Clouds of Sils Maria Review

Posted: August 11, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

Clouds_of_Sils_Maria_poster-e1427734333561Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

As a cinephile, the early months of the year can be frustrating. I don’t hate studio movies or big blockbusters, in fact I love them when they’re done well, but it can be a bit exhausting when that is all is released week after week. It usually isn’t until September that we start to get the artful, quieter releases. We have been lucky this year though with fairly large releases for indie films It Follows and Ex Machina. Both good films I was very happy to see, but one of the biggest independent films that I never got was Clouds of Sils Maria. Unlike the aforementioned indie releases which had certain genre elements to help attract a crowd (horror and science-fiction, respectively), Clouds of Sils Maria is more of a straight-up drama, which likely made it hard to break through to larger groups. It did however receive some high praise for critics and I had a good feeling this would be something special.

Famous international actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is a middle-aged actress who got her start as a young actress in a play called Maloja Snake, in which she played a young woman who has an affair with older woman which ultimately destroys the former. The role helped launch Maria into super stardom, starring in everything from plays, to prestige dramas, to big-budget Hollywood fare. As the film starts, Maria is travelling to Switzerland with her assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) to accept an award on behalf of the playwright behind Maloja Snake. However this ceremony takes a darker path when said playwright unexpectedly dies. It is during this emotional time that Maria is approached by stage director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), who wishes for Maria to star in a revival of Maloja Snake, this time playing the elderly woman while popular teen actress Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) takes on Maria’s old role. Maria is reluctant, in part due to her own anxieties about ageing, but eventually accepts.

The story of an ageing performer questioning their place in the business draws comparisons to two major releases from last year; Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman and David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. All three films center on fairly narcissistic middle-aged actors at a crossroads, while commenting on Hollywood culture in general. Stylistically though, Clouds couldn’t be more different from those two films. While Birdman was infused with a heightened theatricality and Maps to the Stars Cronenbergian weirdness, Clouds of Sils Maria is a much more restrained film. Though the film is quite dramatic, the tone is a lot more relaxed and patiently paced. We spend a lot of time with these characters, and it’s only through the slow burn that true meaning comes out.  The film on the whole is very well made by French filmmaker Oliver Assayas. This is a very well-shot movie which makes amazing use of the Swiss setting and Assayas maintains the tone of the film throughout. My only point of contention is Assayas use of fade-to-blacks, which all too often seemed to come in the middle of a scene rather than the end.

Much as the plot can be compared to recent Hollywood satire, perhaps the real ancestry lies with Ingmar Bergman, particular Persona. I say that because, like Persona, the real heart of Clouds of Sils Maria lies in the relationship between two females with a close, reflective relationship and lives full of parallels. This is certainly the case with Maria and Val. Their relationship is a lot more personal than professional, with both comfortably joking with each other and Val not being afraid to tell Maria her honest thoughts. It is revealed early on that Maria is going through a divorce, and it seems Val is the only person she’s truly close with. On one hand, the odd choice of Val as an assistant speaks to Maria’s desire to remain connected to youth, but more than anything it serves to resemble the fictional play Maloja Snake, which we learn is also about an older woman becoming obsessed with a younger woman. This meta-textuality is brought to the forefront of the film during scenes where Maria and Val rehearses scenes from the play. It’s not always clear whether the characters are rehearsing or expressing their real feelings. Are the two aware of the similarities between their lives and the text? Maria clearly is, as she insists on doing her lines with Val and not someone else. Perhaps she’s using these parallels to influence her performance? I would also suspect Val is aware, as the character seems too smart to not notice these things. The intentions of both are implied, but ultimately ambiguous. All told it’s a fascinating relationship and watching it unfold is one of the film’s greatest pleasures.

One does not need to become bogged down in the meta-textual analysis to enjoy Clouds of Sils Maria. The surface level of the relationship is interesting enough and the core themes of ageing and acceptance are very meaningful. I also enjoyed seeing the characters talk about art and their work, even if they’re discussing fictional projects. The performance here are the real glue. Juliette Binoche is amazing in the lead role, bringing real complexity and depth. She’s intelligent and talented, but also scared and vulnerable. Binoche is also one of the long standing classy actress of world cinema here and she brings the right sense of elegance to the performance. Kristen Stewart is also appropriately cast as the punkish assistant and she does very good work here. I was also impressed by Chloe Moretz, who stretches herself nicely as sort of a Hollywood brat who still has real acting chops.

I think it’s pretty clear that I like this film a lot, but I do think it feels a little incomplete. The two major character arcs in the film are never actually resolved. I’m all for ambiguity, but for both plots to not receive closure is disappointing. I just can’t shake the feeling that something is missing. Still, I suppose there are worse complaints than, “I was so interested in the film I wanted more”. At any rate, this is a very good film with intelligence and the aim to speak to adults. If you’re looking for an antidote to the large scale big budget Hollywood fare seen all summer, look no further.


  1. Marshall says:

    Have you seen Venus in Fur? This film reminded me of that so much that I found this hard to really enjoy. And I also saw the Birdman/Maps to the Stars parallels, too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s