Sunday, May 17, 2015

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (2015)

Written & Directed by Olivier Assayas


Where & When: Sundance Sunset Cinemas, West Hollywood, CA.  April 25, 2015  1:40PM


"Clouds of Sils Maria" takes a look at a mature actress who has enjoyed a fruitful and acclaimed career on stage and screen. Now asked to join in a remake that made her famous, not in the role of the young girl she once played but of the damaged older character. The very thought brings out all of her fears and insecurities in an industry that holds aging in contempt, particularly for women. It may sound like another innocuous tale of Hollywood elitism but the latest by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas offers something far more intricate, dreamy and even mysterious. The director's films, especially his female-centric cult classics "Irma Vep" and "Demonlover", have been characterized as working within conventional themes before venturing towards a strange and unexpected course. "Clouds" certainly follows that path and while not entirely successful. it is well worth exploring.

It should be no surprise that Juliette Binoche, always one of the more compelling film performers working today, is absolutely riveting in the part of the actress. What is more of an eye-opener is Kristen Stewart as the devoted personal assistant. Never been much of a fan as I feel the young actress comes across far too sullen and detached on screen to be particularly engaging. The overwhelming fame she achieved from the "Twilight" series didn't help, seeming to cause her to withdraw even further. Although still not fully sold, I'll freely admit this is one of Ms Stewart's finest performances. She even earned the César for Best Supporting Actress for her work here, an impressive first for a non-French speaking actor.

An actress of international renown, Marina Enders (Binoche), travels by train to accept a career achievement award for Wilhelm Melchior, a popular Swiss playwright and filmmaker who gave the first major part to her in one of his early works, "Maloja Snake". In the middle of a nasty divorce, Marina would completely unravel without the sturdy assistance of Valentine (Stewart), who keeps her life organized, offers sound advice and holds her up during difficult situations. That certainly is required during this trip as she has the difficult task of informing Marina that her dear friend has passed away.

Distraught and unsure of whether to continue on to Zurich, Valentine convinces Marina to follow through with accepting the prize. While at the ceremony, the assistant talks her boss in to meeting with the in-demand director who wants her to star in a new stage production of "Maloja Snake". Having previously turned down the request to play the tragic role of the middle-aged woman who ultimately ends her life, the actress becomes more open but still reluctant to commit after some discussion.

Some time later at Melchior's chalet in the tranquil Swiss alps, Marina begins rehearsing for the play. With only Valentine by her side to help run her lines. Marina becomes increasingly more agitated as she digs further in to the role. Lost and unmotivated, she becomes wistful of her time as the ingenue. As for the acting rival that will be taking over her previous part, Marina is disturbed to find that Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a troubled but talented young starlet with a wild lifestyle that helps make the paparazzi very rich. When they finally meet, Marina is surprised to find a polished and thoughtful actress before her, filled with gushing compliments though still far from tabloid-free.

The most fascinating feature of the script by Mr. Assayas is the working relationship between Marina and Valentine. Far from simple and straightforward, it may not be strange for two people who spend so much time together to be close but boundaries become blurred, positions of power shift and words spoken to each other appear to offer alternative meaning. This is particularly the case as Marina and Valentine run through lines of the play, the dark and complex conversation between the characters appear to bleed through in to their own elusive connection.

The odd plot twist in the final act throws "Clouds of Sils Maria" out of whack and doesn't fully recover. Despite this brief set back, the film remains just as graceful and majestic as the airy clouds we see traveling through those mountains in Switzerland. The additional treat of watching these wonderful actresses display their great talent makes this truly a magical experience.