by Brian Surber
Clouds of Sils Maria. Where can I begin? When I walked out of Clouds of Sils Maria last night my head was spinning. I am not sure what this film is trying to say. I am not sure why this film exists. It is just over two hours but feels like three. It is constructed in a way where multiple viewings are not suggested but might be required. I do not know much about Clouds of Sils Maria. And yet I have so much to say about it. First: It is the best film of the year.
Written and directed by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, Clouds of Sils Maria tells the story of an aging actress and her faithful assistant navigating the waters that are the next step in her career. Maria has just found out the man who gave her her first big break has died. He gave her the lead in a play 20 years ago about a young woman and older woman who form a doomed romance. The play was a big hit and now, following his death, is being brought back into production. The new director would like Maria to play the older woman now. Maria and her assistant, Val, reside to her deceased mentor’s country home to prepare for the play. Maria’s new co-star, the woman who will be taking her old role as the younger woman, is an up-and-coming superstar in Hollywood; a seemingly wild woman who is known for getting involved in skirmishes with the paparazzi and police.
The plot is structured as a play, complete with an “Act Two” banner near the middle. Scenes are long and there are few locations in each act. Very few actors are present in each scene with the second act being devoted almost entirely to Maria and Val’s relationship. The dialogue is tight and important with layers of meaning hidden beneath. The camera moves with its actors and allows the space around them, and therefore the scene, to breath.
Juliette Binoche, as Maria, is beautiful and honest. She has to portray a woman who is afraid of the next step in her career. She has been defined and has defined herself by this character she played 20 years ago, so when she is asked to play the opposite role she is afraid it means admitting defeat. Binoche, truly one of our greatest actresses, shines and bares all in her performance. Maria is a woman who doesn’t know what to do, and she battles with herself and her assistant to avoid doing what she ultimately knows she must. It’s a complicated character full of confidence on the outside and a deep self-consciousness on the inside.
Kristen Stewart gives Val an air of ease. She isn’t complacent but she might be stuck. Val loves Maria and Maria loves Val. They have a bond that goes beyond employer and employee; they are each other’s other half. Maria is out of touch and hides her feelings to a fault, while Valentine keeps up with culture and isn’t afraid of her feelings even as she might hide some. Stewart, who is a really terrific actress (seriously; Panic Room, Into the Wild, Adventureland, Welcome to the Rileys, Camp X-Ray, Still Alice), is effortless and brilliant. Val carries an undying loyalty to Maria and Stewart remains in control of Val’s intentions and decisions throughout the entire film. Stewart won the César Award (the French Academy Awards) for Best Supporting Actress for this film. She’s the first American actress to do so, and it’s well deserved. This is the best performance of her career.
Each scene in Clouds of Sils Maria is filled with layers of meaning and interpretation. As Maria and Val go over lines for her play we can detect the hidden thoughts and possible feelings that the play holds. We only get snippets of the play but we see them rehearse it from start to finish and the similarities in the roles they are rehearsing and their actual lives are made fascinatingly clear. The film hints toward sexual attraction between Maria and Val but never spells it out, and as the relationship in the play evolves so does the relationship of the people reading it. They go through each scene and try to decode the meaning to understand the character Maria will be playing but they are actually using it to understand their connection with each other.
It’s these scenes that hold the most weight in the film. We hang on every line in the play, continually questioning where the script ends and the characters’ own dialogue begins. It’s fascinating to see each react and explain their interpretations of what they are reading and not knowing for sure if they understand how it’s mirroring their lives. The emergence of acceptance of one’s status and the need to continue on this journey is used for great effect as the film-making technique is also adjusted accordingly. The epilogue is purposefully shot and edited differently than the previous acts before it. It’s more hurried because the characters involved have now accepted this time in their lives, for better or worse.
At its core, though, Clouds of Sils Maria is a film that takes its time. It lets the events unfold as they do. There is no rushing or hurrying; these are complicated people working out complicated issues and the film knows this. The film feels so much longer than it is because that’s how life works for these characters. This is a point in their lives where time is navigating slowly because they each have decisions they need to reach. It’s wonderfully patient film-making on a level I don’t think I’ve seen in quite some time.
The film deals with what can seem like dozens of different issues. Everything from the artistic significance to be found in blockbusters to the digital age shaping the persona of young entertainers to the need of paying tribute as a way of saying goodbye to the thought of people influencing your life until they don’t need to anymore. This is a film that doesn’t ask for your attention but commands it. The thoughts and details being explored here are impressive and the techniques with which they are being explored are breathtaking and stunning.
There is so much going on in Clouds of Sils Maria that this review could be far from over, but I want you all to experience it for yourselves. There is great deep meaning buried in this film. Not only does it feature two superb central performances, but some of the most interesting film-making I’ve seen in a while. I’m not entirely sure what Clouds of Sils Maria is actually about. I can’t tell you what the overall meaning of the film is. All I know for sure is that it’s tremendous; it’s captivating, marvelous, and thought-provoking. I can’t wait to see it again.