Sunday, 10 May 2015


Pinnacle Films

The female yin to Alejandro G. Inarritu's Oscar-winning yang, Birdman, Olivier Assayas takes a look at the ageing actor's lot from the female perspective -- and in the very beautiful visage of Juliette Binoche -- in Clouds of Sils Maria.

Binoche plays Maria Enders, an acclaimed French actress who got her break in the theatre 20-odd years ago in the stageplay, Maloja Snake, by Wilhelm Melchior; playing a young chanteuse, Sigrid, who seduces her older female employer.

It's while on a train to Switzerland and a tribute for said playwright, that we first meet Maria and learn of Wilhelm's death. But the show must go on, as they say, and so insists Valentine (Kristen Stewart), Maria's personal assistant, handler and confidant. Far less acerbic and combative than Emma Stone in Birdman, Valentine is Maria's conduit to 21st century life: social media, Hollywood, and the hottest talent in front of and behind the camera.

That includes Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), a European stage director who is planning a new production of Maloja Snake and who wants very much for Maria to be involved; this time playing the elder role of Helena. For various reasons, including her mentor's recent death and, of course, vanity -- she is no longer the younger woman -- Maria's not-so keen.

But Valentine insists, and Klaus is persuasive, and so actress and assistant retreat to the Swiss Alps to rehearse -- the two reading and replicating the young-and-old female dynamic; life-imitating-art-imitating-life -- as Maria also familiarizes herself with her future co-star, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz); Google searches revealing a talented yet tumultuous Lindsay Lohan-like starlet, one who is all butter-wouldn't-melt in preliminary meetings, and something else entirely once the work begins.

Like Birdman, Assayas's film is meta, but it's far less arch about it. Clouds of Sils Maria is an intertextual, and arguably far more intellectual -- and certainly more talk-y -- exercise than Inarritu's dark comedy of backstage life.

And similar to Birdman, Sils Maria has a similar disdain for superhero films: Maria has done her stint in tights, hanging from wires in front of green screen, but scoffs at Valentine's suggestion that playing a mutant requires the same level of emotional truth as, say, Lady Macbeth.

It's these kinds of back and forths between Binoche, the classical actress, and Stewart, the 'modern' one, which give Clouds of Sils Maria its verve and punch. Not surprisingly, Binoche is thoroughly convincing as a haughty, refined yet emotionally vulnerable woman coming to terms with her past and her age, but it's Stewart who will surprise and impress many. She commands the screen in a quieter and, for her, less fidgety role; never once becoming lost in Binoche's shadow, and being greatly missed when she's not on screen.

Like that of Sigrid and Helena's, Valentine and Maria's relationship is fraught, competitive and not without a sexual element. As the pair read through their lines, you're asked to read between them and like the weather phenomenon which lends the play its title -- cloud formations which snake their way from Italy and through the Swiss Alps -- what you see is open to interpretation.

Less of a Rorschach test is the overall effect of the film itself: Assayas has given us one of the year's best.

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