Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

Houston Cinema Arts Festival Review

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Of the films taking place at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival, the French films naturally looked the most artistic. Now, I didn’t catch every film, but the French influence certainly stood out and I’m always captivated and pleased when I see a healthy balance of subtitles and the accompanying scenery. When you add talented stars into the mix, things only get better and their version of art really starts to take hold. If your film is about theatre, well then you’re really trying to tickle my fancy!

Maria and Valentine joke around at dinner!
Maria and Valentine joke around at dinner!

On her way to Sils Maria, Switzerland, actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche preps for her reception of an award for her dear friend and once director. When her assistant and close friend, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), informs her of his death en route, Maria is in shambles, but decides to receive the award in his honor. When she was 18, Maria played the role of Sigrid, a seductive and manipulative young girl who wraps the 40-year-old Helena around her finger. The role gained her much praise and the play, Maloja Snake, continued to be shown around the world. Now, there’s talk of redoing the play, but with Maria now playing Helena.

Maria is going through a divorce and this death of her friend only makes things harder. She cautiously accepts director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger)’s offer and begins working on the play with Valentine. Maria, heading into this role having played the other and perceiving Helena to be one type of way, struggles with the character and often lashes out in frustration. Things only get more interesting when Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), a wild and scandalous young actress, steps into the role of Sigrid. How has time changed Maria and the roles she once thought she knew?

Maria and Valentine go to view the Snake!
Maria and Valentine go to view the Maloja Snake!

Clouds of Sils Maria is a hypnotic french theatre escapade that strolls you around the Swiss Alps and provides you with one of the year’s most powerful and alluring on-screen duos. A tale about lust, power, control, and longing for youth, Clouds effectively presents itself as a metaphor for the subject matter within the film and does so with one of the finest backdrops of the year. Despite the film’s three parts feeling more like four in the end, this film does a wonderful job of illustrating how time and mind affect our perception of people and how they are influenced.

Juliette Binoche is absolutely stunning in a role that has her second-guessing every emotion and decision that she has. Binoche holds on to parts of her past that influence her decisions in the future, but there is a part of her that’s intrigued by possibility and the chance to play a new role and her mental frustrations transfer really well. Binoche is incredibly hypocritical, as her character is consistently changing how she feels about growing old and staying young. She inhabits both Sigrid and Helena, discovering more about each character as she delves deeper into the meaning behind the words. At times, Binoche is poised and respectable, but that can change in an instant when she gives in to the temptations of youth and getting swept up in what’s current.

Jo-Ann attempts to make a good first impression.
Jo-Ann attempts to make a good first impression.

Kristen Stewart has already delivered this year with her more dramatic turn in Camp X-Ray and she brings humor and a sense of fright to this film. As Binoche’s assistant, she’s constantly working with Binoche and observing how she views the world and how the world views her. The two have a very personal relationship more akin to best friends, but there are underlying feelings and forbidden thoughts that run through Stewart’s mind, making her job much harder. Given their age difference and different life experiences, Stewart views things far differently when it comes to Sigrid and Helena, only frustrating Binoche more. They bicker about superheroes and what makes performances real and Stewart almost appears to be the antithesis to Binoche, despite being so much like her. It’s truly one of her best and most divisive roles that really proves that she can do more than sulk.

Director and Writer Olivier Assayas has set this tale in the Swiss Alps, focusing primarily on the Maloja Snake, a could formation which is truly breathtaking to watch unfold. Assayas finds a way to explore two sides of one character, while doing so through two different yet similar characters. The film is all about time and how it affects our views. Not only do our views change in time, but the youth are always changing and discovering new meaning that may not make sense to the older members of society. The cinematography is unreal and only enhances all the emotions that this film evokes. The long pauses, closeups, and quick cutaways enhance how the characters are feeling and what the looks on their faces mean. His tie in to the play is extraordinary, as we watch everything we hear unfold twice before our eyes.

Maria sits, ready to give Helena her best shot.
Maria sits, ready to give Helena her best shot.

As I mentioned earlier, this film is broken into three different segments. Part 1, Part 2, and the Epilogue, respectively. Part’s 1 & 2 work extraordinarily well, but the Epilogue takes some unprecedented turns that focus more heavily on the inclusion of Moretz and her storyline and it felt like a total 180 when viewing the film. Moretz’s character is fun and she has fun playing the role, but there’s not enough substance there to make a worthwhile subplot. There are spurts of paparazzi and tabloid headlines that come from out of nowhere and they seemed entirely unnecessary. The series of events leading up to the films closing act are quite powerful, but everything afterwards seems like a total letdown. There were a few ways I saw this film ending up and all three would have made sense, but the director chose to go with one that felt out-of-place and contained the weakest writing.

Clouds of Sils Maria is a female-driven force to be reckoned with and it’s certainly one of the more beautiful films of the year, in many aspects. The acting from Binoche and Stewart is top-notch and their on-screen chemistry is absolutely mesmerizing. I’m not sure that I’ve seen a more beautiful film location all year and its direct tie-in to the film makes it all the better. Chloe Grace Moretz’s character is more flashy than she is useful and her inclusion in the story unfortunately derails the film in the end, but not so much so to detract from the overall experience. This film is so elegant and it’s only fitting that it played at a festival celebrating the arts, because that’s exactly what this film is all about.

Clouds of Sils Maria Trailer
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5L-9rcEhGm4

4 STARS!!!

4 / 5 stars     

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