'Clouds of Sils Maria'
‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ debuted to acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival last spring before touring the rest of the 2014 film festival circuit to suck up the few remaining critical accolades left. Yet the international release of the project was left dangling for almost a year, which seemed odd from the outside until I finally saw the movie.
The film comes from lauded French auteur Olivier Assayas (‘Irma Vep’, ‘Carlos‘), with a star-studded cast and an uncharacteristic pop culture focus that would at least theoretically lend it to popular acceptance generally out of reach in his work. Weirdly, ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ plays as an inferior sister movie to ‘Birdman’, dabbling in almost all the same concepts and ideas in a abstract European art film manner that, ironically, shows what a good movie Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Oscar-sweeper truly was. Say what you will about the bombastic dick-swinging of ‘Birdman’, at least that movie knows what it is.
Juliette Binoche stars as Maria Enders, a famous French actress who is aging ever so slightly out of her prime and is forever on the edge of a nervous breakdown. She opens the movie on a train ride to an awards ceremony honoring the playwright/director who provided her first big break. Between turning down the opportunity to reprise her role in an ‘X-Men’ sequel and bantering with her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart, yes that one), Maria learns that the man she’s about to honor has died. That immediately shoves her into an existential funk about her own mortality that is complicated further when she’s asked to appear in the very play that launched her career.
That play was about a painful love affair between a fragile older woman and fiery young manipulative woman. This time, she’ll obviously play the older part while a controversial Linsay Lohan-like starlet (played by the far more stable Chloe Grace Moretz) will take the role that once made Maria a star. From there, things get even more meta when Maria and Valentine head off to a cabin to prepare for the play, and their own creepily co-dependent relationship starts mirroring the script that they rehearse each day.
There’s a great deal to like about Assayas’s latest venture, even if it plays more like a notebook’s worth of ideas floating around in the writer/director’s head searching for a purpose than a polished final draft. Everything is oh-so-meta. The movie is about an artist struggling to come to terms with aging and a pop culture landscape shifting beneath her rarified feet, and it’s been made by a pair of aging artists (Assayas and Binoche) who are very much in the same position. Between his comments on the struggle of accepting mortality when wrinkles arrive, tacky superhero blockbusters (which is really becoming a tiresome satirical focus for “serious” filmmakers), invasive tabloid culture, the fragility of fame, unrequited love, and the thin line between life and art, Assayas finds plenty of room for abstract visual storytelling and opaque symbolism to further complicate a simple story.
The filmmaker has never been one to spoonfeed his intentions to an audience, but ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ really stretches the balance of ambiguity versus unfocused fragmentation to the limits. As usual, the director leaves many blanks for smartypants viewers to fill in for themselves. However, this time it’s hard to tell whether he actually knows what he’s aiming for. His ambiguity can often feel like a lazy crutch rather than an invitation for viewers to make his art their own.
While the overstuffed movie might strain itself at the seams, the core of ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ is a two-hander character piece with remarkable central performances. At this point, Binoche is a practically a Meryl Streep-like institution who can seemingly do everything as an actress. It’s no particular shock that her outer charisma and inner depth combine to form a fascinating character easy to love and impossible to understand. She fearlessly dives into a role that seemingly picks at her own insecurities and emerges with another wonderfully tragically flawed character to add to her résumé.
Surprisingly, Kristen Stewart proves to be an acting equal in their sparring matches, delivering her own character that is just as wounded and enchanting in her own unique way. Stewart takes everything Binoche throws at her and hits back with an assured performance that miraculously contains none of her trademark lip-biting. Watching the two actresses play together in roles that demand they inflate and destroy each other in equal measure is a genuine pleasure.
It’s a pleasure that Assayas clearly got lost in on the set himself. The middle act of the film, which is dedicated to Binoche and Stewart’s relationship, bloats the running time and dominates to the movie, diminishing whatever other themes, plot points and ideas the filmmaker intended to explore elsewhere in the process. As a result, ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ is a good movie anchored by a pair of great performances rather than a satisfying whole. That still makes it a more than worthy watch. You just can’t help but wonder how much stronger the film might have been had Assayas been as on-point as his remarkable leading ladies.