Sunday, April 12, 2015

Review: Clouds of Sils Maria

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
Funny, insightful, mysterious and, ultimately, surprising and unexpected in terms of where it ends up, "Clouds of Sils Maria" is one of acclaimed filmmaker Olivier Assayas's finest works. It's the type of film that starts off being about one thing, shifts toward other concepts and ends up in a place that might catch you off guard.

Similar to Noah Baumbach's "While We're Young," although more serious in nature, the film plays upon the idea of learning how to age gracefully by shedding notions about youth in a manner that is somewhat less graceful.

In the film, Juliette Binoche plays well-respected veteran actress Maria Enders, who is traveling with her faithful - and patient - assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) through the Alps via train to attend a ceremony in honor of her mentor, a playwright who wrote a role for her 20 years ago and made her a star.

In the play, Maria had played a young woman who seduces an older woman at their place of work, leads her on and dumps her, provoking the older woman to commit suicide.

But just as Maria and Val near their destination, Val finds out that Maria's old friend has just died and now the ceremony to honor him will act more as a commemoration. Simultaneously, a hot shot stage director has decided to put on a new production of the play, "Maloja Snake," that made Maria famous and wants her to join the cast, but this time as the older woman. He has nabbed a Lindsay Lohan-esque Hollywood starlet (Chloe Grace Moretz) with a reputation for getting into trouble as the younger woman.

The play's title refers to a natural wonder that occurs at the Maloja Pass, where warm air is transformed into mist and low-lying clouds slither up the mountain in the form of a snake. The use of this phenomenon is seen via stock footage and, later, in a mysterious sequence during which Maria and Val climb the mountain to view the "snake."

There have been numerous films made about the making of movies and plays and although Maria is an actress and most of the characters with whom she has contact work in the film or theater world, "Clouds of Sils Maria" does not feel like a movie about film- or theater-making.

And while the film appears to give nods to Ingmar Bergman's classic "Persona" or Robert Altman's "3 Women," Maria and Val never switch places in the manner the characters (might) have done in those previous films. Rather, as the two women run the lines for the play, they begin to reevaluate their relationship with one another through the material they are reciting. In other words, it is through role play that they get a clearer sense of themselves.

Binoche is great as Maria, an actress who doesn't want to admit that she is no longer the young starlet who played the vixen in "Maloja Snake" and must now resign herself to portraying the tragic, older woman. And Moretz shows a comedic talent previously unseen during sequences in which Maria watches YouTube clips of the younger actress in interviews and having run-ins with the law. Her character's later ferocity is even more surprising.

But it's Stewart, playing the voice of reason, who actually carries the film. I would say that it's the type of strong performance that due to the subtleties involved in it might not get the attention it deserves. Then again, the role nabbed Stewart the Cesar, making her the first American actress to do so.

Assayas has long been one of France's finest filmmakers. Much like Steven Soderbergh, he is open to experimentation and his body of work includes low key character pieces such as "Summer Hours" and the lovely "Late August, Early September," biographical works like "Cold Water" and "Something in the Air" and the creepy "demonlover." I believe that "Carlos," his 2010 film about the terrorist Carlos the Jackal, is his masterpiece, but "Clouds of Sils Maria" is up there with his finest work. It's the type of film that deepens in terms of what it all means the more you think it over and provides a showcase for the very talented three women at its center. It's one of the year's best so far.

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