Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

Writer & Director: Olivier Assayas
Cinematographer: Yorick Le Saux
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz, Brady Corbet.

Sometimes a movie comes out quietly, doesn’t get a whole lot of promotion (at least in the United States), and just as quietly goes away without making a significant impact. This happens a lot, and for this reason not enough attention is paid to what are from time to time really great films. This is one of those cases.

The story concerns the aging actress Maria Enders, played brilliantly by Juliette Binoche, who agrees to take on the play that made her famous twenty years earlier – though she no longer will be playing the role of the captivating ingenue that she originated, rather the inglorious role of the desperate middle-aged woman who falls in love with and is prey to the younger woman. Though the ground upon which this film treads on is by no means untouched (All About Eve is clearly a point of reference), the film has many original and intriguing perspectives and curiosities.

Binoche is a master class of acting. She embodies all the insecurities of Maria, as well as her charm, her self-assuredness and her warmth. So often she is taken for granted. She makes acting seem effortless and truly inhabits the women she portrays, yet the craft that this requires is immense, all the more when we can’t even notice. Maria Enders must grapple with the death of her mentor, navigate the insensitive and detached world of celebrity, prepare for a role that she has mostly contempt for, and come to terms with her age and her approaching obsolescence. She is the one constant in this film and is able to demand, and then retain, attention.

A big surprise in this movie is Kristen Stewart. I have consistently written off this young actress’ fame as simply her having been in the right place at the right time – but never truly deserving of her clout. Then last year she made the smartest move of her career. In two separate films she takes a backseat from the limelight and acts as a foil or as support to an actress with considerable talent and prestige. First with Julianne Moore in Still Alice and now with Binoche. When not forced to lead, Stewart is able to stand out for all the right reasons. Moore and Binoche have the flashier roles, but as the stable character she does away with some of her infuriating mannerisms (the hair holding, scrunching of the face, stammering) and can focus her energy on reactions grounded in realism. In this film she plays Valentine, Maria’s assistant, and is impressive in it. So much so that at the César Awards (France’s equivalent of the Oscars) she was the only member of the cast or crew to walk away with an award, despite the film having been nominated in pretty much every major category.

Chloë Grace Moretz plays the young actress Jo-Ann Ellis, who is to take on the role made famous by Maria. Moretz has shown to have a lot of potential, but she suffers from the same problems that face Jennifer Lawrence, although it is not their fault: due to their talent they keep getting casted in roles that they are simply too young for to play credibly – this is a disservice because they can and should be able to take on acting challenges, but if they are simply too young to be believable they have lost before beginning. Moretz relishes in the joy of getting to play a mess of an actress, the type we have come to know all too well: talented with a penchant for self-destruction. It’s a good thing that her part is minor, for too heavy a hand and this could have easily treaded dangerous tabloid waters.

The shots of the film are breathtakingly gorgeous. Assayas clearly has a lot of respect for his actors and the locations he has chosen. There is a Bergman-esque quality to the pace and mood of the film – some viewers could find it too slow, or possibly even boring, but I simply could not get enough of it. The film is exquisite and deserving of praise, more than it has received internationally (for in France it has garnered a deserved amount of attention and applause). More movies like this should be made, and more people should watch them.

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