'Clouds of Sils Maria': Cannes Review

 Confused lives at high altitudes.

Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz star in Olivier Assayas' competition film.

A variation on the All About Eve theme that hinges primarily on the emotional and psychological effect aging has on a vital, successful actress, Clouds of Sils Maria is an engaging, if rarefied, inside look at the private world of a star. By turns wispy and sharply dramatic, Olivier Assayas’ English-language character study benefits greatly from the magnetic and naturalistic lead performances by Juliette Binoche as the 40ish veteran, Kristen Stewart as her ever-present personal assistant and Chloe Grace Moretz as a teen sensation whose time is now. The obscure title represents a commercial problem, as it in no way suggests what the film is about, and likely mixed critical and audience reactions indicate moderate returns in specialized release despite the stellar cast.   

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The majority of the film’s two hours is devoted to scenes involving Binoche and Stewart, sometimes with others but mostly alone, so for anyone who enjoys watching these two excellent actresses knocking it back and forth as their characters cope with the myriad issues surrounding a performing career, there is much to behold. This is definitely an insider’s view, looking at things not in a salacious way but as a consideration of the way such lives are led and how past associations continue to impact decisions made in the present.   

Specifically, Assayas’ screenplay pivots on a career dilemma faced by Maria Enders (Binoche), a famous international actress -- very like Binoche herself -- who has achieved success both in serious European work and in the occasional Hollywood blockbuster (“I’m sick of hanging from wires in front of green screens,” Maria complains at the outset). She scored her breakthrough at age 18 in a film written by Wilhelm Melchior, playing the role of Sigrid, who destroys a woman twice her age, Helen, who has become obsessed with her.   

Now, Maria has been asked to play the older woman in a London stage production of the piece, a prospect that is both enticing and terrifying; playing it, of course, will make her face her aging and mortality, a fact exacerbated because Helen commits suicide at the end.   

Maria’s struggle with the decision of whether to do the play -- and, once she’s committed to it, with the changing dynamics between her and her valued assistant -- is what the film is all about, so viewers not particularly inclined to engage with the issues of a beautiful star are likely to be bored by the fine points of her agonizing. The long middle section, during which Maria and her tuned-in American assistant Val (Stewart) hike in the Alps, stay in a lovely inn and run lines endlessly, which sometimes prompt confusion over what disputes are part of the text and what might be personal arguments, is very relaxed in a dramatic sense, even if the breaking point might be coming sooner than one thinks.   

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But the arc of it all provides interesting insights into how actors choose and relate to their roles, as well as how real and fictional lives can merge and overlap. Just as palpable is Maria’s fear that, should she play the role of the vanquished Helen, she will be inviting her own demise, as an actress and perhaps as a human being.   

The opening stretch, set on a train speeding through middle Europe, effectively establishes the merged personal/professional relationship between Maria and Val, as the latter coolly fields non-stop calls on two cellphones. She clearly knows her boss so well that she can unerringly know who and what is important and offer appropriate advice. She’s a cool confidant and low-key. Maria may be a bit neurotic but not overly so, and when the Zurich public tribute to the author of the play, an event at which she’s scheduled to speak, turns into a memorial tribute due to his sudden death, she handles it with professional aplomb. 

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There are side issues with her domineering long-ago co-star, whom she disliked then and who once again comes on to her after the tribute; memories of how the actress who played Helen originally died in a car accident a year later; meetings with the stage director (Lars Eidinger) and, eventually, Maria’s meeting with Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz), the young American actress who will now play Sigrid, an adolescent she and Val have previously seen in out-of-control TMZ footage showing her being completely stupid, if also uncannily self-possessed.   

Once she shows up, Jo-Ann is disarmingly cordial and professional, suggesting the teenage hijinx are at least partially an act, a rite-of-passage that helps create a useful star mythology. All the same, she is involved in an affair with an older British boyfriend (Johnny Flynn) whose wife’s reaction to it creates severe consequences. The title refers to a phenomenon called the Maloja Snake, a meteorological occurrence sometimes visible in the Engadin Valley near the Alpine town of Sils Maria; mist and fog gather into low-lying cloud formations that move like a huge snake between the mountains, a spectacle the film offers twice, in black-and-white footage shot in 1924 by famous mountain filmmaker Arnold Fanck, and in newly made color material.   

Binoche and Stewart seem so natural and life-like that it would be tempting to suggest that they are playing characters very close to themselves. But this would also be denigrating and condescending, as if to suggest that they’re not really acting at all. Their give-and-take and the timing of their exchanges, particularly in the rehearsal sequences, is wonderfully fluid and non-theatrical; Binoche works in a more animated register, which makes Stewart’s habitual low-keyed style, which can border on the monotone, function as effectively underplayed contrast. Moretz is all high-keyed confidence.   

Given its narrow range of concerns, Clouds of Sils Maria will be mostly of interest to aficionados of theater, acting and the notion of how real and fictional lives can blur to those involved.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (in competition)
Opens: August 20 (France), Autumn 2014 (U.S.—IFC Films)
Production: CG Cinema
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn,  Brady Corbet, Hanns Zischler, Angela Winkler, Nora von Waldstatten
Director: Olivier Assayas
Screenwriter: Olivier Assayas
Producer: Charles Gillibert
Executive producer: Sylvia Barthet
Director of photography: Yorick Le Saux
Production designer: Francois Renaud Labarthe
Costume designer: Jurgen Doering
Editor: Marion Monnier
123 minutes