Clouds of Sils Maria is a film concerned with the self, performance and the passage of time. It follows the actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), whose life and work loosely echoes that of Binoche herself, as she is confronted by a new production of a play in which she made her name many years before. Originally she played the spirited young lead with whom she still strongly identifies, but she is now being asked to take on the older and more reserved role. This request goes further than merely riling her pride; instead it deeply shakes her sense of identity, her approach to her craft and her relationship with her long-suffering PA (Kristen Stewart).
The biggest problem here is that there’s too much narrative baggage attached to the script. The film could have really benefited from a measured but lean and mean hand in the cutting room in order to bring it into a healthy shape. It’s superfluous trappings don’t disguise the excellent work done by our two leads though. Stewart in particular impresses as she goes up against Binoche and often steals scenes from her by demonstrating an admirable depth and sensitivity to the script. It is perhaps surprising that in this tale of an ageing actress resisting the ebb and flow of time and the ever looming future it is her assistant who leads and guides the film. In many productions, even in other interpretations of this exact script, this simply would not have been the case. The temptation is to let Binoche’s character dictate the film’s flow, but by wresting that power away and granting it to the assistant it importantly lends a greater perspective and a more powerful undertow to the film’s complex emotional underpinnings.
The third highest billed actor is Chloe Grace Moretz and regrettably she isn’t as well handled. She plays the actress who has taken up the role Enders originally made her name in, and what her character stands for off camera is far more revealing and important than anything she does when she makes it onto the screen. This fault doesn’t lie with Moretz herself though as she brings an equal amount of wit and punkish attitude to her role, instead it is director Assayas who can’t quite deliver here. It never really feels like he has a clearly defined idea of how to play her character against the other two leads. She is intended to function as both the mirror image of their characters, as well as a media distorted construction of both Stewart and Binoche’s personal lives, but the part is sadly underwritten. This doesn’t wind up doing too much harm to the film as the vast majority is made up of the excellent interplay between the two leads, but it does tarnish the overall flavour and stop it from being the excellent movie it could have been.
Despite its flaws Clouds of Sils Maria is an intelligent piece of work that handles its meta qualities with pleasing restraint. It weaves a subtle narrative which twists and turns upon itself until identity and character is thoroughly muddled. Simultaneously the film appears to be both a very simple one and also one which reflects our own perceptions, refracts them, mixes them in with the characters’ and then delivers something which by the end has nestled its way into our minds, demanding to be thought about long after the credits have rolled. It’s not quite all it could have been but it’s very close, and the clever script as well as Binoche and Stewart’s excellent work make it very much worth watching.
What is the film’s greatest strength? Kristen Stewart. Both actresses do a great job, but it can be convincingly argued that Stewart brings even more depth to her role than Binoche does.
Its greatest weakness? There’s too much baggage here, the film could loose a few pounds and it would hit even harder.
Would I see it again? Yes, it’s not perfect but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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