memories for Maria. Writer/director Olivier Assayas' screenplay is broken into two acts and an epilogue, making it feel very much like a play of its own. Part one primarily focuses on Maria's hesitation to take upon the role of Helena. She doesn't identify with the older woman, who she believes is being subjected to weaknesses that she cannot portray. However, even Valentine sees a strength in Helena's weaknesses, as everybody around Helena attempts to convince her of the role that could be a "once in a lifetime" opportunity. The more that we come to understand Maria, the more it's apparent that she's the absolute personification of Helena. As she continues to read the lines, audiences witness a more vulnerable side of this lead character that hasn't been seen previously. She clings to the youth that she once had, particularly expressed by her interactions with Valentine, although there's a certain display of emotion that makes her so relatable. Clouds of Sils Maria is a film that not only places a mirror in front of Maria, but in front of the audience, as well.

The majority of part two takes place in the Alps, as Maria prepares for the role. However, her concerns about not playing Sigrid are only elevated when she hears about Jo-Ann Ellis' mainstream career in superhero films, and her reckless behavior in the tabloids. By this point, it's clear that the relationship to the text is everything. This play has the power to bring people together, as well as rip them apart. Clouds of Sils Maria does more than discuss the connection between age and maturity, but it's also a conversation piece about the media. Maria very much represents the older generation, while Valentine is the new. They discuss the Internet, modern mainstream filmmaking, and other highly popularized items in our society, causing us to question our own stance on the issues that they speak of. The times are changing right before our eyes with the introduction of new technologies and styles of media, so how does that affect the generations to come? It's a constant theme that's explored through Valentine's constant attachment to two cell phones as Maria's assistant, Jo-Ann's consistent appearance in the tabloids, and so much more. It truly makes for a fascinating look at various perspectives of the media, as nearly every character has no problem when it comes to speaking their mind.

For some, it may be a tad slow, and maybe even a little bit pretentious. Such comments will come from the picture's "talky" nature, which just might be too much for some. While there are a few scenes towards the end that could have been pulled a bit tighter, Clouds of Sils Maria remains quite captivating throughout the entire running time. Tension continues to build between Helena and those around her, such as Valentine and Jo-Ann. Yet, it isn't until she meets new filmmaker Piers Roaldsen (Brady Corbet) that her perspective truly comes to be. This is a realized piece of filmmaking that has concise messages and themes, which are all chaotically circling around Maria. It's as if we're in in the eye of the storm, as we watch an insane amount of destruction occur around us. The final act successfully ties it all together, which allows for this journey to feel much more impactful.

If you know who Juliette Binoche is, then you know about her dynamic range. Well, it most certainly hasn't been lost in the role of Maria Enders. In fact, it's in full effect here. This is a powerful performance that makes us believe in the character's tribulations. Kristen Stewart is captivating as Maria's assistant, Valentine. This just might be her most sincere performance to date, as she truly immerses us in this world. Her readings with Binoche are absolutely tense, only further enforcing the film's themes. The role of Jo-Ann Ellis is a very different one for Chloƫ Grace Moretz. After being so "hit and miss" over the years, it's great to see her playing a completely different character. She's entirely fitting here, as we're constantly made uncomfortable by her manipulative and explosive ways. This is a powerful trio of female performances that manage to hit the nail right on the head. It's nearly impossible to watch Binoche, Stewart, and Moretz without becoming hypnotized by their performances.

Assayas has a very particular style that illuminates Clouds of Sils Maria in the best way possible. There's a constant shift in the color palette, which lends to an ever-evolving story that acts very much like a play. A film that starts with a blue tone progressively becomes more yellow as time goes on. It continues to evolve throughout the picture's duration. This is only further enforced by the decision to utilize slow fades throughout the picture, giving the illusion of a stage play's dimming of the lights in order to move into the next scene. Yet, the picture has such a phenomenal sense of movement. Not long after hearing the news about Wilhelm, Maria is in the car with a storm of emotions raging in her head. The scene is shot from outside of the car, as the reflection of tree branches and other objects move horizontally across it, giving the sequence not only movement, but drama. Writer/director Olivier Assayas has a unique style of filmmaking that proves to be entirely captivating.

It seems to be increasingly difficult to find filmmaking that successfully captures the fear of aging, which is certainly a reality for many people around the world. This is a universal problem that affects everybody, and most filmmakers fail to handle the subject matter appropriately. Fortunately, writer/director Olivier Assayas has created something truly worthwhile. Told in the structure of a play, this is a film that approaches its themes with respect and intelligence. The well-written script is elevated by brilliant performances by Binoche, Stewart, and Moretz. This film can best be described as Brady Corbet puts it as Piers Roaldson, as being outside of time. Clouds of Sils Maria is transcendent in its grasp of humanity and perspective. Highly recommended!

Clouds of Sils Maria played at AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi on November 7 and November 12.


C O N T E N T

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Highly Recommended

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