After receiving some troubling news, renown actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) agrees to perform in a revival of the play that made her famous 20 years ago. This time around instead of playing Sigrid, the young seductress, she will play the subject of the seduction, the older woman named Helena who is driven to suicide. Maria travels to Sils Maria, a remote region in the Alps, with her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to rehearse. As the rehearsal progresses, Maria struggles to embody the character especially in light of how the play favours the young starlet and paints her character as weak.
Directed by Olivier Assayas, Clouds of Sils Maria is a film that examines the process of acting. There is a misconception that acting is easy, that because it belongs to the entertainment industry it somehow comes without its share of challenges. But what most of us do not realize is that the act of embodying emotion is difficult. The performer must open herself/himself emotionally in order to adequately portray a role. The majority of Clouds of Sils Maria sees Juliette Binoche’s Maria and Kristen Stewart’s Valentine rehearse the play and discuss various subject matters. This is where the actress and the characters age come to play, as each has different perspectives that in turn create a lot of confrontations. For example: one of the discussions that I found most interesting is in regards to weakness. Maria sees the undesirable quality of being the suffering, flawed and weak older character playing second fiddle to the confident, cruel and ruthless young protagonist. For Valentine, weakness and suffering are signs of a much more complicated kind of character, whereas youthful confidence and cruelty stem from a lack of experience and arrogance about the world.
Compounding the great and interesting script is the performances, which are the best these actress have given thus far. Kristen Stewart is incredible as Valentine. She is charismatic, intelligent and intriguing. It is the most naturalistic performance I have ever seen of hers and one devoid of the usual mannerisms Stewart is known, and sometimes humiliated, for. Her chemistry with Juliette Binoche is palpable and they play off each other to brilliant effect. Binoche is, of course, absolutely fantastic in this role that was written specifically for her by writer/director Olivier Assayas. She assembles such a complicated, charming, strong, at times frustrating and deeply arresting character. Even better is the fact that her character grows throughout the film, and Binoche is capable of revealing more and more facets to her Maria Enders. The friendship between Binoche and Stewart’s characters is the heart of the film and you only have to look at the rehearsal scenes to witness not only how layered their performances are, but also how in tune they are with each other. In those scenes, these actresses are playing a character playing another character and the way they smoothly go in and out is astounding. Lastly, there is Chloe Grace Moretz who has a small but significant role in the film. She plays the famous young actress taking over the protagonist role that made Binoche’s Maria Enders famous many 20 years prior. What I found interesting is that while on the surface her character seems like another troubled young starlet, the actual character displays an intimidating confidence and understanding on how the industry works. She is ruthless and is able to constantly challenge her more seasoned counterparts.
Clouds of Sils Maria is an excellent film. Writer/director Olivier Assayas has constructed a fascinating film populated with revelatory and career-high performances from its cast. Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz blew me away. They provide us with subtle, compelling and human characters. There is a naturalistic quality to their performances that not only ground the proceedings, but also paints this industry of entertainment in a relatable light. We are enthralled by the film’s discussion on the nature of suffering, weakness, confidence, malevolence and time. Time is prevailing theme in Clouds of Sils Maria. This idea that society rewards and looks up to the young, but is deeply afraid aging. Moreover, the film examines through its protagonist how time changes our perspective on things. What you found compelling at young age might seem corrupt or negligible several years later. Objects remain the same, but we change depending on where we stand. Clouds of Sils Maria is a revelation of a film with top-notch female performances, and it is definitely a film you should not miss.