Clouds of Sils Maria – Film Review

Clouds poster

Look it up and you’ll find that Sils Maria is a municipality in the district of Maloja in Switzerland.  For visitors, this picturesque valley is car-free; only local residents have vehicles.  It is said that when weather conditions are right, clouds form and snake their way through the Maloja mountain pass of the Alps.  It’s as though the clouds have a life of their own, grouped together, creating the appearance of some kind of giant, air-filled, ghostly monster sliding its way through the opening and over the valley where it will eventually dissipate. Those who have seen it describe it as an inspiring, majestic sight.

Clouds of Sils Maria tells of a playwright who witnessed this phenomenon and was so inspired by what he saw he wrote a play and titled it Maloja Snake.  The play had little to do with the mountainous spectacle, but for the playwright, it seemed like an apt description of his play’s theme, that of older businesswoman’s unhealthy obsession with her younger personal assistant who, you could perhaps say, had snaked her way into her employer’s life.

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When we first meet her, we learn that Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) has had a great acting career.  When she was young, her theatrical landmark role was that of the youthful assistant in Maloja Snake who eventually drove her older employer to suicide.  She was even cast in the movie version.  Now, all these years later, she’s about to star in a London revival, only this time, things for Maria are reversed; she’s now to play the older woman.  On top of the pressure of appearing in a production that has special meaning to her – in reality, the actor owes everything to this play – she’s also in the middle of a divorce, she’s said no to another superhero movie – “I’m sick of hanging from wires in front of green screens,” Maria declares – and on her way to Zurich she’s informed by her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) that the playwright responsible for starting her successful career has just died.

What makes Clouds of Sils Maria initially interesting is watching the relationship between the aging performer, Maria, and her younger assistant, Valentine, and how it echoes the relationship of the businesswoman and the younger assistant within the play.  When Maria and Valentine rehearse scenes together, the line between what the characters within the play say and their real-life counterparts becomes blurred.  As a viewer, you may even find yourself occasionally questioning whether what you’re hearing are the words of the playwright or something the two women are actually discussing.  But what makes the conflicts really interesting is the eventual introduction of a third character, the actor now cast as the younger assistant.

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Chloe Grace Moretz is rising star Jo-Ann Ellis and she’s to play the role that Maria originated all those years ago, and she’s trouble; a young Hollywood starlet constantly in the media for all the wrong reasons.  You Tube videos show interviews where she looks misty eyed and slurred of speech with only a vague knowledge of the names of those she’s working with; a DUI arrest, plus several, drunken foul-mouthed tirades against those who get in her way.  Imagine the public perception of Lindsay Lohan – a performer with talent squandered by bad behavior.   Interestingly, as a real-life footnote, at the tail end of Lohan’s negative Hollywood publicity, the performer moved to London to headline a West End play.  But despite the reckless behavior, Maria’s assistant is a fan.  “She’s got great presence,” Valentine tells her boss.

Long before the German/Swiss/French production of Clouds of Sils Maria arrived on American shores, the film had already garnered praise.  It was selected for the 2014 Cannes Film Festival along with six Cesar Award nominations, including one for its director, Olivier Assayas, and an eventual win for best supporting actress Kristen Stewart as Valentine.  Critics have also sung the film’s praises, almost unanimously, yet despite the acclaim, not to mention good performances from its three leads, audience reaction may differ.

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Interest in the trials and tribulations of an ageing actress finding herself on the opposite end of something she started years ago, plus the parallel between her real-life personal assistant and the fictional one can only go so far.  When it comes to exploring motivations and how the people with whom you are working can affect an actor’s life, industry insiders may be curious, but others with only a passing interest in the psychological torment of wealthy actors and their lifestyle may see it all as, frankly, indulgent and not as interesting as the film might consider itself to be.  Plus Clouds of Sils Maria only tells us so much regarding its own motives; the audience is required to fill in as many gaps as possible.  Not being spoon fed every piece of information is certainly a good thing, and a rarity in the cinema of today, but here it eludes.   There’s even a point as early as the midway mark where it feels as though the film is never going to end.

Plus it doesn’t help when an important character who, just like those clouds, simply disappears in the middle of a scene, never to be seen again with no explanation.  True, there’s a discussion moments before this event occurs where the person in question talks of how a character within the play vanishes, but the significance of the same thing happening to the one talking about it only adds to the overall uncertain nature of everything else in the film.

The film’s widescreen Swiss valley setting is a thing of beauty, plus that moment when we actually see the phenomenon of the clouds as they snake their way through the mountainous opening is as majestic as it sounds, but the anxieties of an aging performer in what feels like an unnecessarily overlong film with ambiguity to spare may test your staying power.  It’s not that interesting.

MPAA Rating: R      Length: 124 Minutes     Overall Rating:  5 (Out of 10)

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