Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is a veteran actress who owes her successful career to being cast as Sigrid in both the stage and screen versions of Maloja Snake by Wilhelm Melchior, a story centering on the rocky relationship between the young Sigrid and an older woman by the name of Helena.
Now years separated from that career defining role, Enders is approached at an awards ceremony in honor of Melchior to participate in a remake of Maloja Snake, but this time to play the older Helena, a role her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) urges her to take. Although Enders is flattered by the offer, she is upset by the director’s choice of Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), a talented American superstar known for her bratty, self-destructive behavior, to play the part of Sigrid.
With Birdman in its rear view mirror by about six months, Clouds of Sils Maria, another film centering on a film star grappling with age and relevancy within the celebrity business, will unsurprisingly draw comparisons to Inarritu’s Oscar-winning film. An even better comparison was made by Entertainment Weekly’s Chris Nashawaty when he described this as All About Eve if remade by Ingmar Bergman.
Regardless of the comparisons that will hardly go unnoticed, Clouds of Sils Maria is an absorbing character study that serves as a meditation on celebrity status and the complicated life of the aging star vs. the up-and-coming starlet, both on screen and stage. This is the type of film that less capable hands could’ve turned pretentious, but writer/director Olivier Assayas’s examinations aren’t as preachy as you’d expect an artsy fartsy French film lamenting on the franchise driven biz to be (in some cases, it’s quite the opposite with the young assistant Valentine acting as the voice of reason).
There are a few on the nose moments that feel a bit forced and are quite possibly more than intentional (such as Kristen Stewart’s character fiercely defending a tabloid magnet that’s more than similar to the one she once was in real life), but Assayas’s sharp dialogue between his complex characters far outshine my quibbles of obvious meta.
Assayas’s smartly written conversation setpieces help, but the film rests itself without fail on the shoulders of Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. Binoche is, like she normally is, magnificent as the French version of Margo Channing, but we expect great things from her. It’s Kristen Stewart that ends up shining the brightest here in a career performance that, much like former co-star R-Patts has been able to do lately, will do more than help her climb out from under Twilight’s shadow. Following her strong supporting turn in last year’s Still Alice, Stewart is calm, cool and extremely comfortable acting alongside Binoche, a feat that is by no means easy to accomplish. She doesn’t just hold her own against Binoche either. She’s her acting equal in this film.
Say what you want about Stewart’s past endeavors; I sure have. However, she hits a home run in this film.
The meat of the story revolves around Maria and Valentine hunkering down at a cabin in Sils Maria (hence the title) in order to prep Maria for her role. It’s during those scenes that the chemistry between Binoche and Stewart is at its strongest and most palpable, blurring the lines between the characters they’re rehearsing and their personal lives.
Even four months in, it’s still too early to start throwing out Oscar considerations. More often than not, films this early tend to get forgotten by the time Oscar season hits. I wouldn’t surprised, though, if either Binoche or Stewart lock up acting nominations for next year.
Credit should also be given to Chloe Grace Moretz in a much smaller, but strong supporting performance. Of course, given the seemingly intentional nods, her character might as well have been named “Kristen Stewart”; we get it. But overlooking that fact, Moretz has never been better, avoiding the urge to turn Jo-Ann into an over-the-top, one-note mega bitch and providing her with more layers and depth.
A few of its meta references get a little too obvious for its own good, but Clouds of Sils Maria is nevertheless a gorgeously shot film that’s bolstered by three powerful performances from Binoche, Stewart and Moretz, the latter two delivering the best work of their young careers so far. Relevant in regard to contemporary culture as well as insightful, it’s a reminder of the pressure and scrutiny many actresses past the prime of their careers experience in a “What have you done for me lately?” business.
I give Clouds of Sils Maria an A- (★★★½).