By Don Simpson | April 23, 2015
Director: Olivier Assayas
Writer: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, Angela Winkler, Hanns Zischler, Nora von Waldstätten, Brady Corbet, Aljoscha Stadelmann, Claire Tran
Clouds of Sils Maria by Olivier Assayas masterfully surveys how age can inform and transform the female perspective. By pairing up a veteran actress, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), with her personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), Assayas allows the two women to [unknowingly] psychoanalyze themselves and each other by way of their polarizing interpretations of a stage play. Maria and Valentine’s “real-life” relationship becomes a reflection of the characters in the play, so much so that as they run the lines of the play, it grows increasingly unclear precisely when the rehearsal ends and the reality begins. The main differentiation is that the scripted dialogue delves into their overly dependent relationship, while the “real-life” conversations revolve around their contrary opinions on the craft of acting — Maria’s refined take on acting is classically Continental, while Valentine’s superficially pop culture views seem uniquely (and embarrassingly) American. With the introduction of Jo-Ann, Assayas digs even deeper into the differences between French and Hollywood cinema, specifically in respect to what qualities constitute a successful actress.
The very vehicle that once launched Maria’s career many years ago, the play also seems to have influenced Maria’s persona. During the course of her successful career, Maria has evolved from the free-spirited young woman of the play into the bitterly dependent older woman. Perhaps that is what prompts a hot young director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), to now cast Maria as the older woman in a modern remake of the play; though Maria would much rather reprise her breakout role in a sequel. While existentially debating whether she should accept the role, Maria is forced to confront her age, yet she remains utterly oblivious to the ways in which the decades have affected her personality. Maria’s youthful independence is long gone; success and wealth have lead her to rely all too heavily upon others, thus exponentially diminishing her freedom.
Told in three distinct parts, the narrative flow of Clouds of Sils Maria plays somewhat disjointedly. Though the opening scenes on the train are impressively constructed, the purpose gets a bit muddled in the greater scheme of things. In retrospect, it seems that the intent of those early scenes is to showcase a moment in time when Maria and Valentine worked in confluence with each other; and from that moment, their relationship begins to unspool. This could be an apt metaphor for how French cinema and Hollywood once used to share the same principles and objectives, but as Hollywood became increasingly obsessed with overblown comic book movies and other mindless popcorn fare — thus taking thespian skill out of the equation — the two cinematic hubs traveled their separate ways.